HR, .tn, trade
Major protests broke out in Tunisia following the self-immolation of a student in late December. The demonstrators are protesting unemployment and government violence, and as opposed to a previous norm of protests from spontaneous worker unions the recent uprisal seem to engaged a much larger part of the population to participate. The unemployment protesters were joined by net activists causing an alarm around the extensive web filtering and repression of journalists, soon followed by international assistance from Anonymous groups and OP:Tunisia. Several government agencies have been DDoS:ed or had their webpages defaced.
The Tunisian dictatorship has responded with riot police and arrests starting late December 2010 with several arrests of lawyers.
In Europe the issue started getting media attention a few days ago. Reporting up until that point had been scarce but is now spreading through several international venues, especially in the European Union. In a response that might be related, late afternoon yesterday the dictatorship started arresting a large number of Tunisian information activists and journalists. While Tunisian bloggers have been subject to disappearances, arrests and torture in the past, actions against them have not previously been this large in scale.
About 20% of the Tunisian population are connected to the internet, a large part of whom have connections in their homes. The infrastructure and subscription fees are some of the lowest in Northern Africa.
Getting media coverage of the recent protests in Europe is good, but hardly sufficient. The European Union has an obligation under their own framework treaties to use trade as a tool for encouraging democratic development in foreign trade partners. In Northern Africa, this instrument has sadly been poorly used. France Telecom and Orange hold large stakes in the Tunisian telecommunications market. In a criticized France is ramping up their firearms exports to Khaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, but they are also since many years back one of the largest providers of firearms and other weapons to Tunisia. Unfortunately, the foreign trade policies of one of the largest economies in Europe, and a founder country of the European Union at that, makes it unlikely that the European Commission will take trade action against Tunisia.
My understanding of the European Commission is that the Directorate Generals responsible for human rights, justice or telecoms have limited influence when it comes to foreign trade and the policies that would put effective pressure on foreign regimes. Commissioner Karel de Gucht and President José Manuel Barroso may underestimate the impact they have on the human rights situation in third countries. Unfortunately, parliamentarians in Europe and member states have limited influence on those positions, and we may have to hope for European governments and Council of Ministers to take a stronger stand for human rights in other countries.