March 4, 2014 | Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

The Human Rights Situation in Iran

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before you today and to address a subject that, in my view, deserves more attention than it currently receives in the international debate over Iran.

For a number of years now, the international community has understandably sought to persuade the Islamic Republic of Iran to comply with its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Within the context of these negotiations, the UN Security Council has adopted six chapter 7 resolutions condemning Iran's refusal to abide by its responsibilities under the treaty, including four resolutions introducing sanctions against the regime's proliferating efforts and a number of its senior military leaders and nuclear scientists. UN sanctions have been gradually expanded by western countries, with significant legislation passed by the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and others. These measures have targeted the Iranian energy sector, Iran's oil and petrochemical exports, Iran's shipping and banking sectors, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the entity within the regime responsible for Iran's proliferating efforts.

Since the Islamic Republic unleashed a new wave of repression against its internal opposition following the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections, western countries have also begun to target Iran's regime on account of its human rights violations. These measures have focused mainly on designating individuals involved in the repression, imposing travel bans on them, and freezing their assets abroad. Some countries, however, have been reluctant to make their human rights agenda beyond these measures an integral part of the strategy used to confront Iran.

Underlying this reluctance is the conviction voiced privately by some western diplomats that Iran needs reassurances that sanctions and negotiations over Iran's nuclear program are not aimed at toppling the regime, in order to be persuaded to negotiate in good faith. But Iranian opposition figures have criticized this approach. For example, Iran's dissident film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf was quoted by Time Magazinein November 2009 as having said during a visit to Washington, D.C., that “the West should not trample on the green movement by fully embracing Iran's regime if it eventually reverses course on nuclear talks”.

More than two years later, the challenge for western democracy seeking to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions remains the same, how to balance the desire to reach an agreement with the regime over its nuclear ambitions with the western commitment to universal human rights.

In order to address this dilemma, one must start from the basic facts of Iran's repressive regime and its abysmal human rights record. According to Freedom House, Iran remains a deeply repressive political system. Its 2011 freedom score, both on political freedoms and civil liberties, was six on a scale of one to seven, where one is the freeest and seven the least free. Iran fared better than only a handful of countries, including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Sudan.

According to Freedom House reports,

Opposition politicians and party groupings have faced especially harsh repression since the 2009 presidential election, with many leaders–including former lawmakers and cabinet ministers–facing arrest, prison sentences, and lengthy bans on political activity.

Restrictions on political freedom in Iran are pervasive, with limitations on freedom of expression, bans on media coverage for specific topics or events, widespread monitoring of Internet and telephone communications, jamming of foreign Farsi broadcasts, and a strict control on local media output, including the banning of hundreds of publications since the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of the Islamic Republic. In 2010 Iran held the world record in the number of jailed journalists, with 37 behind bars, according to Freedom House.

Iran restricts freedom of religion as well. While some religious minorities are recognized and granted limited freedom to worship without interference, there are important restrictions in place. Non-Muslims are barred from missionary work, although their communities are subject to constant pressure to embrace Islam. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death in Iran. Recognized religious minorities are denied equal political rights. They can only be represented by a set number of MPs inside the Majlis, but do not participate in the elections as equals.

Other groups, meanwhile, suffer varying degrees of discrimination and persecution. Sunni Iranians are discriminated in practice, for example. Bahá’i and Sufi Muslims are actively persecuted. The Bahá’í community particularly is very vulnerable. Their leadership has been rounded up and jailed in a political trial on trumped-up charges of espionage. Students are denied access to public education. Their shrines have been subject to growing attacks in recent years.

The house of Bab, one of the key figures in the Baha’i faith, was razed to the ground by the Islamic Republic as early as 1981. Cemeteries were desecrated over the years, and the house of the father of the Baha'ullah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, was destroyed in June 2004.

The systematic destruction of the Baha’i cultural heritage in Iran is continuing. This community of 300,000 people is increasingly under pressure, and has no real means to redress its grievances at home.

A similar fate has befallen ethnic minorities inside Iran, nearly half the country's population. The regime has aggressively pursued its war against Jundallah in Iranian Baluchistan. It has used military force against Kurdish separatists, while jailing and persecuting leaders and activists of the non-violent Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, whose late leaders were murdered by Iranian assassins in Vienna in 1989 and Berlin in 1992.

Iranian Arab activists and leaders in Kurdistan were targeted by arbitrary arrests in late 2011. Azeris, meanwhile, are still denied the right to conduct education in their language.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to come after civil rights, punishing dissidents, NGOs, activists, and human rights lawyers for their attempts to mitigate the regime's grip on individual freedom. It also silences dissent through proxy harassment by intimidating and persecuting relatives of dissidents as a way to silence criticism.

