International Development Law Organization

Strong Backing for Tunisia's Transition

21 May 2012

“It takes me 50 minutes to fly to Tunis,” says Giulio Zanetti, speaking from Rome headquarters. “Compare this to Paris, which takes me 2 hours...” 

It is in terms of sheer physical proximity that Mr Zanetti, who heads IDLO’s Training and Networks department, explains his closeness to Tunisia. The stamps in his passport also speak of his commitment: he has visited the country more than a dozen times, both before and since the Jasmine Revolution of early 2011. Within a month of the overthrow of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime, the interim government there, via its embassy in Italy, had called on IDLO to support the nation’s judicial system through the democratic transition.

One free election later, IDLO and its Training Director were back in Tunis earlier this month, sharing three decades’ worth of legal wisdom and helping coax competing visions into one. The event, sponsored by the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, brought the Minister, Noureddine Bhiri, face to face with representatives of the local Bar, two professional bodies, civil society groups, and delegates from the private sector. 

Mr Bhiri is on record as a supporter of judicial independence — the meeting’s main focus, alongside improved efficacy and ease of access. His stated intention is to give all Tunisians with a stake in reform a chance to work towards a common goal: ensuring that magistrates are shielded from political pressure, and that corruption in the system is minimised.

The hope, both from the Tunisian side and IDLO, is that a sustained process will flow from this initial get-together. The meeting came packed with workshops, and Mr Zanetti describes it as intoxicatingly energetic. Criticism is a newly acquired right in a country where just two years ago, the media, and public expression of any kind, were frozen in subservience. As a result, tongues have been loosened, and debates can be fierce. 

Perhaps predictably in a young democracy, Tunisia’s polity is highly divided. Here too, the crisis of legitimacy bequeathed by the dictatorship has made the public arena a raucous place to be. The Tunisian magistracy buzzes with talk of assainissement – sanitizing, or ‘weeding’ the profession — amid internal recriminations. The reborn Association des Magistrats, with its bold, transformational agenda, is wary of the rival, less outspoken Syndicat des Magistrats. Cultural arguments over the broader tenets of Tunisian identity overlay these differences with yet more complexity. 

Against this heterogeneous backdrop, helping gather — and keep — everyone around the same table is something IDLO is visibly proud of. While it is understood that Tunisians must decide for themselves what their judicial system will look like, it pays to know where others have trodden, and how they fared. Indeed, the last couple of decades have yielded a large body of expertise on the switch from authoritarian rule to the rule of law. 

For the Tunis meeting, IDLO flew in experts from Poland and Romania to detail their countries’ post-totalitarian experiences of reforming the judiciary. The view from Norway was also on hand, outlining what is an unusually progressive and transparent system. Lastly, veteran Italian senator Guido Calvi made the trip as IDLO’s special guest. Senator Calvi, who sits on the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura, is senior enough to have been around — albeit as a boy — when Italy’s own judiciary had to re-invent itself after the Fascist era.

One of the sharpest dilemmas of societies in transition is whether genuine reform is possible without a wholesale change of personnel. Most countries concerned do appear to have opted for a soft landing, eschewing the tabula rasa approach. In Tunisia too, the general feeling is that there should be no blanket purge of magistrates, and that only those guilty of specific violations be removed. 

The selective, as opposed to wholesale, approach is also the one endorsed by IDLO. Then again, the organization is at pains to stress its job is not to tell Tunisians what to do, but rather to offer them tried and tested models to choose from. In Tunis as elsewhere, IDLO sees its role as a facilitator, a sharer of best practice, and indeed — here Mr Zanetti smiles, but will not be drawn on the specifics — of worst practice. Not prescriptive solutions, he suggests, nor even advice, but a sympathetic arm to lean on, wherever the fledgling new Tunisia chooses to go.

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