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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Abdel Basset Ben Hassen

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Abdel Basset Ben Hassen is a Tunisian freedom advocate who has dedicated much of his adult life to the promotion of human rights in the Arab world. His interest in the field was sparked during his university days while participating in student political movements that focused on promoting democracy and human rights.

After graduation, Ben Hassen joined the Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR) where he worked to train thousands of freedom activists across the region on developing strategies for promoting their causes. Later, he joined the Ford Foundation in Egypt and worked directly with farmers, fisherman, and laborers in depressed areas to encourage greater human rights discourse and educate the poor on their basic rights. These efforts proved challenging as authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and Africa posed numerous roadblocks to the work of civil society in promoting human rights and political initiatives. As a result, many were afraid to work for or cooperate with such organizations.

Today, Ben Hassen is the President of AIHR and serves as a prominent voice in the international community for promoting human rights in the Arab world. Ben Hassen is also the chair of the Tunisian National Committee for the Support to Refugees and served as a member of Tunisia’s High Committee for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition.

In addition to his advocacy work, Ben Hassen is a poet whose books have been translated into French, Italian, and German. 

My name is Abdel Basset Ben Hassan. I am the chair of the board of the Arab Institute for Human Rights. I'm also chair of the Joint Committee on Relief to the Refugees of the South of Tunisia. And this is a joint committee founded by the High Council for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution in Tunisia. I am also a writer and poet. I'm a writer in a sense that I'm writing about political issues, human rights issues, but also cultural issues about literature. And I published five poetry books; some of them will be translated into French, German and Italian.

I think I began my work in the human rights field in 1990 when I joined the Arab Institute for Human Rights. But my interest in the human rights issues started in my first years at the university, when the political movement, students’ political movement was strong and parts of our discussions were about freedoms and human rights and democracy. I started with the Arab Institute in 1990. And I started by developing the communication strategies of this institute. Then I was in charge of the research activities and training activities. And this was, for me an opportunity to train I can say thousands of young human rights activists from different Arab countries.

It was, for me the opportunity also to meet with human rights activists, to network with them, and to develop common strategy for the Arab human rights activists. At the Arab Institute, also, I was the director between 1997 and 2005. Then I joined the Ford Foundation in Egypt as a human rights program officer for the Middle East and North Africa. And at the foundation I enlarged my activities by developing field work with poor farmers in the south and Upper Egypt, the poor fisherman, with people working with quarry workers and it was also an opportunity for me to bring the human rights discourse and practice to the daily life of poor people.

We tried also to develop experiences on a rights-based approach to development. And how to empower people, poor people, to ask for their rights. These are mainly the very general steps of my experience with human rights. But the last 20 years, I think I had the opportunity to meet with many human rights activists of the world. I was also a part of the foundation of many, many human rights organizations’ regional and international networks. I was part of all the preparatory efforts to organize the international conferences -- world conferences. Like, for example, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

I was in charge of leading the Arab and African human rights organizations. And I was also part of all the joint planning committees for the Durban conference on racism, the Beijing conference on women's rights, and the Cairo conference on population. I was part of all of these efforts to bring the human rights issues from the Arab world and Africa to the international fora. I wrote about human rights. Many articles. I did my thesis on the African Charter for Human Rights. I was part of the debates on how to bring the human rights to the Arab political, social, and cultural discourse. And I think that after all these activities; I think that now I can say that I'm part of a movement. We went through many, many changes.

First, we were I think part of all the efforts to introduce human rights concepts in the Arab countries. Then we moved to developing the professionalism and also develop the strategies of the Arab human rights movement through training, through research. And now I think after all this legacy, we are trying now to be part of the renewal of our societies and trying to put human rights at the heart of what is happening now after the Tunisian Revolution. 

Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coastline. It has a population of fewer than 11 million people and is the smallest nation in North Africa in land area. In 2010 and 2011, it became the first of the Arab countries to revolt against decades of dictatorial rule, launching the Arab Spring and a wave of change across the region. Tunisia has a developing economy, focused largely on agriculture, tourism, and light industry.

Tunisia has been settled since ancient times. In the 10th century B.C., it was part of the Phoenician Empire. The city of Carthage, near the modern capital of Tunis, was established in the 9th century B.C. In 149 B.C., the Roman Empire conquered the Phoenicians. Islam was introduced to what is now Tunisia in the 7th century A.D., and the area formed part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1881, Tunisia became a protectorate of France. A strong French cultural element continues to this day.

In 1956, Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence from France. His political party, later known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally, went on to dominate Tunisian politics for more than 50 years. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was a largely secular state and was viewed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world on women’s issues. In 1987, Bourguiba was replaced in a “bloodless coup” by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continued many of Bourguiba’s policies, but ruled with an increasingly heavy hand. The Ben Ali regime was repressive and corrupt, with a dismal human rights record. The regime showed little tolerance for dissent, and lashed out at opposition voices in politics, civil society, and the media.

The Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest over harassment by a local official. Bouazizi’s act led to mass demonstrations across the country, protesting the lack of human rights, poor economic conditions, and corruption and nepotism in the Ben Ali regime. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections, forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and lead the country to general elections. The role of religion in society is among the most important issues facing the assembly and country.

Under the interim Constituent Assembly, Tunisia has experienced considerable political upheaval, but has begun to consolidate its democracy. There is a major fault line between Islamist and secular political forces. In 2013, several political assassinations resulted in widespread protests and demonstrators calling for the nation’s Islamist-led government to be removed. In January of 2014, after two years of debate, the Constituent Assembly ratified the nation’s new constitution. The constitution is considered progressive for the nation and has many human rights guarantees. With the ratification of the constitution, elections are scheduled for autumn 2014.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Tunisia as “partly free”. The nation received the following ratings on a scale with one being the most free and seven being the least: 3.5 as an overall freedom rating, a four in civil liberties and a three in political rights. Tunisia’s Internet and press were also categorized as “partly free” in subsequent Freedom House reports. 

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