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Shirin Ebadi: 'A Certain Commitment to Justice'

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian feminist, lawyer, and patriot Shirin Ebadi. (wickenden/Flickr)

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian feminist, lawyer, and patriot Shirin Ebadi. (wickenden/Flickr)

You have said elsewhere that, "The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, too, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam." How do you understand the difference between culture and religion?

Culture is more deep-rooted than religion. Several factors combine to constitute the culture of a nation, one of which is religion. Like any other ideology, religion is open to interpretation. It is the culture of a society that offers its own interpretation of what religion should constitute. For instance, there have been various interpretations of socialism: was the former Soviet Union administered in the same manner as China considering they both followed a similar ideology? Is Cuba administered the same way as Albania was under socialism?

Therefore interpretations of an ideology or religion (including Islam) are not specific to any one society. Any ideology is open to various interpretations.

In the present global dispensation, there seems to be greater emphasis placed on civil and political rights rather than on economic and social rights. Why is this the case and how, if at all, would you like to see this change?

Human rights are indivisible. Mankind needs all these rights. Freedom without social justice is useless, and social justice is useless in the absence of individual freedoms. Human rights in its entirety is required for an individual.

In the context of large - and in some cases, increasing - inequalities between and within states, how can human rights be guaranteed? In other words, do you think structural change at the global or national level may be necessary before every human being can be granted some measure of dignity and freedom?

Yes, organizations like the UN and the World Bank need restructuring. For example, when the right to veto is granted in the Security Council, is it possible to talk of democracy at a global level? This means that if all the countries of the world are on one side and only one of the five permanent members of the Security Council is on the other side and chooses to exercise its veto power, it can override the will of the rest of the world.

To take another example, when the World Bank offers loans to undemocratic countries, it is an injustice to the people of those countries. Look at how much, in terms of loans, Saddam Hussein may have received during his time in power. Now, with Saddam Hussein overthrown, it is the people of Iraq who have to repay these debts. I deem it necessary to stress that for the majority of the time that Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraq was favored by the United States, and it was through the support of the United States that Iraq was able to receive loans from the World Bank. And now the people of Iraq are left with millions of dollars in debt. Saddam Hussein is not the only dictator who received such loans. This has unfortunately happened in many parts of the world. Therefore it is very important not to offer any form of support to countries that are undemocratic and violate human rights.

What impact do you think the war on terrorism has had on human rights globally?

The war on terrorism is a legitimate fight and must be carried out. However it should not become an excuse for violating human rights. Fighting for human rights should be within the framework of the United Nations. At the same time, terrorists should be arrested and prosecuted. But given the large number of terrorists that have already been arrested and prosecuted, have we been able to mitigate terrorism or its impacts? Obviously not. The reason is that prosecuting terrorists alone is not sufficient. One must approach terrorism by addressing its root causes. Terrorism emanates from two basic sources: one is in prejudice. Prejudice results from ignorance and the lack of education. If we seek to eradicate illiteracy globally, we are in fact taking steps to control and fight terrorism. The second root of terrorism is injustice. We must seek to reduce the sources of injustice in the world. If these two root causes are taken away, we will surely be able to get rid of terrorism as well.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.