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Is Trial Significant for Transition in Tunisia? – An Analysis of Tunisia’s New Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law

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The Tunisian Parliament’s passing of the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law on September 2017 has created unrest among opposition parties as well as civil society actors.

Most of the opponents see the law as a disguised amnesty for leaders from the former Ben Ali regime. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, was abdicated in January 2011 after an intensive civil resistance movement against increasing unemployment, food inflation, and corruption along with allegations of human rights violations. Six months after his exile he, along with his wife, was found guilty in absentia for charges including corruption and was sentenced to 35 years.

One of the most progressive acts of the new regime was the passing of a Transitional Justice Law in December 2013. It framed a comprehensive structure to address the violations of the former regime by revealing past abuses, providing reparations to victims, and pursuing criminal accountability for serious crimes.

Under this law, a Truth and Dignity Commission to investigate and report past abuses, along with a Specialised Chamber for the prosecution were established. Criminal offenses as well as financial corruption and misuse of public funds were a major focus. The Truth and Dignity Commission started hosting a series of public hearings to gather statements on 9 June 2014, and it has gathered more than 63,000 statements to date.

Meanwhile, the current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law during his independence speech on 20 March 2015. This proposed law has provisions of amnesty for corrupt government officials and businessmen of President Ben Ali’s regime.

Activists in Tunisia and international human rights and anti-corruption groups have actively been opposing this law since its inception in 2015. The law was finally passed by the Tunisian parliament after raucous deliberations on Wednesday, September 13, 2017.

The new law would effectively bring the Truth and Dignity Commission and the Specialised Chamber totally defunct as no prosecution could be initiated against anyone who obtains amnesty through the “reconciliation commission” established under the new legislation.

According to Human Rights Watch, this law could be a final blow to Tunisia’s transition and effectively defeat the very purpose of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which has the mandate to investigate corruption.

Is trial mandatory for Transitional Justice?

The political landscape of a society that is transitioning to democracy from autocracy or emerging from conflict has a continuum of transitional justice mechanisms, which include trials (both international and domestic), truth commissions, amnesties, property restitution, reparations, lustration policies, public monuments, and apologies. Scholarly opinion varies on the effectiveness and viability of these various mechanisms; some argue in favor of criminal prosecutions or alternate mechanisms like truth commissions and some for amnesties.

Even though there are so many developments in transitional justice, amnesty laws still feature prominently in post-conflict and post-authoritarian setups. The majority are self-declared amnesties proclaimed by outgoing regimes so as to protect themselves in the post-conflict and post-authoritarian period. The legality of such self-declared unconditional amnesty laws is questionable.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, for example, in the Lomé Peace Accord decision has deemed the unconditional and free pardon to all participants in the decade-long civil war as illegal.Unlike in Tunisia, the Lomé case was on the amnesty laws, which pardoned perpetrators who were facing trial under an internationally constituted criminal court. Nevertheless, the initiatives like the new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law in Tunisia, which is passed by the subsequent regime are usually more acceptable in respective national jurisdictions and are not generally condemned as illegal unless it is too biased or nepotic.

Criminal prosecution and amnesty are not the only viable options in a post-conflict and post-authoritarian setup. A truth commission is also generally favored as a “third wave” between punishment and amnesty.

Truth commissions can be defined in light of the “Theory of Denunciation.” Denunciation procedures are designed to engage offenders in an attempt to make them understand why their acts were criminal, while also reaffirming the norm in the community and educating society about the unacceptable nature of the conduct condemned, while also holding those responsible accountable. The Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia serves the objective of the Theory of Denunciation, as well as will have a deterrent effect, as the findings of the commission will be the basis of the prosecution by the Special Chamber.

Another interesting feature in the new reconciliation law in Tunisia is the provision for declaring the ill-gotten assets as a condition for amnesty. The government believes that this contributes to the country’s economic development. This is similar to the lustrations and property redistribution, which were the main mechanisms in formerly communist Eastern European countries’ transitional justice. However, such attempts were controversial because they flew in the face of due process and were highly susceptible to corruption and manipulation.

In Tunisia, susceptibility to corruption and manipulation is also high, as the details of amnesty – including the declaration of assets – under this new reconciliation law, will not be made public. There are already allegations that those seeking amnesty and those currently in power are well connected, and there is high chance that this law will be misused to their advantage.

The anomalies of alternatives to trials in transitional justice, including the reconciliation laws, are evident from the above discussion. Most of the alternatives, though helpful in negotiating peace, send out a message of impunity to future violators.

The Tunisian reconciliation law passed recently does not provide any clause which mandates the authorities to declare the details of the people who seek amnesty including how much money they declare as ill-gotten. This will send out a message of impunity as there is not even a revelation of who all the culprits were and how much money they declared as ill-gotten for benefiting amnesty.

In all post-conflict and post-authoritarian setups, it is important to have some form of deterrence that has the potential to dissuade future violators by punishing the present ones. The new reconciliation law does not deter future violators nor does it deliver retributive justice for the victims in a fair and equitable manner.

Further, supporters of the new law would argue that prosecuting and punishing leads to political instability in newly democratizing societies like Tunisia. For them trials are detrimental to a stable democracy after the transition.  However, historically trials and truth commissions do not have a determining impact on the quality of the new democracy when observed some years after the transition could be an answer. For example, Barahona de Brito a transitional justice scholar asserts that “Democracy is just as strong and deep in Spain, Hungary, and Uruguay, where there was no punishment or truth-telling, as in Portugal, the Czech Republic, or Argentina, which did experience purges and trials.”

