Interview with Human Rights Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari

Access to adequate housing in Iran is fraught with difficulties. Iran is riddled with earthquake fault lines and prone to severe droughts. The burgeoning population, coupled with massive population migration from rural to urban areas has resulted in a surge in demand for housing.

The UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, recently spent 12 days travelling through several Iranian provinces gathering information for a report.

His mandate included the examination of issues related to the rights of ethnic minorities, women, property evictions and land tenure. During his mission, Kothari met with a range of representatives from governmental and non-governmental bodies. These included senior officials from several ministries, national institutions such as the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS), members of the judiciary and lawyers dealing with disadvantaged groups.

At the end of his mission, Mr Kothari spoke to IRIN in Tehran about his preliminary findings.

QUESTION: What are your impressions of the overall housing and land rights situation in rural and urban Iran?

ANSWER: Since the revolution there has been significant improvement in terms of access to water, sanitation, electricity and support for building. And there has been an attempt in the government, both at the level of different ministries and different organisations - like the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, the Welfare Organisation, the Housing Foundation and the Housing Bank - to improve access to housing and civic services. And say, in comparison to other developing countries, the overall situation, if you look at the number of homeless people or number of people living in slums, is definitely better.

But this has to be taken in a very qualified way because what I noticed in the visits to different provinces and the interviews that we conducted is that there are a number of groups in Iran that have suffered disproportionately in terms of access to these services. I'm talking about the Kurds, the Arabs, the Laks, and the Nomads. It's very disturbing that these groups have not benefited proportionately in the same way as the rest of the Iranian population. I think this is very striking.

For example, when you visit Ahwaz [in the western Iranian province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq] in terms of the very adverse conditions in the neighbourhoods, there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections. I think that the kind of question that arises is, why is that? Why have certain groups not benefited? In addition to this there are a couple of other problems that come up. Again in Khuzestan, you notice that we drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000 - 250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects. And the question that comes up in my mind is, why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations? I asked the officials, I asked the people we were with. And there is other land in Khuzestan where projects could have been placed which would have minimised the displacement.

The third issue in Khuzestan, which is very disturbing, is that there is an attempt being made by the government to build new towns and bring in new people from other provinces. For example, there is the new town of Shirinshah where most of the people being brought into that town are people from Yazd province [in central Iran] - non-Arabs. So the question then is that these people who are being brought there, perhaps for work and lots of incentives, why is it that those jobs are not going to the locals?

Another point in Khuzestan is that from these deprived neighbourhoods you can actually see the towers of the oil refineries and the flares and all of that money, which is a lot, and it is going out of the province. Even a small percentage would significantly improve things in terms of development.

Q: Can you tell me more about your findings of the state of housing and land rights of minorities and other groups in Iran?

A: There are three groups that face discrimination regarding housing and land rights in Iran. There's discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and there's discrimination against groups that, like the Nomads, have their own category. And the third cuts across all the groups and is against women.

I think that you see, for example in the neighbourhoods we visited in Khuzestan of the Laks, which is a very deprived group, that they are living in conditions of high density, again without access to adequate sanitation and water. And just nearby, you see other neighbourhoods with much better services.

And with the nomads there is a very serious problem that in spite of their significant contribution to the national economy and their long history in the country, there is this non-sensitivity to their lifestyle. There's a kind of looking down upon them, that they should settle down and be like everyone else. There are attempts being made to actually grab land, to confiscate land that is on their migratory path and where they settle for short times and there isn't a system in place where their products could be brought to the market or where health and education services could be offered to them which wouldn't be very difficult. I think in much of the land where they are, there is a lot of space. So again there's this question. Why is it that development is taking place where they are? Or on the lands which they need?

There are, in addition to the groups I've mentioned, also individuals. You find elderly women, women-headed households, orphans, street-children, families of prisoners who nobody is looking after. There are lots of people whose needs are not being met and the needs that are being met are not sufficient. For example the pension that elderly women would get every three or four months is hardly anything compared to their expenses. So there is a need to make two kinds of assessments. One assessment is where the services are not reaching or not regular and there you have to look at quantity and quality. So you say in a certain region 80 percent of people are receiving water - but are they really? Is it 24 hours? How long is it that they are not getting it? And then there's a question of quality. Is it potable, is it enough for people to live on from a human rights perspective?

And the second assessment is of individuals that are being left out, so you still have destitute women you see in Tehran and street women and you have this enormous problem, which is quite shocking to me, that there are no safe houses, no shelters where women can go.

