On November 2nd the Global Fairness Initiative will present its annual Fairness Award to Houcine Abassi, Secretary General of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Paul Brest from Stanford Law School and Myrtle Witbooi, General Secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union. The award is of particular interest this year because Mr. Abassi is a member of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet which was recently awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize "for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”
Mr. Abassi was instrumental and used his position as the head of the UGTT to bring other civil society groups together to create a national dialogue, namely the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Artisans, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the National Association of Lawyers. This Quartet then became a critical player in drafting the 2013 Tunisian constitution and in assisting with the formation of a democratic interim government.
The Quartet used their influence to keep the sitting government and opposition at the negotiating table, even though the country was rocked by assassinations and a potential Islamist insurgency. Mr. Abassi reportedly personally threatened widespread labor protests to ensure that the negotiators stayed put, and he and the other negotiators gave the Tunisian people a voice at the table. Many believe that this is why the Constitution expressly recognizes that men and women are equal and says that while Islam is the state religion, religious freedom is the law of the land.
Their efforts led to Tunisia’s first-ever fair and free election in December 2014. The winner was a secularist, Beji Caid Essebsi, and though there were some concerns because Mr. Essebsi had held office under both of the previous dictators, the government has held and was able to form a governing coalition. In addition, the government has made overtures to the Islamist opposition parties.
Though the countries’ democratic transition has been successful thus far it faces numerous challenges, including widespread unemployment and economic difficulties, in part due to the sharp decrease in tourists after the Arab Spring and then the terrorist attack at the beach resort in Sousse which killed thirty-nine people.
However, despite the country’s economic concerns it has not descended into chaos, unlike the other countries which toppled (or attempted to topple) dictators during the Arab Spring, namely Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya. The Peace Prize credits the Quartet with a major contribution to Tunisia’s democratic transition and relative stability. After receiving the prize Mr. Abassi was quoted as saying, “It’s a message that dialogue can lead us on the right path. This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”
In addition to his work in bringing dialogue to his country, Mr. Abassi remains a critical labor leader in Tunisia. The Global Fairness Initiative is currently working in Tunisia, along with Partners for Democratic Change, to implement the Tunisia Inclusive Labor Initiative. The Initiative aims to bring the 40% of working Tunisians working in the informal sector either into the formal sector or to find a way to grant them greater labor protections. It was through this Initiative that GFI first met Mr. Abassi to discuss how to formalize more Tunisian workers and this led to his being honored with the Fairness Award for his work on behalf of working men and women in Tunisia.
Like the Peace Prize, the Fairness Award also hopes to inspire others specifically a, “new generation of leaders to dedicate themselves to economic justice, fairness, and equality,” and Mr. Abassi is certainly a figure to follow. For more information about the Fairness Award please check out http://fairnessaward.org/.