An Interview with Mohammad Hossein Ziaee
An Interview with Mohammad Hossein Ziaee
the Secretary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission

Payam-e Emrouz; Economic, Social & Cultural (Monthly)
April 1997, Nos. 16 & 17
Pages: 124-133
Word Count: 5232

Summary: The Islamic Human Rights Commission is an organization founded by the Judiciary in 1994. On the basis of the definitions and the criteria the Commission has - from the Islamic point of view - about human rights, it attempts, as an active observer, to supervise over the acts of the governments whether in Iran or abroad.

Mohammad Hossein Ziaee, the secretary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, in the course of an interview, has referred to the manner of establishment of this commission, as well to its objectives and activities.


Q: How did the Islamic Human Rights Commission come into being?

A: For a long time the responsible officials in Iran had come to the conclusion that in order to remove the shortcomings, particularly in relation with the outside world, and also to follow up the cases of human rights violations, it should establish an institution so that everybody can be a member of it and work in it. It should be an institution to be both independent and at the same time be able to explain Islamic human rights in the modern language. That is because we are really faced with shortcomings in explaining the Islamic human rights. The Westerners never express human rights correctly as viewed by Islam.

In addition to that, the topic of the national institutions of human rights was a burning question at the United Nations, and the U.N., time and again, requested the states to set up national human rights institutions. The national institutions in the field of human rights are among the mechanisms that have been discussed by the member states of the U.N. which have come to the conclusion that they can be effective in furtherance of human rights.

In fact the U.N., after making experiments with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for several decades, came to the conclusion that these organizations were not so fruitful as they were expected to be. On the one hand, governments do not pay any attention to these organizations no matter how high they raise their voice of protest.

This is so particularly in view of the fact that in most countries the public opinion is not aware of these organizations in order to be able to have an impact by relying on the public opinion. On the other hand, some government authorities claim that the non-governmental organizations are foreign agents and mercenaries and are after their own political objectives and designs.

Those sectors of the United Nations that work on the mechanism for improvement of human rights, have by exchange of expert views and holding of formal sessions, come to the conclusion that it would be advisable to set up some institutions which enjoy certain degrees of independence and, at the same time, government authorities be members thereof. In such a case neither these organizations would confine themselves to mere grumbling nor governments would be able to view them suspiciously and put forward an excuse that they do not trust them.

It was under these circumstances that Ayatollah Yazdi took the initial step and asked a number of jurists as well as authorities and sympathizers of human rights to cooperate with each other and to set up a human rights institution that would be both consistent with the regulations as are defined by the U.N. concerning the national institution, and remove the shortcomings of the Islamic human rights institution at the global level. This group, after holding numerous sessions, established the structure and the objectives of the commission within a statute, which was approved by the founders and organizers in the middle of (the Islamic month of) Shaban two years ago, and, in fact, the Islamic Human Rights Commission was born at that time.

Q: How are the structure and objectives of the commission which are incorporated in the articles of association?

A: According to the articles of association, the structure of the commission takes the following form: at the head is a high policy making council with nine members, namely the head of the Judiciary, a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the president of the Bar Association, two Majlis (parliament) deputies, two jurists well versed in Islam and in international law, and two outstanding and experienced judges. Under the high council, there are several committees, namely, the scientific committee, the women's committee, the follow up committee, the planning committee, the internal watch committee, and the external watch committee.

According to the statute, the objectives of the commission are as follows:

1- Explanation, teaching and propagation of human rights from the Islamic point of view;
2- Supervision over the manner of enjoyment and observance of Islamic human rights by real and legal persons;
3- Setting forth and presentation of suitable solutions for action and position taking vis-a-vis the cases of human rights violations particularly with respect to Muslims in all countries;
4- Investigation into and following up of cases of human rights violations which are brought to the notice of the commission by various means;
5- Cooperation with the national and international human rights organizations, specially investigation and following up of problems related to the Islamic Republic of Iran;
6- Investigation of the situation of the Islamic Republic of Iran with respect to all international conventions and agreements in the field of human rights.

Q: What have you done since then?

