Ugandan FlagCivic Freedom Monitor: Tunisia

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 20 January 2017

Update: The government has moved to prosecute, dissolve, and halt the activities of numerous associations in Tunisia on the basis of suspected links to terrorist organizations. During a public debate on November 21, 2016, the Minister of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights announced that the government had recently frozen the activities of 38 associations among 157 that were suspected of having provided direct or indirect support to terrorist entities. During the debate some members of Tunisia’s legislature, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, also expressed their desire to amend the existing Law on Associations, Decree 88 of 2011, in particular with regard to enhancing oversight and control of associations that receive foreign funding.   

Introduction

The 2011 Revolution was the beginning of a new era for civil society and civic freedom in Tunisia. Since the country’s independence in 1956 and particularly after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s assumption of the presidency in 1987, civil society had atrophied under authoritarian rule. The governing law on associations, Law 154 of 1959, made associations subject to approval by the Ministry of Interior; only those organizations which received authorization from the state and remained in the state’s favor were allowed to operate. Following decades of repression, civil society organizations (CSOs) were weak and few in number when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and revolutionary protests began in late 2010.

Nonetheless, the Revolution brought civic activism to the forefront, and CSOs emerged to play a crucial role in shaping both the transition period and post-revolution state. Pressure from civil society was instrumental in compelling authorities to adopt a Constitution with expansive human rights protections, and for the free and fair, democratic elections that followed. Indeed, four civil society organizations were internationally recognized for their work to preserving the democratic transition: The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in arranging negotiations and forging compromises among opposing political forces.  

A post-Revolution decree governing civil society organizations – Decree Number 88 of 2011- marked a clear break with the past, replacing Law 154 and standing out as one of the most enabling civil society laws in the Middle East and North Africa region. The Decree provides broad protections for the exercise of freedom of association and support for a free and independent civil society sector, including provisions for public funding and prohibitions on state interference in organizations’ operations.

Nonetheless, civil society organizations in Tunisia continue to face obstacles in their everyday operations and activities. The right to peacefully assemble or protest remains governed by an extremely restrictive law from 1969 that gives officials broad discretion to suppress public assemblies. Further, Tunisia has been under a continuous State of Emergency since November 25, 2015, which allows for further limitations on individuals’ and organizations’ civic freedoms. Among other things, the emergency law authorizes officials to impose curfews and ban public protests altogether without a court order.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Associations, Foreign Organizations, Networks
Registration Body Secretary General of the Government
Approximate Number Approximately 19,000 Associations (September 2016)
Barriers to Entry Mandatory legal establishment by notification. Additional constraints on foreign organizations to establish and operate in Tunisia.
Barriers to Activities None
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy None
Barriers to International Contact

None

Barriers to Resources Foreign funding requires public notification, and may only come from a country with diplomatic relations with Tunisia.
Barriers to Assembly Prior notification to the state at least three days before an assembly; officials may object on broad grounds.

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Key Indicators

Population 11,134,588 (July 2016 est.)
Capital Tunis
Type of Government Republic
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 74 years
Female: 78.4 years (2016 est.)
Literacy Rate Male: 89.6%
Female: 74.2% (2016 est.)
Religious Groups Muslim (official; Sunni) 99.1%, other (includes Christian, Jewish, Shia Muslim, and Baha'i) 1%
Ethnic Groups Arab, Berber
GDP Per Capita (PPP) $11,700 (2016 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency.

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 96 (2015) 1 – 186
World Bank Rule of Law Index 56 (2015) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 55 (2015) 100 – 0
Transparency International 76 (2015) 1 – 168
World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 58 (2016) 1 – 113
Freedom House: Freedom in the World

Status: Free
Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 3 (2016)

Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
88 (2016)
178 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1969
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) No --
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1969
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No --
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1967
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1985
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No --
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1992
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) No -
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2008
Regional Treaties    
Arab Charter on Human Rights No --

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The 2014 Constitution of the Republic of Tunisia provides broad protection for individuals’ right to freedom of association and assembly. Article 35 states that “[t]he freedom to establish political parties, unions, and associations is guaranteed.” The only stipulation is that “[i]n their internal charters and activities, political parties, unions and associations must respect the provisions of the Constitution, the law, financial transparency and the rejection of violence.” The Constitution also states, in Article 37, that “[t]he right to assembly and peaceful demonstration is guaranteed.”

