Indigenous peoples in Tunesia
The Amazigh peoples are the indigenous peoples of Tunesia. Although Tunesia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Tunesian government does not recognise the existence of the country’s Amazigh population, and there is no legislative text, nor any public institution dedicated to promoting the cultural, economic and social rights of the country’s Amazigh population.
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted
Tunesia has ratified the main international standards and voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. However, these international texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens and legal professionals, and are not applied in the domestic courts.
Since 2011, Amazigh cultural associations have emerged with the aim of getting the Amazigh language and culture recognised. The Tunesian state does not, however, recognise the existence of the country’s Amazigh population.
The Parliament adopted a new Constitution in 2014, that obscures the country’s Amazigh historical, cultural and linguistic dimensions.
It refers to the Tunesians’ sources of “Arab and Muslim identity” and expressly affirms Tunesia’s membership of the “culture and civilisation of the Arab and Muslim nation”, committing the state to working to strengthen “the Maghreb union as a stage towards achieving Arab unity.
Amazigh are the indigenous peoples of Tunesia
As elsewhere in North Africa, the Amazighs form Tunesia’s indigenous population. There are no official statistics regarding their number in the country, but Amazigh associations estimate that there are around 1 million speakers of Tamazight, the Amazigh language, which is around 10 per cent of the total population.
The Amazighs of Tunesia are spread throughout all of the country’s regions, from Azemour and Sejnane in the north to Tittawin in the south, passing through El-Kef, Thala, Siliana, Gafsa, Gabès, Djerba and Tozeur.
The indigenous Amazigh population can be distinguished not only by their Tamazight language, but also by their cultural traits, such as traditional dress, music, cooking, and Ibadite religion practised by the Amazighs of Djerba.
As elsewhere in North Africa, many of Tunesia’s Amazighs have left the mountains and deserts to seek work in the cities and abroad. Thus, there are a large number of Amazighs in Tunis, particularly the old town, Medina, working primarily in skilled crafts and petty trade.
Amazigh cultural traits and language
There is no legislative text in Tunesia, nor any public institution, dedicated to promoting the cultural, economic and social rights of the country’s Amazigh population.
The Amazigh language is barred from use in the public administration and schools, and indigenous Amazigh history is absent from school textbooks.
Some civil society organisations ignore or boycott Amazigh issues. In their annual reports from the last five years, for example, neither the Tunesian Human Rights League nor the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms have mentioned the violations of the fundamental rights of the Amazigh population.
Potential progress for Tunesia's Amazigh peoples
Due to political changes in Tunesia since 2011, Tunesian Amazighs from different regions have taken steps towards a revival of their language and culture.
There are now at least 10 Amazigh associations established with a mission to defend and promote the Amazigh language and culture in Tunesia, which regularly organise awareness raising activities consisting of traditional events, conferences and festivals with a local dimension.
Steps have also been taken to convince some parliamentarians of the need to change Tunesian legislation in favour of recognising the Amazighs rights in the country.
Case: UN recommendations on Amazigh rights
Following the alternative reports presented by the Amazigh World Congress (CMA), in partnership with the Tunesian Association for the Amazigh Culture (ATCA) and other Amazighs rights associations in Tunesia, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) expressed its concerns and made recommendations to the Tunesian government.
It remains to be seen whether the Tunesian government will implement these recommendations or whether they will fall on deaf ears. Given the weakness of the Amazigh movement in Tunesia, continuing international pressure will be decisive if progress is to be made on Amazigh rights in the country.