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Interview with Dr Yousif Mohammad Aziz, Minister for Human Rights
WED, 11 FEB 2009 18:05
Human rights are a focus of the Kurdistan Regional Government's work and one of Prime Minister Barzani's guiding principles. Human Rights Minister Dr Yousif Mohammad Aziz explains to KRG.org the challenges and steps that the KRG is taking to protect and promote human rights.
What are role and responsibilities of the KRG Human Rights Ministry?
Our main responsibilities are the promotion and protection of human rights in the Kurdistan Region, and the observation and follow-up of human rights cases.
In many Western countries, governments do not have human rights ministries. Why did the KRG decide to establish the ministry in 2003?
In fact the UK, for example, does have a minister of state whose remit includes human rights.
Civil society and local human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the Kurdistan Region are not as strong as those in the West and are still evolving. The ministry has the authority and manpower to tackle human rights problems, and can work directly with the Council of Ministers and the Prime Minister to resolve them. Once our civil society and our emerging democracy are as developed as in the West, NGOs should be solely responsible for campaigning for human rights.
What role do local NGOs play in human rights?
Besides the international NGOs, there are a large number of local human rights NGOs in the Kurdistan Region but not all of them are active. We know that effective and active NGOs will help to develop our democracy, so we have made the active local NGOs members of our ministry's advisory board, along with UNAMI and UNICEF.
When we first established it two years ago, the advisory board met monthly and now meets every three months to discuss all human rights issues and concerns. The NGOs have also provided some useful ideas on how to tackle issues related to human rights. Earlier this month on the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, we awarded five local NGOs to recognise their achievements and encourage them in their work.
What are the greatest challenges that the Kurdistan Region face in terms of human rights?
One of our biggest challenges is preventing violence against women. Other challenges are street children and underage labour; terrorism and dealing with terror suspects according to the law. Another challenge is to raise the public's awareness of international human rights laws. I believe that since 1991, we have made some progress in these areas.
What are you doing to prevent and punish violence against women?
We are making great efforts to prevent it and have established at least six mechanisms to deal with it. Every three months the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers meets to devise preventative and judicial policies and monitor progress.
Second, I supervise a committee that includes representatives of the ministries for women, justice, civil society, interior, religion, education and social affairs. We meet every month to define the steps that each of these ministries must take. For example, the Religious Affairs Ministry is responsible for ensuring that clerics and religious figures in their sermons explain that honour crimes and violence against women are anti-Muslim practices.
Third, the Interior Ministry has established a special directorate in Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniah, and hopes to open more in other towns in the Kurdistan Region. These special directorates offer threatened women protection and advice, and work with the ministries of justice, health and human rights to prevent and investigate violence against women.
Fourth, Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniah now each have a Violations Board made up of a general prosecutor, forensic scientist and representatives of the human rights and interior ministries. They ensure that the judicial process is followed properly and rapidly in cases of honour killings and domestic violence.
Fifth, we provide centres and shelters for threatened women who are protected until the threat has been removed, and are helped to find work and return to their communities.
Lastly, we have amended several laws relating to women. Honour killings are now punished as harshly as other killings and are not viewed as 'honourable' under the law. We have also removed old Iraqi laws that allowed men to 'punish' and beat their wives, and changed the law in a way makes it difficult for men to have more than one wife – limiting the practice to only exceptional circumstances.
Are there any statistics on violence against women?
The government statistics show a large increase in the number of women coming forward for protection because of the new specially dedicated directorates and the success of our campaign to raise awareness of the issue. The positive sign is that the number of honour killings is decreasing. Of course the presence of such crimes is still appalling and our aim is to eliminate honour killings altogether, but we are seeing a definite improvement thanks to the multiple strategies we are employing.
What is the KRG doing to protect press freedom?
The media law that was passed in September 2008 is a change in the right direction, as it has completely removed imprisonment as a punishment for libel or slander. The law also refers specifically to journalism standards set out in a paper presented to the UN by the International Federation of Journalists.
What is your view of the courts and judicial system?
One of the biggest problems we face is the judicial system. The courts, judges and general prosecutors need to be reformed and some violations of human rights are even caused by the judicial system. At the celebration the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Prime Minister Barzani said that in 2009 more steps should be taken to improve the rule of law.
What provisions has the KRG made to protect minorities in the Kurdistan Region?
Every minority has seats in the Kurdistan National Assembly, our regional parliament, and have ministerial posts in the cabinet. Minorities have their own schools where they teach in their own language and have full freedom of religion. I believe that minorities enjoy full rights in Kurdistan because we ourselves are a minority in Iraq and are very aware and sympathetic of their needs and rights.
What about the accusations that Kurds are expropriating land from Christians?
If this has happened, it has certainly never ever been a KRG policy. On the contrary, many Christians have moved to Kurdistan from other parts of Iraq for security and protection. If individuals have illegally expropriated land, the courts would look at the deeds and return the property to the rightful owner.
The Kurdistan Region has been threatened by terrorist groups, but it has remained relatively secure and stable thanks to the work of the security forces and police and the cooperation of the public. However, from 2003 many terrorism suspects were detained without charge or trial. What is the KRG doing to tackle this?
Many people - more than 700 - were detained without charge, as at the time  there was no terrorism law under which they could be charged, and there were two administrations in Kurdistan. Since the unification of the two administrations into a unified cabinet in May 2006 and the passage of the anti-terrorism law in July 2006, we have worked hard to solve this problem and from the outset I have personally visited the prisons where they were held and we listened to the opinions of international NGOs. We worked with the Ministry of Justice, Interior Ministry and security forces to solve most of the cases so that from more than 700, now there are just nine held without charge. We are working hard on those nine cases and talking to experts so that none of them are held without charge.
Kurds suffered genocide and we hope this will never happen again to any of the peoples of Iraq. What can the KRG do to ensure that no group is ever targeted again for genocide?
The high court in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament and the Kurdistan National Assembly (parliament) decided that the campaign against the Kurds was genocide. In the 20th Century genocide was perpetrated many times and in different continents, even though each time we said 'never again'. I twice attended the regular session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The Armenian representative at the session prepared a draft UN resolution to take practical action to prevent genocide in the future, and I supported this global initiative. It is also vital to educate people in Iraq and around the world on human rights and the prevention of genocide.
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