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national legislation includes the following:

  • Decree Number 88 of 2011 pertaining to the Regulation of Associations
  • Decree Number 5183 of 2013 pertaining to the Control of the Standards, Procedures, and Criteria for Public Funding of Associations
  • Law No. 69-4 of 1969 regulating Public Meetings Processions, Parades, Demonstrations, and Gatherings

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

In November 2016, the government announced that it is preparing amendments to Decree Law 88 of 2011 on Associations, however no details or drafts have been made public. Please check back with the Civic Freedom Monitor for developments on the draft amendments.

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

Decree 88 provides for three organizational forms: associations, networks of associations, and foreign organizations. An association is defined as “an agreement between two or more persons by virtue of which they operate permanently to achieve objectives that do not include the realization of profits.”
Article 47 of the Decree also provides that the “regulations of this decree do not apply to associations that are regulated by special laws.” This exception has created uncertainty as to which associations have their own laws and are exempt from the regulation of Decree No. 88.

Public Benefit Status

Decree 88 does not provide for public benefit status, nor does it address tax or customs exemptions for associations. Furthermore, Article 39 of the Decree requires that associations use the same accounting practices as those required for companies, meaning that not-for-profit entities must abide by the same system and standards as for-profit entities. This is costly for associations both in terms of staff time and financial resources.    

Barriers to Entry

Only two individuals are required to form an association in Tunisia. Founders must be at least sixteen years old, and Tunisian nationals or foreign residents of Tunisia. Founders may not hold management posts in political parties.

Members of an association must be Tunisian nationals or foreign residents; be at least thirteen years old; accept the association’s bylaws in writing; and pay the association’s subscription fee.
Associations in Tunisia are legally established by sending a registered letter of notification to the Secretary General of the government and a copy of the letter to the Official Gazette of Tunisia for publication. The letter must contain a declaration providing the title, purpose, objectives, and address of the association and any branches it may have. It must include copies of the national identification cards of the founders, as well as the Tunisian residency permits for any foreign founders. The letter must also include two original copies of the articles of association, signed by the founders, containing:

  1. The official name of the association, in Arabic and any foreign language if appropriate;
  2. The address of the association’s headquarters;
  3. A statement of the association’s objectives and their method of implementation;
  4. Membership and termination criteria and the rights and duties of each member;
  5. A statement of the association’s organizational structure, method of election, and the powers of each administrative body of the association;
  6. Identification of the body within the association which has the power to amend the internal bylaw and make decisions regarding dissolution, merger, or division;
  7. Definition of the decision-making methodology and mechanisms of dispute resolution;
  8. The amount of the monthly or annual membership fees, if any.

A notary public must certify that the letter contains the above contents before it is sent. Associations must pay a nominal fee for the notification, including approximately $50 in publication fees to the National Gazette. According to Article 12 of Decree 88, an association is considered legally constituted on the date the letter is sent, and acquires legal personality on the date that the notification is published in the Gazette. Until these steps are complete, an association may not open a bank account, enter into contracts or agreements, or undertake activities.

Barriers to Operational Activity

Tunisian law does not place significant restrictions on associations’ activities. Decree 88 provides that associations’ activities and funding must abide by the principles of rule of law, democracy, plurality, transparency, equality, and human rights. Associations may not engage in incitement for violence, hatred, fanaticism or discrimination, nor may they undertake commercial activities in order to profit their members or evade taxes.

The Decree specifically guarantees associations’ rights to engage in other activities, however: Article 5 provides for associations’ right to access information; evaluate state institutions and submit recommendations to improve their performance; organize meetings, demonstrations, conferences, workshops and engage in “all types of civil activities;” publish reports and other information materials; and conduct opinion polls. Further, the government is required to “make all necessary arrangements” to ensure that individuals are protected from violence, threats, or any coercive measures in their exercise of the right to freedom of association.
Under the law, associations have relatively limited reporting and other administrative requirements.