A: I believe that the greatest achievement of the commission during the last year was its relative stabilization. By that I mean that at the beginning of the work many of the governmental institutions were not ready to cooperate with us. It was difficult for them to see that an institution outside the system put questions to them constantly and enter in this field of action. Fortunately those serious frictions that prevailed at the beginning have been removed. Now things are in a manner that the replies to the commission's letters are received within three days. This is an important achievement in human rights. Now many government organizations will refer to the commission when they want to solve a human right problem within their system. They have seen in practice that we solve their problems with the heads of their institutions in the shortest possible time. For example if the prisons organization has a problem in one of its sections, it puts the problem to us and we solve it. This experience has induced the institutions that have human rights difficulty to discuss it directly with the commission.

Another work which was done during the last year and which is important, is the serious follow-up of complaints and grievances both domestic ones and those coming from outside. Many of the complaints were fruitful. Of course, these complaints number several thousands, and their accurate statistics, the classification of their subjects, the institutions about which more complaints have been made are all included in the annual report which will be published by the end of the current calendar year (March 1998) for public information.

Among the complaints and grievances that have reached us are some from religious minorities, which will be discussed on the basis of their rights.

Q: You mean those minorities that are mentioned in the Constitution?

A: Yes, according to our Constitution we consider only Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as religious minorities. For example, according to the Constitution and Islamic interpretation, Bahais are not a religious minority. Bahaism is not a religion. Nevertheless we follow up the complaints about Bahais, of course, not as a religious minority but as a group that, after all, live in this country. In any case, we make inquiries about and follow up the complaints made about various organizations and institutions (including this very sub-division of the Judiciary, the executive agencies, ministries, institutions, etc.).

Q: Do these follow ups and investigations have any mechanism of execution?

A: The guarantee for the execution of our investigations of complaints, is mainly the strong support of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi himself. As the head of the Judiciary power, he has very extensive judicial authorities. When it is ascertained that a violation has taken place in an institution, he avails himself of those powers, intervenes and puts an end to that violation.

Q: Do you mean that Ayatollah Yazdi's intervention is necessary in order for the commission's decisions about complaints to produce any results?

A: In practice many of the complaints which are made and followed up by us, are dealt with by the organization about which the complaints have been made and the organization concerned rectifies its own mistakes before the matter is brought to Ayatollah Yazdi's attention. In other words when the organization realizes that the commission has a strong backing, and the work it does is a serious one, they rectify themselves and the cases that have arisen.

Q: Does it not produce any duplication and overlapping of duties with those of other judicial institutions, such as the Administrative Justice Tribunal, which do the same kind of work?

A: The national human rights institutions in any part of the world do not negate and nullify the work of the institutions of the judicial system at all. In all countries of the world, administration of justice is the primary duty of the judicial system. Therefore, when someone refers to us and lodges a complaint against an organization, but has not yet referred to, say, the Administrative Justice Tribunal, we advise him to refer to the Tribunal at first. That is, in this case we act as a guide and an advisor. Of course, we correspond with the tribunal and put forward our view. Therefore, our role in following up the people's complaints not only does not negate the competence of judicial organizations, but reinforces and supports them as well.

Therefore if a person comes and lodges his complaints to us before having had a recourse to a court, we shall advise him to refer to a court at first, because the court is a competent legal authority to consider any complaint. If the court did not redress the complaint properly then we would intervene and pass on our understanding to the court. For example there were some cases when the final verdict had been passed by a court, and, according to our legal system, there were no way out. In such cases Ayatollah Yazdi intervened, and, as the chief of the Judiciary, took some action so that damages were paid to the injured party.

Q: How does the commission receive and consider the complaints?

A: It must be borne in mind that the more the people learn about the existence of the commission, the higher the number of complaints are. In order to follow up the complaints and grievances as quickly as possible, a legal unit has been set up in the secretariat of the commission. In the above unit a number of experienced jurists investigate the complaints and specify those cases that are worthy of being followed up. Many of the complaints are dealt with fully in the same legal unit, that is to say, there is no need for the commission to follow it up. Those cases that should be pursued further, will, together with the expert view of the legal unit, be sent to the follow up committee, in which a number of outstanding legal and judicial personalities are members, and these persons will follow up the relevant cases and bring them to a successful end.

In addition to that, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, like all human rights institutions all over the world, gives legal advice to its clients. We have followed up 700 to 800 complaints so far. Of course, people have not learned about the existence of this institution at a large scale so far, hence the number of the complaints is not so high.

Q: What has been the approach of other institutions and the manner of their cooperation with you in the matter of investigation and follow up of the complaints?

