UPDATE 1530 GMT: The Parliament has referred the legislation on civil institutions back to committee after the Speaker, Ali Larijani, criticised "ambiguities" in the language of the bill. br>
Fereshteh Ghazi reports for Rooz Online about the attempt to suppress Iranian civil society. Further information is in the statement from Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and nine human rights and civil society groups, "Parliament Ignores Concerns of Independent Civil Organisations over Draft Bill":
The Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, is in the process of approving a bill that, according to civil activists, aims at eliminating independent civil institutions and replacing them with a government organization. According to the provisions of this bill not only are individuals who plan to establish non-governmental or civil organizations required to be fully cleared and approved by the Ministry of Intelligence and supervisory committees, but even organizations that already have operational licenses and have been active need to reapply for new permits. If the latter are not approved, the supreme supervisory committee will annul their current permits and ban their activities.
Arseh Sevom (which in Persian means Third Sphere, standing for civil society) organization writes that the goal of this mechanism is to annul non-governmental organizations, something that until now has been in the purview of the judiciary but which made the intervention of the security apparatus difficult. The absolute authority over civil society institutions according to the bill lies with the supreme supervisory committee that will make decisions on the creation, dissolution and supervision of the activities of NGOs. The composition of the body includes five government representatives, a representative from each of the following: the judiciary, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Endowment Affairs Organization, the Basij, and the Islamic Propagation Organization.
In an exclusive interview with Rooz, Sohrab Razzaghi, the managing editor of Arseh Sevom organization, a human rights advocacy group, and Mousavi Khoeiniha, former MP, talked about the bill and its impact on Iran’s civil society. The major consequence of creating a pseudo government operated civil society would be that an underground civil society would take shape in Iran, which would continue its life contrary to the wishes and goals of the government.
Goal: Destruction of Civil Society
Razzaghi, himself a prominent civil movement activist, said, “According to this bill, current civil society organizations have six months to adjust themselves to the new conditions over which they will be reviewed. In the process, many will be automatically eliminated. It is also said that 3 out of every 5 founding members and the board of directors of each such organization will have to be specialists. Everyone knows that such organizations are formed by volunteers who are not necessarily specialists. People get together and begin volunteer work. Some succeed while others fail, based on how good they are in responding to the needs of each group. This new law however would turn such organizations into technocrats.”
Arseh Sevom, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, and 8 [other] civil and human rights organizations have issued a statement expressing their concern over this Majlis bill. The statement contends that the bill requires NGOs to get permission from the advisory committees to communicate with international NGOs, become members in international organization and even to participate in educational workshops or meetings, including entering into any agreements or receiving any funds.
When asked whether this bill would end the life of Iran’s civil society, Razzaghi said, “This is in reality yet another nail in the coffin, civil associations in Iran which would deny them their freedom and would result in the elimination of all the achievements that people have gained in this respect by the government. The implementation of this bill would end the life of the country’s independent civil society and in its place create an obedient, quiet, dependant society.”
On how to confront and prevent this from happening, Razzaghi said, “Two tasks must be advanced in parallel: the first is to expose what is going on in Iran for which an international coalition must be formed. In view of the talk going on about the new law on political parties, one can say that the same contraction that is taking place in the country’s civil society will also take place regarding the country’s political parties. The UN Human Rights Council’s Rapporteur must be asked to intervene. At the same time, we must take measures so that this contraction of civil society does not result in the end of civil society in Iran.”
“The implementation of this bill will, from another perspective, not result in the end of civil society but their efforts will result in the shaping of an underground civil society and so we must think about the empowering this domain and help it strive along with the fake government-run society,” Razzaghi explained.
Mousavi Khoeiniha says that the bill demonstrates the regime’s insecurity and fears. “The recent Majlis election and the issues that have come up since are concerning for the regime, so they are planning for the upcoming Majlis and presidential elections and believe that civil society institutions will cause them problems then,” he said.
Khoeiniha said that the regime was even concerned about organizations that were active in the fields of reducing poverty, addiction, health and even children’s issues, organizations that have no political agenda. “They are afraid of even a few people getting together, even if the people talk about poverty, addiction etc and are afraid that their views will not be the same as those of the regime on such issues as elections,” he expounded. Like Razzaghi, Khoeiniha also believes that this is the last step that the regime plans to take regarding NGOs. “Until now they were very tight in giving licenses to NGOs, but now they believe that even that policy is not working for them. They do not want to give operational licenses even to organizations that work with mosques, unless they are completely sure of their activities and their submission,” he explained.
Khoeiniha, who also has a history of working with student alumni groups further said, “I very seriously doubt that this plan will provide the regime with its goals and needs. Just as they failed in their programs and plans regarding TV satellite receivers and the Internet. Today’s world does not allow dictators to do this and people’s organizations and the NGOs will take shape outside the official realm and continue their work unofficially which will bring greater harm to the regime.” He also said that these policies and programs were unconstitutional and so civil organizations should file law suits in law courts.
In the Majlis, this bill had been rejected earlier, but now some of its provisions have already been passed in committee. “Discussions over this issue have been going on since 2006, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office and embarked on his anti-democracy agenda. In 2010 the bill came up for the second time and was rejected again in the legislature. Even though Majlis’ internal rules state that a bill that is rejected cannot be put on the agenda again for six months, pro-Ahmadinejad MPs and security officials imposed the issue to be put on the agenda again,” he said.