Under the law, associations have relatively limited reporting and other administrative requirements." Associations whose revenues exceed 100,000 Tunisian Dinars (approximately $45,000) must retain a state-approved auditor; the auditor’s annual report must be submitted to the government and published, along with the association’s financial statements, in one written media outlet and on the association’s website. An association that receives public funding must provide an annual report to the Accounts Department, describing its funding sources and expenditures. An association that receives funding from a foreign source must also inform the Secretary General via a registered letter of the funding amount, source, and purpose. The notification must also be published by a written media outlet and posted on the association’s website. The same notification procedure is required if the association makes any revision to its bylaws, within one month of the revision.

The Decree also provides that public authorities may not impede or hamper associations’ activities, directly or indirectly. The Decree specifically precludes the freezing of an association’s bank accounts except by a judicial decision. Despite the guarantees of state protection noted above, a number of organizations continue to report harassment from security authorities, including unannounced visits to organizations’ headquarters and interrogations of their staff.

In November 2016, some members of Tunisia’s legislature, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, expressed a desire to amend the Decree, in particular with regard to enhancing oversight and control of associations that receive foreign funding. This occurred in the context of the government moving to prosecute, dissolve, and halt the activities of numerous associations on the basis of suspected links to terrorist organizations.. The Minister of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights had announced at that time that the government had frozen the activities of 38 associations among 157 that were suspected of having provided direct or indirect support to terrorist entities.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

There are no barriers to speech or advocacy in Decree 88, including political advocacy. On the contrary, while Decree 88 prohibits associations from collecting or donating money to support political parties or candidates, it expressly protects the right of an association “to express its political opinions and positions vis-à-vis issues of public affairs.” As noted above, the Decree also provides in Article 5 for association’s right to evaluate state institutions and submit recommendations to improve their performance. These provisions provide broad protection for associations to freely engage in advocacy and reform work.

Barriers to International Contact

There are no major legal barriers to international contact in Decree 88 or other laws. However, the Decree includes additional requirements for foreign organizations seeking to register and operate in Tunisia: Under Decree 88, foreign organizations abide by the same notification process in order to register, however the government may reject the notification letter within thirty days of receiving it. Nothing in the law prohibits communication between associations in Tunisia and individuals and organizations outside Tunisia.

Barriers to Resources

Tunisian law generally does not constrain associations’ ability to secure resources from private individuals and organizations in Tunisia. Funding from foreign donors is subject to some conditions, however. Decree 88 provides that associations may not receive funding from a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Tunisia, or a country that “defends the interests and policies” of such countries. An association that does receive donations or grants from foreign sources must inform the Secretary General of the source, value, and purpose of the funds, via a registered letter, within one month of the decision to request or accept the funds. The association must publish the same information on its website and in a written media outlet within one month.

Article 36 of Decree 88 provides that the state will allocate funds from the public budget to assist and support associations according to their “efficiency, projects, and activities.” A separate decree, Number 5183 of 2013 pertaining to the Control of the Standards, Procedures, and Criteria for Public Funding of Associations, governs this system of public funding. Decree 5183 appears designed both to support associations in their work, and to create a mechanisms akin to a public procurement process. Nonetheless, in implementation Decree 5183 has proven problematic, and sometimes at odds with its expressed purpose in assisting and supporting associations in Tunisia. A number of CSOs have called for the amendment of the Decree because of these problematic aspects.   

Barriers to Assembly

The 2014 Constitution of Tunisia provides in Article 37, that “[t]he right to assembly and peaceful demonstration is guaranteed.” However, Law Number 69-4 of 1969, which remains in effect, strictly regulates public meetings, processions, parades, demonstrations and gatherings. Tunisia’s State of Emergency law, which was imposed on November 25, 2015 and continually renewed thereafter, allows for additional limitations on public assemblies, such as allowing authorities to impose curfews and ban public protests altogether without a court order.