Cultural life is also targeted. Film productions and literary works are subjected to severe censorship. Foreign books and other cultural artifacts are subject to strict controls that sometimes lead to comical situations, such as the banning of Barbie doll imports and, more recently, the dolls of the American satirical cartoon sitcom The Simpsons.

It is understandable that human rights would not be an integral part of international efforts to persuade Iran to stop its quest for nuclear weapons. After all, compliance with the NPT has nothing to do with the regime's nature as an NPT signatory. Besides, key countries in the international community's efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions include member states of the UN like China and Russia, whose records on human rights are not much better than Iran's.

Regardless, the nature of the Iranian regime has something to do with the severity of the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to the regional order. A regime that so ruthlessly brutalizes its own citizens, while pursuing hegemonic nuclear and regional ambitions, should not be trusted to grow responsible once it acquires nuclear weapons.

Secondly, Iran is believed to seek nuclear weapons to enhance the chances for the regime to survive. A policy designed to threaten its internal stability would be expedient, because it would create the impression that unless Iran negotiates a way out of its nuclear program, the west will actively try to depose the regime. It would also be principled. Given that western countries were able to engage the Soviet Union while promoting the plight of its dissidents during the Cold War, it should be possible to do both when it comes to Iran as well.

What can be done? Human rights lend themselves to higher-ground diplomacy. Largely symbolic measures will not overthrow the regime, but will no doubt embarrass Tehran at a time when its rulers feel vulnerable.

Here, Canada's leadership deserves credit. Your decision to restrict engagement with Iran to a limited number of subjects that are human rights-related is remarkable. Canada is not the only country that saw its citizens brutally assaulted in prison, tortured, and killed by this regime on account of their Iranian origins. Other countries should look to your principled decision as an example to emulate and as evidence that a government can pursue diplomacy on the nuclear file and stand up for its own principles on human rights.

Symbolic measures, of course, when presented to the public in conjunction with the reasons for their implementation, may also have an adverse, if indirect, effect on trade, as increased exposure of Iran's dismal behaviour discourages business from investing in a highly volatile environment, especially if there are reputational risks added.

Human rights lend themselves to such higher-ground diplomacy. Criticizing the regime openly would not be useless if it created an embarrassment for Tehran, focused public attention on Tehran's true nature, and helped isolate Iran on the international stage.

For all these reasons, many western countries—Canada first—should consider adopting a number of symbolic measures. I'd be happy to elaborate on these in the Q and A period. If I read out the list of all my suggestions, I think I would take up our entire time.

Let me add one last point, about the value of human rights sanctions, beyond the symbolic.

Western countries should also take a look at legislation adopted to impose sanctions against egregious violators of human rights, like the Republic of Myanmar under the military junta. The European Union, in this sense, provides a useful precedent that should be contemplated by countries like Canada as they develop their own tools to sanction human rights violations by the Iranian regime.

With regard to Myanmar, the EU adopted a council regulation in May 2006, which included a new range of restrictions. I quote from the legislation:

…a ban on technical assistance, financing and financial assistance related to military activities, a ban on the export of equipment which might be used for internal repression, the freezing of funds and economic resources of members of the Government of Burma/Myanmar and of any natural or legal persons, entities or bodies associated with them, and a prohibition on making financial loans or credits available to, and on acquiring or extending a participation in, Burmese state-owned companies.

The EU has denied any financial advantage to commercial organizations and individuals involved in the repressive acts of the regime, even if the specified items bore no immediate relation to human rights abuses and denial of freedom in Myanmar. Though companies and governments might object to such a blanket restriction in the case of Iran, these measures could be contemplated for other areas, such as Iran's refineries, metallurgy sectors, automotive industries, and so on.

Most Iranian companies involved in these fields, it bears noting, are owned by the state, if not altogether by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

There are, then, compelling reasons to impose sweeping trade restrictions on a country whose record of human rights abuses is egregious, and there is ample justification for applying the Myanmar precedent to Iran.

The EU regulation I just mentioned states that the restrictive measures in this regulation “are instrumental in promoting respect for fundamental human rights and thus serve the purpose of protecting public morals”. The new restrictive measures target sectors that provide sources of revenue for the military regime of Burma/Myanmar, and target practices that are incompatible with the European Union principle.

I think that—and this is really my last point—considering the targeting of companies that provide profit and revenue to the state and to the IRGC, regardless of whether they're linked to proliferating efforts, should be an integral part of the strategy adopted by western countries to confront Iran.

It is a model worth expanding, particularly as so much of the Iranian economy is controlled by the IRGC, and so much of the activities of the IRGC have to do with promoting and advancing proliferating efforts while ensuring that the regime maintains a tight grip on ordinary Iranians and their freedoms.

Thank you.