The Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR) has been a major player in Tunisia's political transformation since the revolution began in December 2010. With its project "Human rights at the heart of change" they want to strengthen the role of grassroots organisations, mainly through training in advocacy and organisational management.
"Our role is to ensure that human rights and democracy become a central part of the transition process that is currently taking place in Tunisia and other countries. We need to integrate all citizens in this work, and the civil society commitment is there!" says Abdel Basset Ben Hassen, the president of AIHR.
He recounts that Tunisia is different from many other countries in the region: the country’s political roadmap towards democracy is clearer than in, for example Egypt and Libya, and a new constitution is being designed by the constitutional assembly. Civil society plays an important and strong role in Tunisia; one example is when the Islamists wanted to introduce the Sharia law in the country's new constitution, but the civil society organisations led them to withdraw the proposal.
An important part of AIHR's work is to organise the annual regional training camp Anabtawi. During last year’s Anabtawi 21 participants from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq were invited. . One of them was Dhouha Jourchi, a 31-year-old woman from Tunis who works for the youth organisation ADO+. She has been dreaming of participating in the training camp ever since she was there as a child with her father. Last year she attended the event as a representative for the first time.
"I am well aware of human rights in theory, but I wanted to know more about how to use human rights in practice, and I heard many good examples. What I brought back from there was the feeling of all of us young activists, from different countries, coming to learn about each other’s experiences and how we could work together. We cried when we parted as friends after ten days," she says.
Dhouha Jourchi works as a teacher and spends much of her free time trying to teach young people to become good, open-minded citizens who understand what civil rights mean through, among other activities, the so-called “civic clubs” that are run in young people's leisure centres.
Through AIHR, she also participates in the so-called “democratic transition team” that was formed after the revolution. They go around to different parts of the country and speak with people such as factory workers, housewives, students and farmers about what human rights mean. The reactions in the villages have been positive:
"People say: "this is the first time someone talks to us about this, in a simple language, about our problems and tries to provide solutions." This was banned in the past as Ben Ali said that people who spoke about human rights were against the power and the state," says Dhouha Jourchi.
Another initiative in AIHR's Sida-funded project is to develop a resource hub that anyone could use. The hub would serve as a source of information and experiences drawn from transition–to-democracy processes from other Arab countries in the region, and have a database with different civil society actors and their needs.
AIHR has a principle to always involve key people in the process, from the very start. This principle permeated their work with “transitional justice, which is about handling violations committed during the period after the revolution.
"We started by inviting all those involved, the minister of human rights and transitional justice, judges, lawyers and NGOs. After a few meetings, we established the Tunisian network of transitional justice, which includes 33 major organisations in Tunisia. These 33 have together with us produced a new draft for legislation, which we are now trying to get policy makers to adopt. The Arab Institute is a kind of a space for social debate to change things and to be a part of that process," says Abdel Basset Ben Hassen.
Facts about AIHR and the project:
The Arab Institute for Human Rights/ Institut Arabe des Droits de l’Homme (AIHR), was created in 1989. In addition to its central office in Tunis, there are offices in Casablanca, Cairo and Beirut.
The institute’s project “Human rights at the heart of change: Building resources and knowledge and strengthening civil society actors’ capacities for democratic transition processes in the Arab countries” shall strengthen grassroots organisations during the ongoing political transition process in the Middle East and North Africa.
The project will run over an 18 months period from July 1st, 2011 to February 28th, 2013 and is funded by Sida with a total of 4 800 000 Swedish kronor (SEK).
The goal is to build resources, knowledge and strong civil society organisations’ skills in order to inform and consolidate the democratic transition processes in the Arab region.
The project consists of three main components:
1. Building capacities of civil society organisations and cyber activists’ platforms for democratic transition:
- Trainings of local NGOs in five countries, with first training activities taking place in Tunisia 10th – 13th of April 2012. Priority for the trainings will be given to newly formed and local civil society organisations. The contents focus both on educating participants about how to work with human rights in practice (e.g. project planning, definition of goals), and about project management (financial management, fundraising). The trainings will also involve networking.
- The regional training session Anabtawi 21, arranged by AIHR since 1990, with a focus on human rights during democratic transition processes. Prior to the event, an e-learning module was developed for participants to prepare themselves. A follow-up event, a regional coordination meeting, was arranged during which the knowledge was converted into concrete action plans. The selected trainees will be invited to take part in the civil society platform meeting later on, where they will share experiences and plans for platform activities (campaigns, advocacy and monitoring activities on democratic transition issues).
- Educate citizen journalist activists about human rights work in practice, as well as democratic transition issues, and carry out a training session on journalistic production. Promote coordination between them and human rights activists.
2. Building an Arab Resource Hub on democratic transition:
- Build a database on emerging civil society actors in the region that would also serve for exchange of knowledge and experiences. The database is to be used by civil society and outside actors with special focus on newly formed organisations.
3. Adding information to the debate and sharing experiences on transition-to-democracy issues
- Supporting discussions and developing policy briefs on aspects related to transition to democracy, particularly issues related to social demands and inclusion of vulnerable groups. In relation to this, AIHR organises a series of regional workshops to promote discussion about these issues. The first international seminar was organised in Tunisia on 13th and 14th of July 2011 on the issue of “the legislative and institutional system for combating corruption”. More than 40 international, regional and local experts and NGO representatives attended the seminar. The AIHR also organised a regional seminar on “Human rights education priorities and challenges during the transitional process” in Rabat, Morocco from 5th to 7th of April 2012. More than 150 participants from different Arab countries, Moroccan organisations and education institutions attended the seminar.