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Climate Change in Tunisia’s Constitution: A Model for African and Middle Eastern Countries – Dr. Moshe Terdiman

April 16, 2014

Climate Change in Tunisia’s Constitution: A Model for African and Middle Eastern Countries

By Moshe Terdiman

RIMA Environmental Papers, Volume 1 (2014), Number 1 (April 2014)

Introduction – Environmental Clauses in Tunisia’s New Constitution

On January 26, 2014, the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly passed the new constitution, which took more than two years to draft, by a 200-12 vote with four abstentions. Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, and the outgoing Tunisian National Constituent Assembly President, Mustapha Ben Ja’far, signed the document on January 27, 2014, bringing it into effect.[1]

The constitution, praised as one of the most progressive in the region, especially for its provisions on health care, women’s rights and gender equality, also obliges the state, under the opening preamble, to “contribute to a secure climate and the protection of the environment to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources and the sustainability of safe life for future generations”. Moreover, under Article 45 the new constitution obliges the state to guarantee “a sound climate and the right to a sound and balanced environment”, and “provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution”.[2]

Furthermore, the new constitution includes articles dealing specifically with natural resources, sustainable development, and water. Thus, under Article 12, “the state shall seek to achieve sound use of natural resources, balance between regions, social justice and sustainable development, with reference to development indicators and in accordance with the principle of positive discrimination”. Article 13 specifies that “natural resources are the property of the Tunisian people, and the state exercises sovereignty over them on their behalf. Investment contracts related to these resources shall be submitted to the competent committee of the Chamber of the People’s Deputies. Agreements ratified in relation to these resources shall be submitted to the Chamber for approval”. According to Article 44, “the right to water shall be guaranteed. Conservation and the rational use of water shall be a duty of the state and society”.[3]

In order to make sure that it meets its obligations, the National Constituent Assembly created the Committee for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations. According to Article 129 in the new constitution, “the Committee for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations shall be consulted on draft laws related to economic, social and environmental issues and on development planning. The committee shall give its opinion on issues related to its specializations. The committee shall be composed of members possessing competence and integrity. They undertake their functions for one six-year period”[4].

Climate Change Embedded in Tunisia’s New Constitution

The climate clause was proposed and authored by Dr. Dhamir Mannai, who serves as a member of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly as well as of the NGO Climate Parliament[5]. He authored it with the help of the Climate Parliament and the United Nations Development Programme. The climate clause passed with near-unanimous support from the Assembly: 144 votes to 0, with 4 abstentions.[6]

Following the passage of the new constitution, Dr. Dhamir Mannai said on January 27, 2014, that “this opens the door for legislation for both the environment and climate protection. As MPs we wanted to tackle the issue head on, and then tackle it through climate legislation, and hopefully put us in a position where we can demand the other countries to do the same”.[7] He explained that his initiative was based on the observation that climate warming has been for years affecting snowfall levels in the northwest as well as the pace of encroachment by the desert in the south. He said that “the purpose is to anchor a new vision of sustainable development that is inclusive of all parts of the country and of the needs of future generations”.[8]

In addition, he linked the successful revolution against the autocratic rule of Zayn al-Abidine Ben Ali to the Tunisians’ need to face the challenge of climate change. He said that “the passage of our new constitution is a cause for celebration for many reasons. Having successfully challenged an autocratic regime, Tunisia is now ready to face up to a different kind of challenge: that of climate change. The work of the Climate Parliament and the UNDP has been vital in raising awareness amongst Tunisian legislators of the severity of future energy and climate issues, and Article 45 will now help ensure that our country shows the same fortitude in combating the climate threat as it displayed in overcoming oppression”.[9]

