Tunisia faces a humanitarian crisis on its border as refugees flee violence in Libya. The crisis follows the January 2011 Tunisian Revolution that led to the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Donors have responded to these events by offering funding and seeking partnerships with Tunisian civil society organizations (CSOs) to address needs associated with the humanitarian crisis and democratic transition. The Tunisian laws affecting civil society that predate the Revolution pose a number of obstacles to donor engagement, however, and donors need to be aware of the law’s provisions to avoid placing the security and liberty of their CSO partners at risk. Restrictions include the following.
- Staff of Tunisian CSOs who have contact with foreign governments or organizations could later be prosecuted and face imprisonment if the Tunisian authorities determine that these contacts have “incited prejudice” against Tunisia’s vital interests, economic security, or diplomatic relations – broad terms that give the government wide discretion to target disfavored groups.
- Tunisia outlaws unlicensed associations, and individuals who operate or participate in an unlicensed association can be imprisoned or fined. Yet it is impossible for many CSOs to register and obtain the required license. Only certain categories of CSOs are permitted to register, and these do not include human rights or democracy groups. The government also creates procedural barriers to prevent registration. In particular, the government routinely fails to issue required receipts to organizations seeking to register, in effect blocking many independent CSOs from registering. The number of available licensed CSO partners in some fields may as a result be limited.
- The government has broad discretion whether to allow a foreign association to operate in Tunisia, and may revoke its approval based on vague grounds. It is a positive sign that in the wake of the Revolution the government has allowed several foreign associations to expand their activities in Tunisia. However, the law gives the government considerable flexibility to withdraw its approval, which creates a great amount of uncertainty and risk for foreign associations.
These and other legal restrictions pose risks to Tunisian groups that partner with foreign donors. Tunisian CSOs are calling for a new CSO framework law that complies with international conventions protecting the rights to association and assembly and eliminates these and other barriers to philanthropy. The international community can support this effort by stressing the important role that civil society can play in building a strong and stable democracy in Tunisia and supporting the call for a new CSO framework law.