Another step that is necessary is for the government to admit the problems, which you find is not so common with the officials. There's a general glossing over things, of either saying, 'we don't have these problems' or, of passing the buck. When we talked, for example, to the Tehran municipality about deprived people, they said 'that's not us, that is the Ministry of Housing, or the Ministry of Social Welfare.'

So what happens is that people fall in between. They don't have anywhere to go. That's the first step. Then designing policies, legislations that are based on this recognition. I think if the government was honest and up-front, I think it would be easier for the international community to contribute.

Q: What do you think needs to be done to begin to address the problems you are raising about a lack of access to housing, land and services for these deprived groups?

A: I think that in terms of solutions, what I would recommend first of all, is that it's very important for the government to make an assessment of where the vulnerable groups are, who are the communities - numbers of people, types of problems - that are being left out of the system.

And in spite of this extensive system of industries and other organisations looking at housing and related services, it's clear from everywhere we visited in the country, including Tehran, that there are lots of people who are falling between the cracks, who are essentially not being looked after by the system.

Q: At your press conference, you mentioned the issue of confiscation and land-grabbing. What do you mean by this and how is it happening?

A: There are various kinds of confiscations. One that has been very well documented is the confiscation of the lands of the Bahai's [a religious minority] which has taken place in many different parts of the country, where their lands in villages and lands in cities have been confiscated, including in Tehran.

The second type is more indirect and is related to the example of the nomads I was giving around Shiraz [a city in the southern Fars province] where lands are taken, sub-divided, trees are planted and trees are allowed to die. And then that land is sold to private entities to construct expensive housing. Those are the lands where the nomads used to migrate and have their seasonal homes, and this is done in collusion with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The other kind is, of course from development projects, like the ones I mentioned in Khuzestan, but it's happening in other parts of the country where large development projects, like petrochemical plants, are being built leading to the displacement of entire villages - with thousands of people not consulted on the projects, informed of the impending displacement, nor offered adequate resettlement and compensation. There is a strange system in the country where if the government wants to confiscate land, you can't challenge it. All you can do is to put up some sort of resistance to get good compensation.

We looked in detail in some areas on the issue of compensation and, for example, in Khuzestan the compensation being offered to the Arab villagers who were being displaced is sometimes one fortieth of the market value - and there's nothing they can do about it. It's a fait accompli. That's how it is. And all of these phenomena are continuing. It's something that is happening almost every day.

Q: What are your main concerns regarding women?

A: The main concern is that there is a state of denial regarding women's rights. The country has a very large-scale problem of women not having equal rights to land and property, housing and inheritance. This type of discrimination is built into the civil code and the manner in which courts have interpreted this code. Then there's the additional problem of domestic violence, which is widespread in the country. Again, it's only coming out now but there is no place for women to go and even if there was, there's this whole cultural issue. Would they be separated from their children? Would they be ostracised by society? I think that in terms of the communities I was speaking about that are living in poverty, obviously, the impact is greater on women and that has to be recognised and specific interventions designed to alleviate the suffering and to improve the lives of women.

The other problem that is very clear on women's rights and comes up very sharply, is when you compare the provisions of the civil code with numerous articles of the Iranian constitution and international human rights law.

There is a conflict and I think that conflict has to be resolved. One way of doing it would be to make sure that national law and policy is consistent with the recognition of the equality of women in international human rights law. But even if they don't want to do that, it should be possible as Shirin Ebadi [Iran's Nobel Laureate and human rights lawyer] and others have pointed out, if you take the original teachings of Islam, the Koran and Sharia, there's nothing there that says that it cannot be interpreted to mean that women cannot have equal rights. It's just been interpreted in a different way in the civil code. I think bodies like the Guardian Council and others, including the parliament, which has a significant role to play, could make another interpretation and that needs to be done because it's quite clear that women do not have equal rights.

It's also very clear that women are becoming a little bit more outspoken in society but then the people that are working on women's rights – the lawyers, the activists - are facing a lot of repression. It's very courageous work. Many of the people we spoke to didn't want to be named. And you can make a very long list of women who are suffering from double, triple discrimination - divorced women, destitute women, women who've lost their families, their husbands [for example from the earthquake], women who have husbands who are drug addicts with no income in the family. They have to go and earn a livelihood but there's no place to go.

Q: Is there sufficient access to public housing?