Additionally, in the context of Latin American trials, there is no evidence that human rights and corruption trials undermine democracy. Further, the example of Argentina’s experiences today provides proof that trials can have neutral and arguably positive effects on democratic stability.

Hence, it can be very well resolved that the claim by the Tunisian government that the new reconciliation law will help in forging future democracy is not true as the success of a new democracy is independent of the transitional justice methods utilized.

Historically, in the majority of cases, domestic level mechanisms fail because of impunities brought about by mechanisms like reconciliation or amnesty laws. Often the most powerful authoritarian regimes either grant themselves amnesty or avoid legal prosecution through other means, and only the weaker outgoing regimes are eventually punished.

In some other cases, justice cannot be achieved because the violators continue to remain in power or strike deals with the subsequent rulers and shield themselves with immunities (e.g., reconciliation laws like in the present case). After all, the decision whether to punish or pardon a situation is largely constrained by the interest of the political elites of the state.

Hence it can be construed that trial for crimes in transitional societies like Tunisia is not only significant but also inevitable for proper delivery of justice, whether it is through trial or other mechanisms like truth commissions.

Giving blanket amnesty through a new reconciliation law without identifying and declaring the truth will not have a positive effect on the smooth transition and future peace process in Tunisia. Therefore, Tunisia should take immediate measures to annul the controversial new Economic and Financial Reconciliation Law and proceed with the trial of the corrupt under the former Transitional Justice Law.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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China-Arab Relations: From Silk to Friendship

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China and the Arabs have a long and rich economic and cultural history, and this distinguished relationship still exists today, with a promising future. This bilateral relationship between the two nations is based on the principles of respect and non-interference in internal affairs or foreign policies. Therefore, China’s relationship with the Arabs as well as with other nations is unique and a model to be followed. If you meet a Chinese person, the first phrase will be “Alabo” or an Arab in Mandarin, and he/she will welcome you. The Chinese state’s dealings with its counterparts can be measured based on the model of this Chinese citizen. China deals with the Arabs on the basis of friendship and historical ties.

The history of Sino-Arab relations goes back to the Tang Dynasty, and these relations developed with the flourishing of trade between the two nations. Since China was famous for its high quality silk, this trade route was called the “Silk Road”. Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, better known in English as Baron von Richthofen, was a German traveller, geographer, and scientist. He is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877.

Chinese-Arab relations have developed in contemporary history. In 1930, China established official relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A library in China was named the “Fouad Islamic Library”, after the late Egyptian king, “Fuad the First”. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser cut ties with China and established relations with the Communist People’s Republic of China and inaugurated an embassy in Egypt. In the same year, the Arab League established relations with the People’s Republic of China. By the year 1990, all Arab countries cut their relations with the Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

In 2004, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established, and today it is considered a milestone for the Sino-Arab relationship. At its inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing delivered a speech stating:“The Arab world is an important force on the international scene, and that China and the Arab countries have enjoyed a long friendship. Our similar history, our common goals and our broad interests have been credited with enhancing cooperation between the two sides; no matter how the international situation changes, China has always been the sincere friend of the Arab world”. The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially established during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in January of 2004.

Hu Jintao indicated at that time that the formation of the forum is a continuation of the traditional friendship between China and the Arab world. The Chinese president said at the time, “The establishment of the forum is conducive to expanding mutual cooperation in a variety of fields. He added that China had made four proposals; First, maintaining mutual respect, fair treatment and sincere cooperation at the political level. Second, strengthening economic and trade relations through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade, contracted projects, labor services, energy, transportation, communications, agriculture, environmental protection and information. Third, expand cultural exchanges. Finally, conducting training for the employees.”

During the second session of the forum in Beijing in 2006, China showed its sympathy for the issues of the Arab world and its interest in the peace process between Palestine and Israel, since China is a peace-loving country; it presented the idea of “a nuclear-free Middle East”. China is the best friend of the Arab countries today. Although some Arab countries have strong relations with the West whose policy does not match the Chinese policy, but all Arab countries agree on friendly and good relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The Arab citizen is not interested today in the foreign policy of the US, the deadly weapons of the US and Russia, or European culture, but rather the livelihood and economy, and this is what China provides through its wise economic policy. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, which will restore glow to China-Arab relations; as the Arab world is in a strategic location on the initiative map. Thus, the Arab countries are an important partner for China in the initiative. Although the volume of trade exchanges between China and the Arab countries exceeded 200 billion US dollars, which increased 10 times over the past decade, there was no commercial and institutional arrangement to facilitate trade between the two sides.

China, as a peaceful and non-invasive country, aims to promote economic cooperation with Arab region on an equal basis because it considers the Arab world a historic partner. The historical experience of the Arabs with the Chinese through the Silk Road has confirmed that China differs from the nations of colonialism and imperialism, which consider the Arab region a place rich in natural resources only. In his historic speech at the Arab League, Chinese President Xi stressed that China will not seek to extend influence and search for proxies in the Middle East. The Chinese initiatives will contribute to establishing security and stability through economic development and improving the people’s livelihood, in line with the post-2015 development agenda and the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life, as the Chinese experience proves that development is the key to digging out the roots of conflicts and extremism in all its forms.

China is a neutral country and does not favor the use of violence. During the Syrian crisis, for example, the Chinese envoy to the Security Council raised his hand three times, meaning that China, with its wise diplomacy, supported the Syrian regime without entering the military war. During the recent Chinese military parade, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed some Chinese military capabilities and thus sent a message to the enemies that China will always be ready if a war is imposed on it, and a message of support to China’s allies. The Arab region today needs a real partner who possesses economic and military power and international political influence, such as China; to ensure the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and to consolidate the China-Arab relations and raise it to the level of a strategic alliance.

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