A: I do not deny some cases of unkindness. I exactly use the word "unkindness" because I would like to see the atmosphere of human rights efforts to be quite a friendly one, and our grumbling, if any, is based on friendly principles. When our aim is so sacred and when we claim that we adhere to Islam, then what is wrong with our reminding those persons who have not paid any attention to human rights and who have violated them. Why should they feel uncomfortable and be unkind?

To speak more frankly, I should say that those same institutions whose duty is to serve human rights show unkindness, do not give information, and do not help with the furtherance of the objective of the commission to the extent they should. Of course, there are various reasons for this state of affairs; one is that they say to themselves that they have collected the information themselves and want to use it; or, perhaps, there are some people who do not want to lose control of the affairs; or perhaps some people may think that they have accomplished some tasks in certain places; now we go there and do something else and so disturb their plan. Of course we try to avoid causing friction and undue involvement. We have had serious frictions in the last few months, and they have realized that we are not joking. When we pursue a matter we never fall short; we have tolerated many indignation so that the work can make progress. In spite of al these, we have tried not to respond to an act of unkindness with another unkind act, rather we have tried to create an atmosphere of cooperation with tolerance and affection. Thanks God, many of the institutions that, at the beginning, found it difficult to cooperate with us, now work with us easily.

The human rights objectives are not of the kind that can really be achieved without cooperation. For example, when we want to implement a plan in the disciplinary force, is it not possible to do anything without the cooperation of the gentlemen? The work that has been done in the judicial power could not have been done without the cooperation of various sections of the power.

Furthermore, when we do a good piece of work abroad on time, and bring it to a successful conclusion, is it possible to say at all that the success could be achieved without cooperation of other institutions which had information at their disposal?

Although the level of cooperation is not so high as we expected, yet we try to improve the relationship, at least to the extent that concerns us. There are some institutions for which this matter is so difficult. Of course, they may be right to a certain extent, because they are sensitive with respect to the duties entrusted to them, and they have observed certain misdeeds in their field of action, and that is why they do not cooperate so easily. As the time passes it must naturally be made clear for them that the commission is not a personal institution and does not pursue political designs, but follows human objectives only. Generally speaking, it is inconceivable for me to see the high authorities of a state defend an inhuman act, if any, committed by an institution. This is highly improbable. For instance, if an innocent person's rights are violated and if Ayatollah Yazdi learns about it, he will certainly not support the violator of those rights. If someone did such a thing it would be inconsistent with Islam; and Islam is our standard and criterion.

Q: What have you done so far to make the commission well-known in the society, and, in principle, to make people familiar with human rights?

A: In fact, one of the important tasks of the commission was to compile educational programs of human rights, which was done with due attention to the Islamic criteria, and the comparative work. Drawing up such curricula was a time-consuming process, because such a task requires a lot of research. When drawing up the curricula, the point was borne in mind, that they were designed for special target groups such as for judges, prison wardens, law enforcement units, security forces and, gradually, for the general public through the mass media.

When the educational programs had been compiled, the training work of human rights began with the judges, both those who had just begun working as well as those who had several years of experience in judgment. As you know, for those graduates of the law school who are to work as judges, a training course has been arranged, and the subject of human rights is included in the course. Advanced training courses within the service have recently been arranged for those judges who have had several years of experience in judgment. Two such advanced courses have been arranged so far, and human rights lessons have been taught in them.

In addition to all that, we have tried to actively take part in various seminars; for example, we had a human rights commission in the seminar of the judicial authorities which was held in Laleh Hotel in Tehran in June, in which eleven commissions were active. We presented detailed papers and programs there, and, in fact, the largest volume of work was presented by our commission. Of course, it was done by various methods, for example distribution of questionnaires among the participants; we acted in such a way that the participants were obliged to read the papers and follow them up. We also delivered speeches and submitted papers in the seminar of the Iranian ambassadors abroad, which was held in August, and also in the seminar of the IRI cultural representatives abroad, which was held at the Islamic Cultural and Communications Organization in September.

Q: Have you had training courses for the disciplinary forces and prison officials?

A: Some training courses on human rights have been organized in the Educational and Research Center of the Prisons Organization for prison wardens. We have also dispatched the educational texts to the directors of the Prisons Organization, and now we are in touch with them in order to develop the topic of human rights and guide it along the direction that the commission has in mind.

The training courses for law enforcement units and the security forces have not begun yet, but we intend to begin them soon. Some executive work should be done, the agreement of these institutions should be won and secured, and, in short, some processes must be passed through.

