On 16 July, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission sent memoranda to the World Bank and the IMF, as well as to France, seeking reparations for Tunisian victims of human rights violations. The Commission claimed that the IMF and World Bank bear “a share of responsibility” in social unrest linked to structural adjustment policies. The Commission was established in 2013 by then-President Moncef Marzouki following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, with the purpose of investigating gross human rights violations committed by the Tunisian State since 1955 and to provide compensation and rehabilitation to victims.
The memorandum to the IMF and World Bank referred to the period from the 1970s to 2011, and claimed both institutions pushed the Tunisian government to freeze wages and recruitment in the civil service, and reduce subsidies on basic consumer goods, which, it maintained, led to various social crises and conflicts (see BWP briefing, Lessons unlearnt). This included the 1983 bread riots, which were a series of violent demonstrations triggered by a rise in the price of bread that occurred due to subsidy cuts that were conditions of an IMF loan programme. In relation to that particular episode alone, the Commission received 1,230 individual complaints, relating to 85 murders, 213 gunshot wounds, 932 arrests and imprisonments with systematic use of torture, as well as several rapes of minors, including in prison.
The Commission found that, not only was the Tunisian state responsible for these serious human rights violations, but also the World Bank and IMF, which, “through loan conditions and structural adjustment plans imposed inappropriate policies that were at the root of the serious violations that followed the popular uprisings.” The Commission called for three acts of reparation: apology, financial compensation to victims, and cancellation of Tunisia’s multilateral debt to these institutions. Tunisia is currently close to closing its four-year $2.8 billion IMF loan programme agreed in 2016, which once again has been accused of imposing generic recommendations, “without considering the consequences on social stability and cohesion” (see Observer Spring 2019, Spring 2018).
Although States are the main guarantors of human rights, international financial institutions can also be held responsible if they are complicit in prescribing policies with probable negative impacts on human rights.Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, UN independent expert on debt and human rights
The Commission’s attempts to hold the IMF and World Bank accountable were strengthened by a September report of the UN independent expert on foreign debt and human rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, which argued that international financial institutions can be held responsible in international law for complicity with economic reforms that violate human rights. Focusing on IMF-mandated austerity, the report argued that there is a solid legal basis on which to say that, “in principle, austerity policies during times of recession are incompatible with obligations to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights.”
In an accompanying press release, Bohoslavsky commented, “Although States are the main guarantors of human rights, international financial institutions can also be held responsible if they are complicit in prescribing policies with probable negative impacts on human rights.”