Vague Provisions. Law Number 69-4 contains a number of vague provisions concerning which assemblies are permissible. For instance, the Law provides that authorities may prevent any protest that is expected to disturb the peace or "public order." It is unclear how authorities would be limited in determining what they “expect to disturb the peace” or what defines “public order.” If authorities decide to prevent an assembly, the assembly organizers may challenge the decision, and the Law requires that the Interior Ministry “look into the issue.” The provisions regarding the Ministry’s required response is very vague, and does not indicate whether the assembly organizers actually have a right of appeal or what such an appeal process might be. No provisions indicate that a court or other neutral arbiter is involved in deciding on the organizers’ challenge. The vague terms used in these provisions are subject to various interpretations, such that they grant authorities broad discretion to deny and unduly restrict citizens' right to peaceful assembly.

Law 69-4 also places responsibility on assembly organizers to stop any action that is against the law, or any speech that might harm public security or morals, or incite people to commit crimes. This contravenes the rights of individuals to freedom of peaceful assembly under international law. Individuals do not cease to enjoy the right to peaceful assembly as a result of sporadic violence or other punishable acts committed by others if the individual in question remains peaceful in his or her own intentions or behavior

Advance Notification. Law 69-4 requires prior notification for any public meeting. The notice should be made by at least two people with Tunisian citizenship who live in the area where the meeting will take place. The notifying parties must give their full identification, and must provide the place, day, and time that the meeting will take place as well as its purpose. Notification must be served to the responsible authority at least three days before the meeting takes place, but no more than fifteen.

Spontaneous Assemblies and Counter-Demonstrations. Law 69-4 does not allow unplanned protests that authorities have not been notified of.

Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions. Law 69-4 provides that no assemblies may take place on public roads. It also bans assemblies after midnight, unless the take place near stores or businesses that are open, in which case they may continue until the time that the stores close. While the Law does not ban specific types of assemblies, its grant of power to authorities to stop any assemblies that are “expected to disturb the peace or public order” means that authorities have broad discretion to suppress almost any kind of assembly.

Police Enforcement. In the years since the Revolution, most peaceful assemblies have proceeded and have not been banned. Nonetheless, there have been several recent incidents where security officials have forcefully dispersed peaceful demonstrators. For instance, in September 2015, security forces violently dispersed peaceful groups of demonstrators in Tunis and Kairouan, both groups protesting against a proposed economic reconciliation bill. A number of participants in both protests were injured.

Criminal Penalties. Law 69- provides that any individual who holds a public meeting or assembly without notifying the government beforehand may face three months in prison. If authorities reject an individual’s notification of a planned assembly, but the individual holds it regardless, any individuals who participate may be subject to jail sentences of up to two years.

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Reports

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Universal Periodic Review: Tunisia
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs Tunisia
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes Not Available
U.S. State Department

2015 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Tunisia

Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index 2016
IMF Country Reports Tunisia and the IMF
International Commission of Jurists Not available
Human Rights Watch World Report 2016
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library Tunisia

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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Civil Society Groups Join Efforts to Halt Public Sexual Harassment (November 2016)
A coalition of civil society organizations have launched a new campaign to combat sexual harassment. The campaign, titled “One Day … One Struggle,” aims to raise public awareness about women’s rights and the reality of sexual harassment through social media posts, outreach campaigns, and public dialogue sessions.

Revolution a Fading Memory, Economic Frustrations Grow in Tunisia (October 2016)
Tunisia was the sole political success story of the "Arab Spring" protest movement that swept the Arab world in 2011: the one country where a long-serving authoritarian leader was toppled without triggering violence or civil war. But six years after the uprising, Tunisia's much-praised model of democratic transition is souring for many of the country’s people.

Human Rights Report Slams Government Use of House Arrests (October 2016)
An investigative report by Human Rights Watch condemned the Tunisian government’s extensive use of house arrests. The report concludes that such measures lack appropriate documentation, rely on insufficient evidence, and escape judicial oversight, ultimately amounting to a massive breach of individual liberties.

Tunisia: LGBT Group Suspended (January 2016)
Human Rights Watch writes that the Tunisian authorities’ decision to suspend the activities of the LGBT rights group Shams is a setback for individual freedoms and equal rights in Tunisia and a dangerous Precedent for Freedom of Association. Shams works on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
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The foregoing information was collected by Mohamed Fadhel Hamdi, President of the Associations and Sustainable Development International Observatory, in Tunis, Tunisia.


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