From regulation to restriction: Tunisia's new law a threat to flourishing civil society

Association

On 27th July 2018, the Tunisian Parliament passed Law 30 despite opposition from civil society. The new law establishes the National Registry of Institutions and requires not only public and private companies, but all civil society organisations to register with the new entity. As a move to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism, the new law comes at a time when Tunisian authorities have been under pressure to improve the transparency of economic transactions in the country. Critics however, claim that CSOs have been unnecessarily included in the law. In particular, there are concerns that the new legislation grants Tunisian authorities undue powers to curtail freedom of association.  

As highlighted by the International Centre for Non-Profit Law (ICNL) the application to register will now include data on CSO staff, CSO assets, decisions by CSOs to merge or dissolve, and notices or suspension decisions issued against CSOs or CSO networks. The National Registry has the right to approve or deny registration. Failure to register with the new institution could lead to harsh penalties, including up to one year imprisonment or a fine of 10,000 TND (approximately 4,000 USD).

The process of the law's passage has also been controversial. Civil society groups have highlighted the lack of transparency from Tunisian authorities, given that the draft was not made public and Tunisian CSOs were unable to comment on the new provisions. A statement, endorsed by 24 CSOs highlights that law presents a threat to freedom of association in Tunisia. In particular, they noted that: 

“[Law 30] would effectively lead to an aversion to civic work and would affect the transformative role played by associations. It would also limit the principles of freedom of association, a right granted by the Constitution and international treaties ratified by the Tunisian State, as well as decree no. 88 of 2011 concerning associations.”

The new law could make the receipt of foreign funding for civil society more bureaucratic and challenging. The move has been widely viewed as a stain on Tunisia's strong reputation for upholding civic freedoms since the 2011 Jasmine revolution. Tunisia is often cited as having some of the most progressive laws governing the formation and operation of CSOs in the Arab region. 

International groups have also criticised the new law. A fact sheet, prepared by US based CSO, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) highlighted that existing legislation already regulates the work of civil society. In particular, Article 4 of Decree 88 (2011) already prohibits CSOs from incitement to violence, hatred, fanaticism or discrimination on religious, racial or regional grounds, as well as regulates the distributing of money to members for personal benefit or the exploitation of the association for tax evasion purposes. POMED's analysis noted rather than replacing existing laws, there is a need for better enforcement of 2011's Decree 88.

Accordingly on 3rd August 2018, 30 members of the parliament submitted a formal appeal to the Constitutional Court oppose the new law’s unconstitutionality. After pleas by Tunisian civil society were ignored, opposition parties launched an appeal to highlight the law's non-conformity with Articles 35 and 49 of Tunisia's constitution, by placing undue restrictions on the right to form associations and participate in associative activities. 

The CIVICUS Monitor will continue monitoring the outcome of the appeal, and the situation of the civic space in Tunisia.

Peaceful Assembly

On 13th August 2018, thousands of people gathered in the capital, Tunis to demand that men and women be granted equal inheritance rights. In recent years, opposition has been mounting against the traditional laws which enabled men to inherit double what women can receive. Tension over the issue of inheritance had been building. In a display of how divisive the issue continues to be, thousands turned out to protest both for and against amending the current law. In response to the protests, on 13th August 2018, Tunisia's President vowed to submit a bill to Parliament granting equal inheritance between men and women. There are no reports of any of the protests turning violent.