Poverty and Suppression as the Government Response to Civil Demands; An Interview with Narges Mohammadi
The Forum on Human Rights and Democracy in Iran talked to Narges Mohammadi, Vice Chairman of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Peace Council about elections, democracy, and peace in Iran. Mohammadi, while indicating the grim situation of human rights and living conditions in Iran, anticipates a better future for liberals and human rights defenders and emphasizes the importance of continuing internal and external efforts to promote human rights and democracy. She regretfully admits that the government’s response to its citizens’ civil claims has been nothing but the spread of poverty and the repression of social movements.
Q - Have the recent activities of civil societies in Iran for the preservation of human rights and democracy been consequential and do you believe following the same path would be beneficial in today’s environment? What was the scope of the accomplishments? Which groups were more successful and why?
A – As civil society in Iran gradually takes form, in the face of limitations and disappointments surfacing every day, we still anticipate a positive and hopeful future and an open horizon for this movement. Even though human rights organizations have faced serious difficulties and barriers and have suffered the government’s lack of cooperation, austerity and confrontation, their actions were more effective than others in Iran.
A review of the recent activities in Iran reveals that the civil organizations and associations, and even the political parties, try to use words like human rights and citizens’ rights as part of their slogans. Also, the activities of students, women, workers, teachers, artists, writers, and political, social, and economical activists revolve around human rights. This in itself gives us hope that human rights organizations will have an effective role in Iran’s future.
One of these organizations is the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, chaired by Shirin Ebadi, which was founded in 2000. Even though under the Islamic Republic regime this organization could not obtain a license, it has been a member of the International Federation of Human Rights and quite active for nearly nine years. Since its inception, this center’s chairman and members have participated widely in international and human rights assemblies and societies. It has undertaken services such as free representation of political and ideological prisoners in Iran. It has been involved in movements such as women’s rights and cultural heritage preservation. It has conducted research showing the compatibility of Islam with human rights, which its chairman, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has used as her slogan. It has initiated press conferences to discuss human rights and sponsored educational workshops. Consequently, the center has been instrumental in promoting human rights movements in Iran and has influenced the position of worldwide defenders of human rights toward Iran’s situation. The center has also organized other entities such as the National Peace Council and the Supervisory Committee for Free, Sound, and Fair Election, which now operate independently and are quite active in bringing about positive changes in Iran’s future. It is my belief that these activities will elevate the awareness of public opinion, institutionalize human rights as part of civil and unalienable rights, and gradually pave the way for a free civil society.
Q- Do you think any contact with the governing body for civil claims would be fruitful in the present condition?
A – There has been no time when the government was not informed of demands and claims in one way or another. These days, teachers are gathering in front of parliament trying to get the government’s attention and response by expressing job-related demands. Women’s movements have also acted in the same way in recent years. The demands made by women, workers, teachers, and student causes have all been civil and trade- related. But the government, instead of responding to them and bringing about a dialogue, has suppressed them. Unfortunately, the government is not willing to negotiate with these groups and instead reacts with aggression. It seems the government’s forbearance is so low that no civil movement is tolerated. No contact has been fruitful and no response has been received except hostility.
Q – How is the human rights situation different in Iran during this government from its predecessor? Do the criteria indicate any change in civil freedom?
A – The changes are obvious and worrisome. Maybe in the first year of President Ahmadinejad’s government people did not notice a difference, but after more than three years, the decline is apparent. People’s expectations from the reformist government were much higher than from this one. People were at least enjoying minimum levels of freedom and were demanding better opportunities to express their outlooks and ideas. Today, on the other hand, the demands are only for the essential things to continue living. These days, as a result of the government’s actions, the demand for water, bread, and electricity takes priority over human rights. There was poverty during the reformist government, but it was not even close to the levels we see today. While only one segment of society was dealing with poverty then, now the entire middle class is exposed to it and is left with little energy to demand human rights from the government. These days the food baskets of families contain fewer items, only the bare minimum. The effects of malnutrition on people are quite noticeable. In this condition, naturally, human rights, freedom, and democracy take the back seat.
Q – One of the serious issues in Iran is the interference of the government in people’s private lives. Do you think having a unilateral government has any bearing on this issue? What are the main elements?
A – Under a one-sided government, obviously intrusion increases, just as we are witnessing now. A government made up of opposite groups has the element of checks and balances. Each group’s action is controlled by the other, reducing wrong doing and the violation of privacy. During the political chain murders, the duality within the security system resulted in the incident being revealed and further crimes were prevented. If there was not such a duality, this event would not have concluded as it did.
Breathing room opens up when the government is comprised of two or more opposing groups. Only in this case can civil society be revived, just as it was during the reformist government that led to the surfacing of the chain murders. Ahmadinejad’s government does not have such opposing forces. Therefore, the government is encroaching upon the boundaries of its citizens’ private lives. In the human rights domain, violations have increased in scope and frequency in recent years.
Q – At the time of the election of the eighth parliament, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights submitted a report about the election laws and procedures and declared the election flawed and unfair. Is this center working on a mechanism to eliminate the obstacles to a free, sound, and fair election through national and international organizations?
A – The application of any mechanism is subject to the ability of the civil organizations to influence the governing body. Our center does not have any authority and therefore no opportunity to impose direct influence over the policies and agendas of this government. This does not mean the center is totally ineffective, but it means its influence is indirect. We are trying to improve the situation. In the report of the Supervisory Committee for Free, Sound, and Fair Election, some discrepancies were found between the election laws and their execution, as well as between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the standards and definitions set forth by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which Iran is a signatory.
We are trying to remind the governing body of its international obligations and encourage a collective movement among intellectuals toward demanding a free, sound, and just election.
