- Today, the European Union's top leaders are negotiating on the deepening of relations with Tunisia. Human rights groups call for the EU to use its power to address the lack of democracy in the country. Even the French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has urged democratic reform in Tunisia.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) this weekend urged the European Union (EU) to exercise pressure on Tunisian authorities during the meetings today. EU Foreign Ministers and EU Commissioner Javier Solana are today meeting a delegation from Tunisia to negotiate a deepening of relations within the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, which is to create a large free trade zone by 2010.
Tunisia already enjoys a special relation with its European neighbours, among other things providing the North African country with an ample market access. This again has contributed strongly to the industrialisation of Tunisia, with a growing number of industries locating in this low costs country with access to the EU common market.
According to the FIDH, however, the EU has not made sufficient use of its powers to influence the poor state of democracy and human rights in Tunisia. Following earlier policy decisions in Brussels, the EU shall promote human rights and democracy at the same time as it widens its economic ties with neighbour states or aspiring member states.
Only in May 2003, the European Commission approved a policy paper saying the Union should seek stronger action regarding "human rights and democratisation among the Mediterranean partners," which include Tunisia. FIDH thus urged the EU to "be firm" on these issues in today's meeting with Tunisian authorities.
Surprisingly, French Prime Minister Raffarin raised just those issues during his ongoing visit in Tunisia. France, which has especially strong ties with Tunisia, has been the most careful European country when it comes to raising critical questions with this major trade partner.
Mr Raffarin yesterday encourages "Tunisia to progress on the path of political and democratic modernisation" while attaching closer to the EU. He added that France would "resolutely support Tunisia's economic and social modernisation," but that this should be coupled with human rights and democratisation.
Tunisia is seen as a model country in the region when it comes to economic and social modernisation. The government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has succeeded in making the country an outpost of Europe, regarding economic growth and social welfare. In issues such as gender equality and access to education, Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world.
When it comes to democracy and human rights, however, Tunisia is as backward as any Arab nation. President Ben Ali has been in power without any challenge since 1987. Credible opposition parties are banned and elections are known to be rigged. The press is under rigid state control, no freedom of expression is known and dissidents are thrown to prison and exposed to torture.
No amount of pressure has so far moved President Ben Ali to change his authoritarian government style, not even economic promises. When strengthening trade ties with the United States last year, US President George W Bush urged President Ben Ali to promote democratisation. Despite joint US-Tunisian statements on democratic modernisation, nothing has come out of these pledges.
It was therefore time to "increase the firmness" towards Tunisia, FIDH says in its open letter to the EU leadership. The EU now should demand "an immediate action plan" in cooperation with Tunisia's civil society to improve the human rights situation. Further, Tunisian civil society groups should be working directly with an EU-Tunisian human rights committee, FIDH demanded.
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