An External Look at the “Human Rights Activists in Iran”; Interview with Roya Boroumand

Peace Line Monthly – Ladan and Roya Boroumand established the “Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF)” in 2001, 10 years after assassination of their father which is allegedly one of the first attempts of Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) to eliminate the oppositions abroad. The Broumand sisters who have both completed their studies in France and received their PHD in history, established this foundation in the memory of their father and to continue his path. ABF is trying to help to ensure justice, establish and stable democracy in Iran through education, the empowerment of democratic culture and promotion of human Rights awareness.

Peace Line Monthly asked Dr. Roya Boroumand one of the founders of ABF, which is one of the oldest Iranian human rights defending organizations, in regards to her observation of this historic path to the existence of human rights organizations and civil society in Iran during recent years.

Let’s go back to 10 years ago; to the time when HRAI was a weaker and smaller organization compared to today, and indeed the role of social networks was not as important. When did you find out about the establishment of this organization and did you take it seriously at all? Please elaborate on your own feelings and talk of this establishment.

I can’t exactly recall if I was aware of the establishment of HRAI right away, but in general I used to constantly follow students and youths activism. As you mentioned the social networks were not like today, yet we followed their activism through websites, weblogs and local news agencies. The reason was that the youth would set the future of Iran, although this is very clear today but then it was not clear for all. Therefore the intellectual and organizational developments and changes in Iranian youth especially their attention to human rights and laws that violate human rights, were of importance to us. Then we have tried as much as it was possible, to introduce the demands and news of students in Iran to the public aboard, in this point of time I knew HRAI and its founders.
If I have to refer to a particular point when for the first time HRAI drew our attention, it was when (approximately 2007) HRAI published a booklet/report titled “Behind Social Security” which was about Kahrizak Detention Center. In fact it was very interesting and important to us, that a group in Iran published a relatively well-documented report that dealt with the issues of ordinary people. I’m saying this because our experience has been a painful one after the Iranian Revolution; many of the activists, parties and those who were active in Iran did not pay much attention to ordinary people. The imprisonment of student activists, political activists etc. were the hot topics, and the fact that a group had reported on Kahrizak, in our opinion was new and impressive. I was happy and worried at the same time, I even mentioned to my colleagues that this report could have terrible consequences for HRAI. In fact I felt relative euphoria combined with worries.

The Cover of One of HRAI's Publications, 2007
The Cover of One of HRAI’s Publications, 2007

What specifically do you mean from paying attention to the ordinary people and why do you consider it important?

I mean that HRAI did not just pay attention to political elites, and the term ordinary people is used in contrast to political elites here. It was of high importance to us that an independent human rights organization had been established by a few young people. Most of the organizations and institutes are connected or dependant to political organizations and therefore they support and defend the rights of those who are likeminded and their political elites. It was a great news that a few have gathered and created an organization to defend human rights regardless of their own political believes.

Considering that you have been following HRAI’s activism for the past decade, in your opinion what is the strength or a positive difference of this organization?
One of the strengths of HRAI is that it has shown with time that it is concerned about everyone’s rights and it does not discriminate. Honestly as I have mentioned before, my terrible experience of post Iranian Revolution with groups and organizations was that they neglected the injustice towards their opposition groups and even the injustice towards the ordinary people. The events in the very first year after the Iranian Revolution, had completely changed my view on the political activism and the Iranian political groups. The situation that did not improve the following years.

When we started to work, one of our main goals was to try to document the violations of human rights of everyone. However our focus is on capital punishment, yet our goal is not to forget anyone in this regard and not to only focus on the elites. If we want people to understand the importance of human rights and to have a fundamental cultural change, we have to show people in action how important is their dignity and rights; show that they are important to us because they “exist” not because of “who they are” or “what they do”. Therefore the changes in this regard and the way that HRAI did not discriminate became very important to us.

Another strength of HRAI – as far as I know – is that, it was not personage driven. In the sense that, unlike we see commonly, the people who helped HRAI’s improvement and advancement, worked in silence and without any personal motives. This is very important and I believe it is very precious in the Iran of today; because if the organizations are personage driven, if something happens to that personage that is enough for the collapse of the organization.

Another positive point is that HRAI did not stop trying just because it succeeded. I mean although HRAI had initial successes, and their reports were read and talked about, it did not make HRAI believe their work was done; in fact HRAI constantly tries to progress and improve their activism. In this regard a good example would be the way they report. In the beginning, if for example I read one of their reports on an execution, arrest or sentencing, many questions would have come to my mind, questions such as what was his crime, when was he arrested, when was the court held; but now when I read HRAI’s reports I don’t have as many questions, and most of the things that one need to know about the issue have been already mentioned in the report and this is getting better every day.

How effective do you think HRAI has been, particularly in reporting which is your speciality as well?

