In another first for the country that started the Arab Spring, Tunisia has become the first country outside of Latin America to make a constitutional commitment to combatting climate change.
On 26th January 2014, Tunisia’s constituent assembly passed its long-awaited new constitution, three years after the country toppled a repressive regime and sparked a wave of protest across the Middle East. As well as enshrining full freedom of conscience and gender equality, under Article 44 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” - thus becoming only the third constitution in the world to formally commit the government to climate action.
The climate clause was introduced in an amendment by Dr Dhamir Mannai MP. Dr Mannai is a member of the Climate Parliament, an international cross-party network of legislators dedicated to preventing climate change and promoting renewable energy, who have been working together with the United Nations Development Programme to advance renewable energy legislation. The amendment passed with near-unanimous support from the assembly: 144 votes to 0, with 4 abstentions.
Ms Hasna Marsit, a Tunisian MP who helped draft Article 44, said: “The new constitution recognises that Tunisia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The predicted northward expansion of the Sahara desert over the course of the 21stcentury 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.”
The constitutional change is expected to give a significant boost to efforts to build the country’s nascent renewable energy industry. Tunisia hopes to become a major exporter of renewable electricity to Europe, using solar power captured in the Sahara desert.
Speaking after the passage of the constitution, Dr. Mannai said: “The passage of our new constitution is 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 UNDP have been vital in raising awareness amongst Tunisian legislators of the severity of future energy and climate issues, and Article 44 will now help to ensure that our country shows the same fortitude in combatting the climate threat as it displayed in overcoming oppression.”
The Climate Parliament's Chairman, Sir Graham Watson, agreed. “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.”
The work of the Climate Parliament and UNDP in Tunisia is supported by the European Commission and the Danish Foreign Ministry.