One of the speakers during AIHR's seminar on Human Rights during transition to democracy, gathering more than 150 participants when held in Morocco in april.
Local organisations important actors in democratic transitions
Civil society is an important player for political change in the Arab region. But the region's organisations often have weak legitimacy and difficulties to reach people outside the big cities. A Sida-funded project is to strengthen local grassroots organisations, in their efforts to fight for democracy and human rights.
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:
2. Building an Arab Resource Hub on democratic transition:
3. Adding information to the debate and sharing experiences on transition-to-democracy issues