Ms. Hasna Marsit, a fellow member of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly who helped draft the climate clause, added that “as the first such initiative after the Arab Spring, it represents a break from the inadequate policies of the past regarding sustainable development, and the first step towards building an effective climate policy which combines long term vision with a comprehensive and regionally-blind approach to sustainable development”.[10] She further said that “the new constitution recognizes that Tunisia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The predicted northward expansion of the Sahara desert over the course of the 21st century could pose an existential threat to the Tunisian people, who live mostly in a narrow strip of fertile land to the north of the desert”.[11]

The Climate Parliament’s Chairman, Sir Graham Watson, said that “Tunisia’s struggle for freedom and justice has already provided an inspiring example to millions across the Middle East. With the passage of the new constitution, the country now leads the Arab world again, this time on the vital issue of climate change. The commitment and vision displayed by Tunisian legislators in addressing future climate threats cannot fail to set another heartening precedent for governments and legislators around the world”.[12]

Indeed, Tunisia has become the third country in the world — after Ecuador and the Dominican Republic which had included climate change in their constitutions in 2008 and 2010 respectively — and the first country outside of Latin America to embed the importance of addressing climate change into its constitution.[13]


But the question remains whether constitutionally recognizing the threat of climate change is enough of a step to help tackle it.

On the one hand, climate change and its impact are among the most significant problems faced by Tunisia. A March 2013 World Bank report titled “Tunisia in A Changing Climate: Assessment and Actions for Increased Resilience and Development” said that “Tunisia is and will continue to be impacted by climate variability and change mainly through the adverse effects resulting from increasing temperatures, reduced and variable precipitation, and sea level rise… Climate change impacts are projected to increase water scarcity, the frequency of droughts and flooding. These impacts in turn negatively affect livelihoods and human well-being especially of vulnerable people and sectors, and Tunisia’s arid and coastal areas in particular”. Therefore, the same report stressed that “without meaningful action, climate change will deepen the already significant poverty and unemployment in the country and may unravel the development gains made in recent decades contributing to food insecurity and political instability”.[14]

Additionally, in their February 2013 report titled “The Arab Spring and Climate Change”, Caitlin E. Werrell and Francesco Femia emphasized that “in the Arab world, climate change has acted as a threat multiplier, exacerbating environmental, social, economic, and political drivers of unrest, including drought, water scarcity, food security, and migration, and it will likely continue to do so as the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region transition and change. In this context, addressing the effects of climate change in the Arab world will be critical for ensuring the longer term stability of the region and legitimacy of its respective governments. As Arab publics demand voice and representation, they will also demand that their governments provide them with the resources necessary not just for protection and survival but also for growth and prosperity. If mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects is not integrated into the policies and plans of new and existing governments, and if the international community does not assist in this endeavor, the social contract between citizen and government in the Arab world will likely not improve, and the stability and prosperity of the region may erode”.[15]

On the other hand, climate change will most likely be down the list of immediate priorities for the Tunisian government, with unsolved issues such as unemployment, rising prices and the need to reassure foreign investors and allies competing for their attention making the top of this list.

According to Wassim Chabaane, the president and founder of the “Association Tuniso-Méditerranéenne de l’Environement” and a technical coordinator at GIZ/Sweep-net, climate change is a lower priority in Tunisia also compared to the more immediate environmental challenges of bin sorting, industrial and marine pollution, and water scarcity.[16]

To sum up, In order to keep political stability, the Tunisian authorities will have to improve the Tunisian’s quality of life. Rises in taxes, poor infrastructure and health services, high unemployment, increasing food prices, budget deficit and corruption – all these can trigger unrest and lead to another revolution. Nevertheless, if the current Prime Minister, Mehdi Jomaa, and the technocrat government succeed in creating opportunities for economic growth, poverty alleviation, tensions alleviation, and improvement of the socio-economic situation in Tunisia, using also, among other strategies, policy options that address climate change mitigation and adaptation, it might be able to create the so-called Tunisian m

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[5] The Climate Parliament is an international network of legislators “dedicated to preventing climate change and promoting renewable energy”. For more details see its website:

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