Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

Tunisia is a constitutionally based republic with a population of approximately 10 million. Political life is dominated by a single party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been president since 1987. There were significant limitations on citizens' rights to change their government. The government imposed severe restrictions on citizens' right to privacy and on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. The government remained intolerant of public criticism and reportedly used the police and judicial systems - including harassment, criminal investigations, arbitrary arrests, residential restrictions, and travel controls - to discourage criticism by human rights and opposition activists. Local and international NGOs reported that security forces, primarily from the Ministry of Interior, tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees and arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals. The government continued to invoke a variety of laws and regulations to obstruct implementation of reform projects and initiatives.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

A key U.S. Government objective in the country is to promote democratic reform and respect for human rights. To support democratic principles and human rights, especially freedom of expression and freedom of association, the United States sustains a broad strategic dialogue with the government and civil society. This dialogue encompasses the continued promotion of good governance and participatory democracy, especially in advance of the 2009 presidential and legislative elections. The United States encourages the government to increase the pace and substance of critical political, economic, and human rights reforms and to create space for civil society, including independent media, to address these issues freely.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

The United States makes full use of exchange, cultural, and professional programs as well as dialogue to promote democratic values. The ambassador and other high-level U.S. officials consistently raise human rights, democracy, and good governance with the government. U.S. officials meet regularly with governing party and opposition party officials, prominent intellectuals, academics, and other civil society leaders to promote freedom of expression, cooperation, and the free exchange of ideas. They meet regularly with religious leaders to stress the importance of dialogue and religious tolerance. The United States funded a series of workshops and an international conference that discussed democracy and Islam. In 2008 the U.S. Government also sponsored 18 individuals to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program in the fields of government, rule of law, judicial reform, democracy, and the media. One local educator studied U.S. civilization and democratic principles. The United States also sponsored six individuals from the country to participate in an Arab student leadership program in the United States. Students interacted with U.S. and Arab students and learned about democratic principles and institutions.

The embassy sponsors forums for civil society, including roundtables with journalists focused on freedom of the press, and brings speakers to the country to discuss freedom and democracy with think tanks, government officials, journalists, and university groups. In speeches, media interviews, publications, and events, U.S. officials highlight U.S. commitments to human rights, freedom of expression, and government transparency. For example, the ambassador's Fourth of July address, delivered to more than 1,500 individuals and posted on the embassy Web site, focused on fundamental freedoms. The head of the political/economic section gave an interview on a variety of topics, including freedom of expression, to an independent Internet radio station. The U.S. Government promotes media independence and professionalism through special programs for journalists, exchange programs, and regular interaction with media professionals. U.S. projects in this area also focus on increasing opportunities for women, including business and entrepreneurship training programs. The embassy distributes materials in Arabic, French, and English, including U.S. Government reports on human rights, religious freedom, labor, and trafficking in persons; NGO reports on regional human rights issues; and electronic journals and articles on rule of law and transparency in government. For example, the embassy distributed copies of democracy-related materials during election-themed events leading to the 2008 U.S. elections and the presidential inauguration. The embassy used the 2008 American presidential elections as an opportunity to expand on the themes of freedom of speech and democracy. An event the embassy held the night of the U.S. elections attracted over 1,000 people, and the Ambassador’s remarks focused on electoral participation. The embassy also publishes a monthly newsletter, whose theme is often related to democracy. The newsletter is sent to approximately 1,500 people, including host government officials and the alumni of USG sponsored programs.

The United States conducts a variety of activities in the country to support good governance, judicial independence, independent media, and anticorruption efforts. In advance of the 2009 elections, the United States encourages the creation of a more level playing field for opposition parties by, for example, advocating more equitable airtime to all opposition parties, and U.S. officials regularly urge the government to embrace broader reforms that would allow opposition parties and NGOs to meet and campaign freely. The embassy also sent the leader of a political party to the United States prior to the 2008 presidential elections to observe campaigning and the electoral process in the United States. The visit included numerous meetings with both representatives of civil society and government officials. The U.S. Government also includes rule of law issues in training and education it provides to the military. In 2008, 37 military personnel took part in U.S. training that included components on respect for human rights and rule of law.

The United States works to strengthen civil society and its ability to influence and communicate with the government and urges the government to remove onerous NGO registration and funding restrictions. U.S. officials monitor political trials and encourage the government to respect freedom of assembly and association at every opportunity. They also meet with activists and NGOs that experience government harassment and restrictions, attend events such activists and NGOs host, and raise specific cases of concern with the government. The Secretary of State expressed the hope that the government will do more in the period before the 2009 elections to ensure that media access, freedom of the Internet, and access to television for the opposition will occur. The United States works to strengthen civil society organizations by supporting media and political reform through small grants. In 2008 humanitarian assistance programs supported two schools for autistic children. This assistance helped raise awareness of the rights of people with disabilities.