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President Ben Ali Addresses Issues of Human Rights and Democracy

Tunisiaonline, 12 May 2001

Tunis—In a wide ranging interview to independent Tunisian Arabic-language dailies Ech-Chourouk and Assabah, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali answered a variety of questions involving the promotion of human rights, democratization and the state of Tunisian media. In a particularly frank interview, he addressed several domestic and foreign policy issues.

In the wake of the vote by the Tunisia Chamber of deputies of a bill further protecting press freedoms, he called anew on the media to be more daring and enterprising. Do write on any subject you choose. There are no taboos except what is prohibited by law and press ethics, he said.

He said that the press should contribute to the changing of the mentalities of people, including some officials, who have to learn to welcome and tolerate criticism and that one of the functions of criticism is to facilitate progress.

The Tunisia leader also emphasized the importance of the role of the opposition press in the future of democracy and the development of a pluralistic society in Tunisia.

He called upon political parties to increase their own capabilities and resources in order to ensure the continued publication of their papers, to broaden their circulation base, and thus guarantee their independence.

All the country’s six opposition parties publish their own newspapers and receive state subsidy towards that end. But only one the parties publishes its newspaper with relative regularity.

Asked about the criticism made by some that Tunisia’s democratic experience is too slow in achieving political pluralism, he said democracy and pluralism for me are an irreversible choice and an unavoidable process. This process will be strengthened and further advanced in the future. We will continue picking up its pace.

He described the charge of slowness of the democratic process as unrealistic. He said, we may differ in our assessment of the pace of progress but it is misleading to ignore what we have achieved thus far toward establishing pluralism in Tunisia and expanding freedoms as a basis for any democracy.

In an answer to a question whether the administration is hindering free access to the internet , he noted that the number of users of the web has reached 320,000 in four years, an indicator of progress placing Tunisia at the forefront of African nations in this field. He added that unfortunately not all web sites on the internet are committed to the basic moral rules which are at the basis of society. a number of these are licentious, others call for breaking the law and committing various types of crimes, others still express extremist views and advocate hatred and violence. He explained that Tunisia’s approach lies essentially in guiding families and raising their awareness about the benefits and the risks inherent in a number of sites.

As to the declared wishes by some to seek authorization for new political parties and organizations, he said that those who respect the Constitution and laws of the land are welcome and added, there is no political veto nor will to exclude or ban anyone. If there are any such difficulties, we will address them.

In an answer to a question about the situation of human rights in Tunisia, he highlighted the steady progress made in this regard and which, he said, will be further enhanced and consolidated in the future.

He denounced however the use of human rights as a pretext, particularly to feed malicious smear campaigns.. by some who have mortgaged their conscience to serve certain quarters outside their country. But Tunisia is not a paper republic.

He added that the door to dialogue will remain open to all those wishing to actively contribute to the progress and invulnerability of Tunisia.

Responding to the charge by some foreign media that human rights activists were harassed in Tunisia, he said it is unreasonable to generalize or dramatize any individual abuse that may occur, and automatically accuse all the State bodies and institutions. Whenever there is evidence of abuse, we have made sure those responsible are made accountable. He added that,it is a fundamental duty for such activists to contribute to making the respect of the law a common behavior in everyday life.

He said, as happens in any other human society, nobody could state that in Tunisia there are no excesses or cases of abuse of power. But these are fairly rare, isolated cases which we have always unhesitatingly curbed by legal means.

Answering a question about the lawsuit which has led to the invalidation of the last human rights league congress, he said the LTDH remains a national asset and the authorities had nothing to do with the recent crisis of the League, contrary to what some have implied. He expressed his belief that the judiciary should decide on the issue and that all parties have to respect the law pending the ruling of the court on this issue.

He also reiterated his faith in the Maghreb Union.I am so much convinced that there is no other alternative to the strategic option of the Maghreb Union. this union is an economic as well as social and political necessity that our Maghreb cannot do without.

He expressed his conviction that the Maghreb Union is on the way of fully recovering its health and. . .that a Maghreb summit will be held in the near. . .all the leaders of the union are animated by the same true will and immutable faith about our common destiny.

Addressing the plight of the Palestinian people, he said Tunisia will remain a permanent and strong supporter of Arab causes and a relentless advocate of the cause of the Palestinian people. Besides the assistance in kind that we provided the Palestinian people with, we have transferred an immediate financial contribution to support the victims of the intifadha.

He also noted that a just, permanent and global peace has always been our strategic option without losing sight of any one of our Arab rights. saving the peace process is the responsibility of the international community and the united states in particular. This would involve most of all putting Israel under the obligation of respecting the resolutions of international legality, observing the signed treaties, and accepting the peace-for-land principle.

Regarding inter-Arab relations, he said Tunisia will carry on with its contribution towards the achievement of a deeper and global Arab reconciliation with all due perseverance and belief.

We have in mind an Arab reconciliation that will get over the remainders of division and dissidence and recover the unity of the Arab countries for the sake of our mutual interests and with a view to fostering the position worthy of the Arab nations in the international arena.

Regarding the possible risks involved in signing a few years ago an association agreement with the European Union which makes Tunisia part of the economic fabric of Europe by 2007, he said by doing so we were not so much jumping into the unknown as we were following a concerted strategy. I am optimistic about opening our trade and economic borders and I am not in any way anxious about partnership with the European Union.

Speaking about the status of Tunisia’s relations with France, he said such ties are as solid as the historical and geographic ties which bring the two nations together. therefore, they are not destabilized or affected by the attempts of some selfishly-motivated individuals.