Q: What programs have you drawn up for training and orientation of the general public?

A: In fact, the public training of human rights began at the same time as training for the target groups. Some programs in the field of human rights, helped by the commission, were transmitted through radio and television during the last few months. For example, a specialized and analytical round-table seminar, for four hours, in the field of human rights was televised on channel four, which was unique in its kind.

Every Tuesday for two or three months, special radio programs in the field of human rights were broadcast, which were generally in the form of interviews with the members of various committees of the commission. The pivotal subjects of the program were really drawn up and guided by the commission. We were in contact with the press too, that is we either wrote articles for them or helped them choose proper subject matters. In fact, it can be said that the initial steps in public training of human rights through the mass media have already been taken. Now we intend to make it more orderly, so that the training texts can be presented more regularly and people follow up the subjects and learn them more thoroughly. It is clear that the training should be in various fields; the topic of human rights has a wide scope, such as the right to live, the right to non-discrimination in the society, the right to enjoy equal opportunities, the right to free expression, and many other rights.

Q: In many countries, the subject of human rights is a part of university curriculum. Has a plan been drawn up in this regard too?

A: It is obvious that if we want to do a fundamental and essential work in this connection, we must teach human rights as a specialized and separate subject. We have done a lot of preliminary expert work to set up a subject under the name of human rights at the MA level. We have had correspondence with several reputable universities of the world, where the subject of human rights is being taught at the doctorate level, and asked them to send their syllabus to us. By using this syllabus (which includes international human rights) and combining it with the Islamic criteria of human rights with which the internal professors are familiar, we shall produce a new syllabus with special chapter headings, and we shall specify the sources as well. Having done this work, we shall propose to the Council for Extension of Educational Curricula to establish this branch. In addition to the correspondence and the educational work, we have started certain executive work too. For example, we have discussed the matter with Imam Sadeq University, Mofid University in Qom and with the University of Tehran. Apart from establishing a new subject, we are in touch with high educational authorities in order to convert the two credits of human rights, which are currently among optional credits in law, into obligatory ones in all fields of human sciences.

Q: What programs and plans do you have in hand for publication of human rights reports at home or abroad and for their expert critique and investigation?

A: We have a publication system which determines the framework of the commission's publications. There are twenty kinds of publications in the system, for instance, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, biannually and annually. The main part of these publications are destined for other countries. The part that is earmarked for Iran, are both analytical and descriptive. The pieces that are earmarked for abroad are written in several languages, including English, Arabic and French, because these are various interlocutors.

Out of 20 kinds of writings envisaged by the commission, we now publish 6 or 7 publications. For example, we have a bulletin entitled "special view", where we focus on one case of human rights violations in each issue, and make analyses on the basis of the international and Islamic regulations. It does not make any difference whether the human rights violation has been committed at home or abroad. This bulletin is translated and is sent abroad.

Another publication is called "newsletter", which is in Persian, in which urgent news are brought to the attention of the head and the members of the commission. When those who are in the position of decision making learn about some news quickly and issue timely orders, it will produce a good effect on the whole system of the country.

Another periodical of the commission contains analytical texts of human rights and the translation of some pieces of work in this field. We believe that it was not a simple matter to present during the past few years, the rest of the writings that have been envisaged in the publication system of the commission. It requires qualitative work and budget to accomplish this task. It is not possible to collect and compile all these within a practicable framework within a period of two or three months. This would take several years. The important thing is to choose the path and to make efforts.

Moreover, a specialized quarterly in the field of human rights has also been envisaged. As a journalist, you are certainly aware of the difficulties involved, including obtaining authorization from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the permit from the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education, where the jury must confirm that the quarterly is a scientific and research work. In any case these administrative and clerical pieces of work have been done and the first issue of the specialized quarterly on human rights will appear within a few months. The editorial board of this quarterly consists of ten outstanding masters and professors.

In a way it can be said that there are really no other persons in the country to have done work both on theoretical aspects of human rights and at the same time to be conversant with the topics of the day. Among members of the board one can mention Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Bojnourdi, Allameh Mohammad Taqi Jaafari, and Ayatollah Marashi; the members of the editorial board include Dr. Mohammad Javad Larijani, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif and Dr. Madani. Moreover, there are 20 advisors for the quarterly, 10 of whom are domestic professors and the other ten are foreign professors (European, American and Australians).