A: There is very little public housing. In fact most of the housing in the country is built by the private sector, a very high percentage. There isn't sufficient public housing. There isn't social housing where rents could be at a minimum level that people could afford.

There are a lot of programmes to help people, for example, in villages, to build their own housing. But again the assumption in all these programmes and the entire national housing finance system is that you have the capacity to save. And then you have the capacity to make a particular down-payment, which a lot of people don't have.

There is also no data, including from the Housing Bank, on the number of people in the country that have no access to housing finance as they are unable to meet, due to their low income levels, the basic criteria of the national housing finance system.

There has to be more control over speculation. Speculation is enormous. Even in Tehran, lots of land is being taken over and expensive housing being built. In north Tehran, so many buildings are empty because even rich people can't afford it! And what happens is that in south Tehran there are lots of people who can't afford the rents and this problem is very striking with young people, newly married or single. They just cannot afford to have a place of their own.

In some areas of Tehran rents are 50 - 70 percent of income, which is way, way above any kind of standards because then what happens is that people have to compromise on food, health and education.

I think at a preventative level in Tehran, the municipality has to be much more careful about where they're allocating land for investment. So what's happening is that a lot of people are investing in land in north Tehran, so you are creating a market, which is not actually necessary.

If there was better planning in the city, there would be much better efforts made in revitalising the central part of the city and developing the southern part. But what's happening right now is that most of the investment is going to the north, which has already created an imbalance and it's going to create more of an imbalance in the future. So if you look at Tehran, if the municipality did an assessment, where are the poor neighbourhoods?

You have these enormous areas on the eastern border of the airport [the 9th district including neighbourhoods like Jay], where there is high density housing. There are a lot of neighbourhoods like that and you begin from that, and you say, okay, we need to improve the conditions here, we need to revitalise this area. In one sense the city is losing its soul, because the whole central area, which should actually be revitalised is not. There are lots of parts which are abandoned at night with problems of crime. So the whole problem is not based on improving the lives of the most deprived, it's based on other priorities.

Q: Thousands of residents of Bam lost their homes after the devastating earthquake in December 2003 razed the city. Most are still homeless. Is enough being done for them?

A: I think that the reconstruction work in the centre of the city, where the maximum damage took place and in the surrounding villages, is quite impressive, both on the efforts being made by the national reconstruction people and the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. That work seems to be proceeding and there's a great deal of technical expertise going into that, but what is disturbing is the situation in the camps. There are still many camps and people have been living there for 18 months. Some of the camps have very serious health conditions, sanitation problems, water problems, people are living in these connexes - containers - and lots of people we spoke to are not sure what their future is.

There is some certainty for people who owned land before but not those who rented homes. And again the point I was making earlier, we talked to many elderly women, disabled women who are not registered, so again that assessment is missing.

Also there's no clarity on how long - is it going to be another year, two years? But overall I think the reconstruction work is quite good.

Q: Given Iran's high risk for earthquakes, are measures being implemented to safeguard homes?

A: I think the plans are quite extensive, both in terms of the assessment they've made [especially the Housing Foundation], in terms of the zones that are going to be affected and statistics on the number of houses that need to be strengthened. Some work has begun; I think the reconstruction work in some of the provinces has already begun. But the main obstacle right now is the funding. I think this is where I do believe the government is sincere and they are making an attempt and this is definitely a place where the international community could assist more.

Q: You have come up with some preliminary recommendations from your mission. Can you summarise these?

A: I welcome the attempts being made by the Iranian state to engage with the international human rights system, including an open invitation to UN Special Rapporteurs to visit Iran.

In this context of the willingness to engage, I have formulated some preliminary recommendations [the full text of the findings can be found at www.ohchr.org] including the need to implement the Iranian constitutional recognition of the right to adequate housing for all Iranians, despite their ethnic or religious origins; to develop policies and legislation, including amending the civil code, to address the equal rights women to housing, land, property and inheritance; to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); to consider policies to intervene in the housing market and to control land and housing speculation; to place special emphasis on the development of historically neglected and poor provinces of the country such as Ilam, Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchistan; to strengthen public participation in development initiatives and recognise the critical role being played by civil society organisations and identify on an urgent basis vulnerable groups and individuals that are being left out of the programmes of access to housing and civic services.

It is also important for the international community to assist Iran in its ambitious attempts to convert all housing in the country to meet earthquake-proof standards; to increase funding to housing projects aimed at uplifting the conditions of groups in vulnerable situations and to increase support to civil society [groups] that are engaged in human rights and community development projects in Iran.