Tunisia: uncertainty extends to humanitarian situation

18-01-2011 Interview

Although a transitional government has just been named, the security situation and humanitarian conditions in Tunisia remain unsettled. Boris Michel, the ICRC's head of operations for Northern and Western Africa, is concerned about the violence. He discusses the need for humanitarian aid, especially for detainees.

What is your view of the situation in Tunisia?

Even though the situation was seen to be deteriorating for a month, it has to be acknowledged that these latest events caught us a little by surprise. The overthrow of the former president has given way to a situation involving major acts of violence, which have caused us much concern. Given the current lack of clarity, the important thing is to see whether the security forces will regain control. All possible precautions must be taken in restoring law and order so as to avoid excessive use of force. The scale of the need for humanitarian aid also remains to be determined.

What are the ICRC's priorities in this troubled context?

We are concerned about the arrests that occurred in connection with the events that have shaken the country since 17 December. A major priority is to get access to the many people arrested by the security forces, in the past few days especially, in order to check on how they are being treated and to send news to their families, in accordance with the agreement signed with the Tunisian authorities in 2005.

Another priority is to obtain access to the places of detention where riots took place last weekend. We have been informed that dozens of detainees died in a prison in Monastir, and it is urgent to be able to provide any humanitarian aid that may be needed. The situation in another detention facility – from which a number of detainees escaped – is unclear, so it is important to check on conditions of detention there. In order to achieve this, discussions are under way with the justice ministry and the prison administration.

We are also going to contact the members of the new government to make sure that the army and police use proportionate force and comply with the rules applicable in this kind of situation. It could take a few more days until the new contact persons are appointed. The new authorities will be heavily burdened, but it is important to do the best that can be done as quickly as possible.

How are you going to coordinate your activities with those of the Tunisian Red Crescent?

In its capacity as an auxiliary to the public authorities in the humanitarian field, and since it is on the ground just about everywhere in the country, the Tunisian Red Crescent has an important role to play. The ICRC wants to support its efforts. So far, the Red Crescent has collected blood in order to supply the various hospitals in the country. It could also evacuate casualties, provide hospital facilities with assistance, and take other action as well. We are in daily contact with the Tunisian Red Crescent to coordinate activities.

What have the ICRC's main activities been in Tunisia until now?

Since 2005, our delegates have been visiting places of detention in order to bring about improvements in conditions there – in particular, to help solve problems relating to overcrowding. Our delegation in Tunis also has a role to play throughout the entire region: it covers not only Tunisia but also Libya, Morocco and Mauritania, where we visit detainees, and the Western Sahara, where we deal with humanitarian concerns resulting from the conflict there. The delegation has to cover a lot of territory with limited staffing.


Boris Michel 

Boris Michel