In general the effectiveness of human rights activism is not measurable. Let me explain this way: we always think what if HRAI did not exist?! If HRAI’s reports were not published, would have the human rights violators, violated human rights even farther? I believe really they would have; I mean this kind of publicising limits the violators of human rights and limits their freedom to violate. I have to mention that from the time that HRAI began its reports till this day, HRAI has been the only source for many news including the prison news and executions. This proves that HRAI has found a special place as the source of human rights violations’ reports, that not only ABF but other organizations often use the reports by HRAI; even though some of them don’t mention HRAI as the source yet there is no doubt that without HRAI, human rights reports in Iran would be incomplete. I have seen that even the foreign activists and media cite “Human Rights Activists in Iran’s News Agency (HRANA)”. Therefore I believe if HRANA doesn’t exist, their place will be missed as they have become one of the main news archives and sources on Iran.

And there always will be criticism; as I would even criticize our own work, we can’t expect HRAI to have no points to be criticized.

Roya Borumand in the Memorial of Seyed Jamal Hosseini in Washington, 2015
Roya Borumand in the Memorial of Seyed Jamal Hosseini in Washington, 2015

In my opinion you have an emotional bound to HRAI and similar organizations; if you think so, could you please tell us where this sympathy and compassion stems from?

Yes this emotional bound does exist. We began our activism and brought up and experienced issues to help and motivate youngsters like you and your colleagues so that this kind of work would be continued. Seeing that this kind of organizations are established, it warms our hearts and brings hope. Those who have funded HRAI or are reporting for HRANA or are collaborating with HRAI, could have and still can just like many others care for their own life and work. Yet despite the hardships, arrests, imprisonments and exiles, HRAI has continued its activism and that is admirable. People like us, considering our age, don’t have much time and indeed we need hope for the future. HRAI has brought us this hope and joy; because they let the world hear the violations of human rights that happen in silence.
It’s worth mentioning that HRAI has built itself a back-up and did not lose hope after the blow it took few years ago, and this should be applauded. In addition, the fact that HRAI is not personage driven (as I mentioned before) is very precious to me personally and it reinforces the emotional bound.

You mentioned the crack downs on HRAI in March 2010. At the time, how did you analyze such attacks and wide crackdowns on a human rights organizations?

At the time, as we believed students and young generation which are the majority of the Iranian population, are our hope for the future and what happens to them is of great importance, we collected everything from the reported student activism, their demands and their organized movements to university disciplinary actions or intelligence services and judiciary punishments, to keep as a record for ABF (not necessary for publication). We collected these events on excel files. From these information and numerous reports that reached thousands during 2007-2008, it was easily observable that there was a change in Iran; because the punishments from university disciplinary were now mostly taken to the judiciary and they were increasing in numbers every day. Considering all these, honestly I was not highly surprised by what happened to HRAI. I always said these youngsters are really daring and brave and even though they are in Iran, they still point at things like death in the detention centers. In other hands, the transparency that HRAI had at the time (for example publicly announced that how it’s accepting members) was too optimistic for the atmosphere in Iran. Therefore the attacks and oppressions were somewhat expected, and it was not only HRAI, although HRAI did take a harder blow.

At the time we were mostly worried about what would happen next. When a group or organization is attacked by the enemy (those who fight with the people who are revealing the violations of human rights are the enemy in my mind and I can’t describe them any other way), especially when the enemy is a lot stronger, naturally there will be hatred and dismal and every one will look to find the guilty one. It always happens. During these thirty plus years, we have seen many organizations that were established with great hopes but after a while they disappeared and we never heard their names again. When HRAI took that blow, I wasn’t sure if it could stand up again and continue its work. But it was made clear that by perseverance and endurance it survived the crisis and this is no small matter.

Would you like to say anything to the colleagues and friends who have supported HRAI for the past 10 years?

First, I would like to thank them for their hard work and for not losing hope and continuing their activism despite the numerous problems. People like members and colleagues at HRAI are the hope for the future of Iran, and if they lose hope there will not be a beautiful future.

Second, keep the honesty a principle of your work, because not letting your politics and political interest interfere with documenting violations of human rights is a very important matter. The truth is what we hold against the enemy and human rights violators; not more and not less, just the way it is, and that is the only thing that our opponent can’t fight against. In this regard HRAI has done greatly and I hope they will continue this way and will always have this principle in mind.

Third, I would like to say that the people who document human rights violations in Iran are numbered, considering the tragedies that have been happening in the past few decades in our country. Therefore we have to try to work together so that we all carry a little bit of this heavy weight on our shoulders. I understand that indeed there will be a little competition between organizations and that’s just natural, but I also hope that colleagues at HRAI will always remember that a competition should not interfere and damage collaborations.

Last but not least, I believe any organization should constantly distance itself from its work so that it can see what they do the best, in what sections there are more possibilities and which part of their work is more essential; to see what needs to be done, and what’s not so important. This is essential because the routine and hard work, makes a person confused and bewildered; we are constantly running and we are always behind and in fact it is my personal experience that we forget to distance ourselves. This is the advice I give any human rights organization particularly HRAI because of their wide range of activism.

At the end, I want to thank you and your colleagues and wish you permanence.

Thank you for sharing your time with Peace Line Monthly.

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