Tunisia at the Crossroads – Rule of Law Assistance During a Political Crisis

Blog piece by Shane Quinn

As Tunisia steadily moves forwards with its decentralisation reform, there is an onus on administrative justice institutions to ensure that they can maintain the pace in terms of organisation, responsiveness and accountability. Building or reforming institutional capability in politically shaky settings is not easy at the best of times – doing so on the back of a revolution under the inscrutable and watchful eye of an informed and demanding population adds vital momentum. And so it should be. Yet, the pace of reform has been slow even if the stakes are high.

A report from International Crisis Group that came out this week paints a bleak picture of political deadlock that is paralysing public administration and the institutions of the state, and particularly plans to finally set up the Consitutional Court. As Thomas Carothers duly notes in his analysis of Tunisia, pluralism is to be commended – particularly at a time when a number of democratic transitions are regressing into autocracy – but it can become what he terms ‘feckless pluralism’ if state capability is not adequately addressed. In that respect, Tunisia has made great strides since 2011 but it is at a crossroads.

Moving down to a technical level, often seen as an entry point to effect political change, it is possible to access and change mindsets within institutions to be able to better respond to the pressure from the streets. There is substantial willingness within the justice sector to do this in Tunisia, but the modalities are not always that apparent alongside a tendency for international development assistance to become slightly misguided by thinking too big initially. It is not always the case that new and seemingly great looking policies correspond to an improvement in actual institutional capability. As with all reform processes in fragile or transition contexts, although not often followed, it is more about small scale, incremental steps for confidence building measures to take hold. With this in mind, it is not the form (what government looks like) that is important, but rather thefunction (what it is capable of delivering in practice)and how an institution operates and responds to structural challenges. This can be strengthened further by taking the local context into consideration, avoiding blanket solutions that may have worked elsewhere and ensuring that there is investment from the leadership vis-à-vis subsequent recommendations. ILAC always prioritises an open and flexible communication process with the counterpart as a key ingredient of implementing recommendations, putting technical assistance front and centre to map its theory of change.

In the spring of this year, ILAC together with its member organisation, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) conducted an assessment of the of the Administrative Tribunal of Tunisia at the request of its leadership. There was an acknowledgement on the part of the Administrative Tribunal that support was needed in addressing bottlenecks for a more effective and accountable court administration and defining a roadmap for the coming years.

Read full report here

Some of the most prominent recommendations to emerge from the assessment pointed to relieving the leadership of more mundane organisational responsibilities related to the Tribunal’s administrative functioning, disentangling the archaic, cumbersome process – inherited from colonial times – concerning the ‘life of a file’ or case-flow management and not to mention an overall updating of its current IT capacity. A summary of the recommendations have already been presented to the Administrative Tribunal leadership and were positively received, but it is only when the translation to Arabic is done that the real work can start. These recommendations will also form the cornerstone, and feed into, the upcoming NCSC project to support the Administrative Tribunal in improving its court administration within the overall Sida-funded ILAC MENA Programme. Local context, collective ownership and small steps with the help of specific expertise – slow reform perhaps, but indicative to the way ILAC seeks to bring about and facilitate meaningful institutional change together with its partners. 

About the author

Shane Quinn is the Director of Programmes at ILAC