Despite the determination characterising its democratic transition, Tunisia remains a fragile state with a weak institutional framework. The Covid-19 crisis will only place added pressure on the country’s institutions, which have failed to further socio-economic opportunities for the population since the revolution in 2011. The crisis has limited the services of courts and public institutions to the very minimal, putting justice and service-delivery largely on hold. The current circumstances are challenging for any government to manage, let alone for a completely new one (given the vote of confidence only on 27 February) in what is also a very young democracy.
Tunisia’s new government is painfully aware that the socio-economic impact of the crisis on Tunisian men and women needs to be minimised. The severity of the situation was clearly reflected in the justice system far before the current pandemic hit. A study from 2017 indicated that the majority of justice-problems for which people seek recourse relate to their economic, social and cultural rights. Some of the most prevalent justice issues faced particularly in the regions are employment-related. The current lock-down will have a severe impact on the large portion of the population engaged in the informal economy, dependent on day labour, and working without social protections. The need for functioning and transparent institutions that can administer cases of health-, employment-, and housing-related rights in the aftermath of the crisis, as well as accessible legal aid will be high.
As highlighted in a recent Carnegie article, the current crisis will only further pronounce existing governance challenges. The authors’ arguments hold true in the case of Tunisia, stating that Covid-19 risks making limitations to government capacity more apparent, putting further strain on already weak institutions and highlighting the limitations of government reach, particularly in the interior regions of the country. Addressing these weaknesses is part of ILAC’s work to strengthen the accountability, transparency and effectiveness of key justice sector institutions and to improve the capacity of judges and lawyers to apply international law on economic, social and cultural rights.
Covid-19 making a bad situation worse
How the government and its institutions manage the already fragile financial and socio-economic situation in the country throughout and after this crisis will have direct implications for Tunisia’s democratic progress. Before Covid-19, Tunisia’s unemployment rate stood at 15.2% overall. [i] The sheer number of people who are unable to work and stand without social protection since the beginning of the pandemic suggests that these figures have already increased.
Important to note is also that the structure of the economy in Tunisia will have implications for its ability to manage the crisis and its aftermath. An ILO report from 2018 estimates that 53% of the Tunisian population is engaged in the informal economy, and trends in recent years indicate that this figure has only increased. This implies a significant portion of the population is working without job security, social protections, severely impacted by the current lock down and the consequences of the virus. Earlier studies have also shown that the percentage of women engaged in the informal economy is higher than that of men, implying the short- and long-term consequences will have a significant gendered impact.
The Head of Government has announced a bold set of measures taken to safeguard the economy and people’s socio-economic situation, including support to the poorest in society and to businesses at a total of around €800 million. However, the social benefits included in the package will only partially respond to the socio-economic crisis caused by the lock-down. The plan for distribution is also flawed as it requires people to register to benefit from the benefits while in confinement and with limited access to the relevant authorities online or in rural areas. And, despite the goodwill behind the measures taken to support businesses, in reality they only respond to a small part of the problem in a country where the informal economy engages a significant amount of people and where a majority of businesses employ two or less people.
Managing the aftermath: the need for functioning institutions
There is an existing institutional framework through which people can seek redress for their economic and social justice-problems is as weak as expected in a young transitional democracy. Part of the problem is that people are not aware of the institutions that can meet their rights, and that these institutions do not work as efficiently and transparently as they should. The lack of widespread digitalisation has also become more apparent since the lock-down was imposed and judges, clerks, public officials etc. struggle to ensure a continuity of services whilst working remotely.
The need for legal aid for these types of justice problems will be even higher than before Covid-19 hit. The administrative and civil courts, and institutions like the Administrative Ombudsman will likely be overburdened with employment and wrongful termination cases, and disputes over forced evictions to name a few. With underdeveloped administration and significant backlogs of cases already before the crisis, these justice sector institutions will face a tough test in responding to the rights and needs of a highly disenfranchised population. Significantly, this will hold even more true in the interior regions of the country, where structural neglect by the state has been the norm since colonial times.
Strengthening the institutions that can defend and protect people’s economic and social rights will be more pertinent now than ever. ILAC’s work to improve court administration and the delivery of services at the Administrative Tribunal, and training for judges and lawyers on the application of economic, social and cultural rights respond in part to the issue at hand. Yet, further and more extensive efforts with a broader range of governance actors will be required in the aftermath of Covid-19. Improved transparency, effectiveness and accountability of these institutions will be essential to delivering on these rights across the country, to improving public trust in the state, and to protecting the democratic gains that Tunisia has made since the revolution.
[i] Tunisian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.ins.tn/sites/default/files/publication/pdf/Note_ENPE_1T2019_F.pdf