Q – What is your assessment of the soundness and accuracy of the upcoming election?
A – Based on our recent parliamentary election and the report of the Supervisory Committee of the Center regarding the discrepancies in Iran’s election laws, procedures with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the standards set forth by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we predict that, since nothing new has happened and the same laws and procedures are in effect, the upcoming election will not be free and sound. We have a long way to go until achieving a free and sound election. The Supervisory Committee will soon publish the contradictions between Iran’s laws and procedures with international laws and standards.
Q – With the escalation of Iran’s nuclear crisis, some of Iran’s elites have founded the National Peace Council, and you preside over its executive committee. Considering all the political barriers, how hopeful are you for this Council’s success? Since you have no public tribune, how are you going to seek people’s support in realizing your aspirations for peace in Iran? It does not seem likely that you can accomplish much and prevent future crisis without the power of public support.
A – First I want to talk about the reasons and the goals for establishing this council. The movement of peace advocates is one of the most effective and necessary movements and can potentially bring unity to the world. Other than that, Iran’s situation calls for such a civil movement more than ever. Unfortunately Iran’s present condition is very disturbing. Our peace is threatened by ignoring human rights and by systematic violations in different sectors of our society, including women, children, workers, teachers, civil, political, and human right activists. Also, the recent unity of the western countries against Iran, the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations and the threat of military strike from some countries have invoked new fears among civil activists in Iran. That is why Ebadi called for a temporary committee to convene in November of 2007, which led to establishing in six months the National Peace Council, the coalition of political, civil, cultural groups, and economists. This council of eighty Iranian activists from different spheres is opposed to war and in favor of establishing human rights. We don’t believe that “no war” means peace. A society is at peace not only when there is no war, but also when people enjoy their natural privileges and there is a respect and urgency for human rights. There is no peace when poverty is destroying lives; children are dying or being debilitated by malnutrition; women’s rights are violated under the laws of a male dominated society; there is no freedom of speech to claim human rights; and intellectuals, students, writers, and journalists cannot express their ideas and beliefs. There is no real peace in such societies, since it must exist in its entirety. The National Peace Council is thriving to improve conditions as much as possible. The deafening sound of war can be heard from all sides—from Iraq and from Afghanistan. The turbulent lives of our two neighboring nations are painful for every freedom lover, including Iranians. Every now and then we also hear the drumbeat of war roaring against Iran. We know that there are some who support and some who oppose peace or war. The goal of the Peace Council is to confront any supporter of war. Iran has been swinging between peace and war for many years. Our government has always been on a quest to find an enemy for our nation, and by prioritizing its confrontation with that enemy, ignores or undermines the natural and human rights of Iranians, justifies and spreads poverty, suppresses or takes away the freedom of speech, violates women’s rights, and regards any attempt to restore it as against national security. The voice of teachers and workers, who are devastated by poverty, is silenced by their arrest and heavy punishment. A few people, of course, have benefited handsomely from this situation. This is the bitter and familiar story of our land. Therefore, it is the ultimate goal of the National Peace Council and its liberal members to establish a long-lasting peace for every human being, including every Iranian, by joining the worldwide peace movement.
Now in response to your question, I would like to point out to you and to the respectful readers of the Gozaar website some of the other achievements of Iran’s social movements toward changing present conditions. If you consider the women’s movement in Iran, you will notice that in spite of many serious obstacles and lack of any tribune, they have accomplished some outstanding goals. While they were a small group in the beginning, today their voice is heard by every individual in Iran and there is support for them in every household. In the face of many obstacles, they ignited a huge opposition against the family bill that is unfavorable to women and succeeded in blocking its passage in the parliament.
We don’t have any lobby in the government to change the present condition; we don’t have any tribune and we are barred from any assembly outside the walls of this Center. But we are hopeful and believe we can gradually create a serious public concern over these issues. If we can give peace the same weight as human rights, which are the main principal of every civil activity these days, we have accomplished a lot. We know it will not be easy, and we may have to pay a price for achieving these high goals. We should also remember that any harsh confrontation with the government is not without consequence. Every door that is closed by the government through force and aggression opens another one. When the government reacts brutally toward a small assembly of women and orders them to scatter, the behavior gets international exposure and attracts public scrutiny. This is a success for the women’s movement. So we are not worried about the obstacles and lack of tribunes. We try to raise the hope for change and boost resistance toward violations.
Q – In today’s condition, what approaches would you recommend to advance human rights and democracy in Iran? What do you think is the role of Iranian activists and promoters of human rights and democracy outside Iran?
A – Today, human rights are a common cause of all societies. The defenders of human rights and the international organizations are contemplating the application of the international standards to local jurisdictions.
Obviously, we need to address the challenges facing the application of these encompassing and global values in different parts of the world. The true application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a long way to go in Iran. Any successful approach to the human rights issue in Iran has two elements:
The supervisory approach, in which human rights non-governmental organizations, international organizations, the United Nations, and the Human Rights Council have determining roles.
The structural approach that involves establishing and integrating these inalienable rights in Iran’s society. This is being pursued by human rights NGOs inside Iran.
We must take advantage of this global unity formed around the axis of human rights and utilize the force it generates to make changes in our environment.
I believe every act of Iranian liberals and other freedom lovers, inside and outside Iran, has been valuable. All the letters, announcements, speeches, and interviews supporting the victims of human rights violations in Iran and civil rights activists were very effective. The results are noticeable in two areas: the moral support changes the negative mood dominating the spirit and the mind of the human rights victims in confinement into positive and optimistic moods that strengthens their character. Also, the government is forced to change its attitude and reduce its aggression when facing national and international pressures. I believe every step taken is productive. Imagine if there were none of these activities, how disappointing the atmosphere would have been for civil society activists.