Tunisian government announces social reforms after week of unrest

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi attends a meeting with political parties, unions and employers on January 13, 2018 in Tunis, following unrest triggered by austerity measures. (AFP)
Updated 14 January 2018
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Tunisian government announces social reforms after week of unrest

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government on Saturday announced an increase in aid to the needy and improved health care as part of social reforms following a week of unrest triggered by austerity measures.
Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi told reporters that monthly aid to needy families would rise from 150 dinars (50 euros) to between 180 and 210 dinars (60 and 70 euros).
He said reforms which have been in the pipeline for several months would guarantee medical care for all Tunisians, without elaborating, and also provide housing to disadvantaged families.
The announcement came after President Beji Caid Essebsi consulted with political parties, unions and employers.
The North African country has been shaken by a wave of protests over poverty and unemployment during which hundreds of people were arrested before the unrest tapered off.
“It’s a very advanced legal project, which was submitted to parliament and will be discussed over the next week,” said a government source who requested anonymity.
At the opening of his consultations, Essebsi accused the foreign press of “amplifying” the social unrest and damaging the country’s image in its coverage of protests.
The president said he would visit a disadvantaged neighborhood of Tunis that had been the scene of street protests.
Tunisia, whose economy has been hit by a collapse in tourism revenues following a wave of jihadist attacks in 2015, has secured a 2.4-billion-euro ($2.9-billion) IMF loan in return for a reduction in its budget deficit and financial reforms.
The two-hour crisis talks at the presidential palace brought together Essebsi, representatives of political parties, the powerful UGTT trade union and the UTICA employers’ federation.
“We discussed the general situation in the country and the reforms, especially socio-economic, that must be adopted to overcome the current problems,” UTICA head Wided Bouchamaoui told reporters.
Proposals were raised “to pull out of this tension” without scrapping a contested 2018 budget, said Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist movement Ennahda in Tunisia’s ruling coalition, without elaborating.
UTICA and UGTT shared the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their work during Tunisia’s transition toward democracy after the revolution.
The demonstrations broke out ahead of Sunday’s seventh anniversary of the toppling of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a revolt that sparked uprisings across the Arab region.
The trigger for the protests on January 7 was the budget imposing tax hikes after a year of rising prices.
A man in his 40s died in unrest on Monday night in the northern town of Tebourba, though police have insisted they did not kill him.

Interior ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani on Saturday said a total of 803 people suspected of taking part in acts of violence, theft and looting were arrested this week.
Some 97 security forces and members of civil protection units were also injured, he said. There was no immediate toll for the number of protesters injured in the unrest.
Calm returned to the country on Thursday night and there was “no attack against public or private property” in the night of Friday to Saturday, Chibani said.
AFP correspondents reported one small protest overnight Friday in the central city of Sidi Bouzid — the cradle of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising — and said police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in the North African country in 2011 and spread across the region, toppling autocrats.
But the authorities have failed to resolve the issues of poverty and unemployment.
“These demonstrations reveal the anger felt by the same people who mobilized in 2011 and got nothing in terms of social and economic rights,” said political analyst Olfa Lamloum.
Protests are common in Tunisia in January when people mark the anniversary of the revolution that ousted Ben Ali.
This year, the country has seen rising anger after the government adopted the 2018 budget which includes hikes in value-added tax, on mobile phones and real estate as well as in social contributions.


Damascus responsible for crimes against humanity in Ghouta: UN

Pro-regime forces dramatically escalated their campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April this year. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 min 49 sec ago
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Damascus responsible for crimes against humanity in Ghouta: UN

  • The investigators slammed the widespread use of sieges throughout Syria’s seven-year conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people
  • The UN’s Syria commission, set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the warring parties of crimes

GENEVA: Forces loyal to Syrian regime committed what amounted to crimes against humanity, including deliberately starving civilians, during the siege of Eastern Ghouta, UN investigators said Wednesday.

The five-year siege, on the outskirts of the capital, ended in April when Damascus regained control of the opposition enclave.
“Following the end of the longest running siege in modern history... the UN Commission of Inquiry (for human rights in Syria) has condemned this method of warfare in Syria as barbaric,” the UN investigators said in a statement.
The COI, tasked by the UN Human Rights Council in March to urgently investigate recent events in Eastern Ghouta, released a 23-page report filled with horrific details of civilian suffering.
“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” commission head Paulo Pinheiro said in the statement.
As pro-regime forces dramatically escalated their campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April this year, they used tactics that were “largely unlawful in nature,” the report said.
The tactics, it said, “aimed at punishing the inhabitants of eastern Ghouta and forcing the population, collectively, to surrender or starve.”
It described thousands of desperate people holed up for months in squalid basements with dwindling food rations and few if any sanitation facilities, as bombs and missiles rained down.
The report concluded that “certain acts perpetrated by pro-Government forces during the siege laid to Eastern Ghouta, including the deliberate starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, amount to the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering.”
The investigators slammed the widespread use of sieges throughout Syria’s seven-year conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people.
“Hundreds of thousands of Syrian women, men and children countrywide have suffered for too long the perverse and long-lasting effects of this medieval form of warfare,” the report said.
The UN’s Syria commission, set up in 2011 shortly after the civil war began, has repeatedly accused the warring parties of crimes.
In Wednesday’s report, the commission also faulted armed opposition groups like Jaysh Al-Islam, Ahrar Al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham for committing “war crimes” by launching “indiscriminate attacks” on Damascus, and killing and maiming hundreds of civilians.
“Through the entire duration of the siege, armed groups also regularly arbitrarily arrested and tortured civilians in Douma, including members of religious minority groups, repeatedly committing the war crimes of cruel treatment and torture, and outrages upon personal dignity,” the report said.
The investigators, who have never been granted access to Syria, said they based their findings for their latest report on some 140 interviews conducted in person in the region and from Geneva.
They also said they analyzed photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery, and medical records, as well as reports from government and non-government sources.
The report noted that by the time regime forces declared Eastern Ghouta recaptured on April 14, around 140,000 people had been displaced from their homes.
Tens of thousands of them are still being unlawfully interned by regime forces in managed sites throughout the Damascus region, the report said.
Following local “evacuation agreements,” up to 50,000 civilians from Eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, it said.