Thin times: Tunisia's bloody protests

A couple of years ago Amnesty starting warning of the dangers of a global economic downturn leading to a deterioration in human rights around the world. With recent “food and jobs” protests in Tunisia and Algeria, we seem to be getting a taste of just that.

Most worryingly, recent reports from Tunisia suggest that at least 20 people may have been killed at the weekend after police fired at protestors (with reports of fresh killings coming through today). Even before this fresh bloodshed, Amnesty had condemned what appeared to be an over-readiness by the Tunisian police to shoot protestors. Amnesty has called for an investigation.

In the UK, where this year we’re likely to see numerous protests of our own in response to the government’s cuts policies, I think we’d be absolutely horrified if 20 people were killed like this in a single weekend. Imagine it. There would be a massive scandal.

As the Financial Times’ estimable Roula Khalaf points out, public protests are “rare” in Tunisia (sorry, no link: it's behind the FT paywall), which has a fearsome record of clamping down hard on all attempts to mount demonstrations. In a way, this itself may provide a clue as to why we’re seeing this shocking death toll: the law-enforcement agencies in Tunisia are probably not geared up to manage protests without getting heavy-handed. (As we’re seen on the streets of London recently, policing boisterous, mass-scale – and occasionally violent – demos is extremely challenging).

However you look at it, though, it’s deeply worrying that we’re seeing dead bodies in the streets of cities in northern Africa because people are worried about their jobs, about food prices and about their futures.

The economic squeeze is on and the worry is that we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing. To switch back to Roula Khalaf’s piece (on page eight of today’s FT: you'd need the physical-paper form to confirm this), you can see another type of squeeze with her article literally squeezed into an ultra-narrow and very long column: 51cm by just 4cm, to be precise. The “Pink ‘Un” has suddenly become “The Very Skinny One”. How very fitting.

So – with due apology over my literalism – the FT has turned its very good account of those that are hard-pressed by the global downturn into a “thin” story. These are indeed meagre times and I’m afraid we’re going to see many more of these accounts of the world’s have-nots struggling to articulate their frustration. The key question: will the world’s police forces be able to restrain their itchy trigger-fingers?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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