The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Tunisia is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Tunisia is also a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Tunisia is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Tunisia is also a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights and has made the declaration required under Article 34(6) of the Protocol to allow NGOs and individuals to access the African Court directly.
Tunisia is also a State Party to the 2004 Arab Charter of Human Rights. Under Article 24(6) of the 2004 Charter, every citizen has the right of freedom of peaceful assembly.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 37 of the 2014 Constitution of Tunisia, the right to "assembly and peaceful demonstration is guaranteed".
Law No. 69-4 of 24 January 1969 continues to regulate assemblies. Despite the constitutional right of peaceful assembly, the police may disperse an assembly if they so choose. The 1969 Law does not comply with international law.
A 2015 counterterrorism law also allows the security forces to disperse assemblies on broad grounds.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose. Use of unlawful violence by a public official is subject to a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.Art.101, 2015 Penal Code.
According to the 1969 law on assemblies, if police officers call for the dispersal of a crowd and the demonstrators do not comply, the police are authorised to, progressively, use water cannon or baton charges; fire tear gas; and then use firearms.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The 1969 Law allows the police to use lethal force if non-lethal methods are ineffective. The police must first fire warning shots in the air, then fire warning shots above the heads of the demonstrators, and then fire at their legs.Chap. IV (Use of Weapons), Art. 21, Law No. 69-4 of 24 January 1969 regulating public meetings, processions, marches, demonstrations, and crowds.If they still fail to disperse, the police may aim for central body mass or even potentially the head.Art. 22, Law No. 69-4 of 24 January 1969 regulating public meetings, processions, marches, demonstrations, and crowds.This contravenes international law.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2020 Concluding Observations on Tunisia, the Human Rights Committee called on Tunisia to:
Ensure that legislative and regulatory provisions governing the use of force comply with the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, that law enforcement officials apply non-violent measures before any use of force when conducting demonstration control operations and that law enforcement officials respect the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability.
In its 2016 Concluding Observations on Algeria, the Committee against Torture did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
Tunisia has not submitted a national report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights since 2007.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Tunisia:
The constitution guarantees the rights to assembly and peaceful demonstration. Public demonstrations on political, social, and economic issues regularly take place. However, a controversial counterterrorism law adopted in 2015, and successive states of emergency declared in response to political and security situations, have imposed significant constraints on public demonstrations. The latest state of emergency, which was renewed in May and December 2020, allows security forces to ban strikes, meetings, and large gatherings considered likely to incite disorder. The government has called these measures necessary due to security concerns, but analysts have argued the measures are meant to suppress dissent.
Freedom of assembly was also curtailed under COVID-19-related emergency measures enacted in late March 2020, which initially banned all gatherings. That lockdown expired by June, but the government banned protests and limited public gatherings in an October order, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases. Protest bans were included in a November order, but mass-gathering restrictions were loosened in a December order.
Nevertheless, small protests reportedly proceeded in May 2020, with workers in sectors affected by COVID-19 measures demonstrating over a lack of pay. In late June, demonstrators in the city of Tataouine protested over high unemployment, and clashed with authorities after an activist was arrested. The Interior Ministry reported 10 arrests after those clashes. In October, protesters denounced proposed legislation that would provide immunity to security personnel in front of the parliament building in Tunis; participants were physically attacked by security forces, and several were detained. However, other demonstrations proceeded without forceful intervention during the year.
According to CIVICUS:
Article 37 of the Tunisian Constitution guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly. However, in practice this right is undermined a law from 1969 and the state of emergency, which was extended in September for another month. The 1969 law severely undermines this right through time and place restrictions on demonstrations, giving the authorities the power to ban a protest that is ‘likely to disrupt public security or public order’ and imposing severe penalties for non-compliance with the law. In practice, security forces have used excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations in the country.