Q: How are the relationships between the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the similar institutions and organizations at the world level. Do they have any relations at all?

A: Since last year we have established contacts with many human rights organizations all over the world, whether those belonging to the state (parliament, president's bureau and the judicial power) or those that are affiliated to the U.N. and similar institutions. The organizations are, inter alia, the following: the Human Rights Center in Geneva; the human rights centers stationed in New York and Vienna; the United Nations University in Tokyo; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); UNESCO; FAO; UNICEF; etc. The above centers send reports to us regularly, and we, in turn, send to them the materials that are requested by them.

In addition to that, we are in touch with about 20 institutions which have been established as national human rights institutions in some countries during the last few years, and exchange views and information and cooperate with them for furtherance of human rights. For example, we hosted the secretary general of human rights of Indonesia. He came here and held several meetings with various members of the commission. The news about it was reported in the press and the mass media.

We are in contact with 160 non-governmental organizations that have been recognized as advisors by the U.N. Economic and Social Council. They deliver speeches at the Human Rights Commission every year. We are in touch with the human rights research centers abroad, which are mostly universities. For instance, some time ago, in cooperation with Bradford University, we implemented a joint plan for a (multi-cultural) world assembly of human rights. This assembly is to have two centers, one in Tehran and the other in England; that is to say the center which will deal with Islam and the Third World will be located in Tehran, and the center charged with the affairs of the West, Europe and America will be in England. We shall host our Bradford colleagues in a near future.

Among other institutions with which we are in touch is the World Just Trust in Malaysia, headed by Prof. Chandra Mozaffar, which is an institution criticizing and commenting on international human rights. The advisory board of the institution are from outstanding European and American professors, like Chomski and Richard Falk. We are in contact with them to do research.

To the extent possible, the commission helps others to carry out research work. For example, a researcher from Cambridge University wishes to take films about women's situation in Iran. She wants to go to court and film the proceedings in an analytical and practical manner. The person who wants to make films is Ms. Mir Hosseini, a professor of anthology in Cambridge University. We cooperated with her greatly to carry out research. She is herself a liaison researcher for us, and links us with many human rights centers in the U.K. We have the same kind of communication with France, Holland and Germany. We have tried to expand and reinforce these communications day by day and to raise their quality and not be confined to and contented with simple contacts.

Q: It is said in the second report of the U.N. special representative, that Iran has asked international institutions for technical assistance in the field of human rights. What was the purpose of the request, and what was the result thereof?

A: In the course of the replies I gave earlier, I mentioned that the request for technical assistance and the advisory services is a routine matter today, and does not meant that a country is, say, at a loss. By this means it does seeks to redress and amend itself, or formalize and institutionalize a series of laws and rules; but rather it is an action, like hundreds of others, taken by a country that believes in human values and in order to advance and further human rights. For your information I would like to say that although the request was sent in writing to the relevant section of human rights in Geneva and has been followed up, no special action has been taken by the human rights center. Perhaps the financial bankruptcy of the U.N. has had some effect on this matter. God knows.

Q: How is the budget of the commission provided?

A: The budget of the commission has, so far, been secured in a scattered manner. That is to say various persons who were interested in helping the commission did so, and the commission benefited from their help. In some cases where the costs were very high so much so that these kinds of help were not enough, Ayatollah Yazdi himself intervened. For example, when we wanted to distribute certain articles in the commission of judges all over the country, we found that the expenses of typesetting and reproduction were every high. They were paid by Ayatollah Yazdi himself. Of course, these payments are beyond the budget of the Judiciary power and justice administration. Of course, there are certain lines and items for independent organizations in the state budget, for example Dehkhoda Foundation and Ayatollah Marashi Library take advantage of the budget in this way. The matter has been raised at the High Council for the past several months to enable the commission to benefit from the budget in this way. We have got to certain points, and I think we shall be helped next year. According to the financial officials of the commission, at least half of the money we request will be supplied in this way.

In the field of human rights, one must do work with love and with the whole of his body and soul. One must really be altruistic. We must really strive very much to advance our cause. It is not true to say that as Ayatollah Yazdi is at the head of organizations, so the latter must have a wide scope.

The fact is that we wish this organization to be independent as far as possible, and not to be caught in special organizational taste and web; we want it to be all embracing in order to work with all organizations in the country, to have a general outlook and to further the cause of human rights amicably and sincerely.

©Copyright 1997, Payam-e Emrouz
Original Story

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