October 14, 2015 | The Canadian Jewish News

Sanctions Targeting Iranian Human Rights Abusers are Right, Not Radical

On September 23rd, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson announced that the Conservatives, if re-elected, would amend the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) to include gross human rights abuses as new grounds for Canadian sanctions against foreign states, entities and individuals. Whoever forms the next federal government should implement this sound policy to target Tehran’s egregious human rights violations. It is entirely consistent with the positions of all three major federal political parties and with Canada’s historical stance vis-à-vis Iran.  

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that Canada and Iran have only had full diplomatic relations for six of the last thirty-five years. Numerous Iranian misdeeds have accumulated to produce today’s animosity. The Canadian Caper, in which Canada orchestrated the rescue of American embassy personnel during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, closed the door on Canada-Iran relations for a decade. An attempt at rapprochement in the early 1990s was short lived. By 1996, Canada had introduced a Controlled Engagement Policy, imposing significant limitations on interactions between the two countries.

The Canadian government tightened these limitations further after the brutal torture, rape and murder of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi by Iranian officials in 2003. By 2005, Canadian interaction with Iran was restricted to discussions on human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, and the Kazemi case, with visits or exchanges by Iranian officials to Canada prohibited. In 2007, the two countries stopped exchanging ambassadors. In 2012, Canada suspended all diplomatic relations with Iran.

In recent years, Ottawa has taken some significant steps to curtail Iran’s nuclear proliferation and sponsorship of terrorism. Measures have included imposing SEMA sanctions on Tehran for its illicit nuclear program; designating the regime as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act; and listing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force as a proscribed terrorist entity. 

Perhaps the broadest consensus across the three major federal parties when it comes to Iran pertains to domestic repression. For in addition to sowing death and destruction abroad, Iran boasts one of the worst human rights records at home. The Islamic Republic has the world’s highest per capita execution rate, with no compunction about executing minors. Homosexuals and ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted. Journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders are imprisoned. Women are stoned to death for adultery.

It is therefore fitting that Canada introduces a resolution every year on the human rights situation in Iran at the United Nations General Assembly, ensuring that the international body, which is all too often biased against liberal democracies like Israel, maintains a focus on Iran for its myriad crimes. Partnering with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, the Canadian government also has been involved in assisting Iranian human rights activists to evade online censorship. However, more can and should be done.

In June 2014, the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights adopted a motion with the unanimous backing of the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, which supported the introduction of targeted SEMA sanctions “against the major Iranian human rights violators complicit in the massive assaults on human rights.” This is an idea whose time has come.

Sanctions alone will not solve the Iranian human rights problem, but they can make a difference. Economic sanctions and international condemnation generated enough pressure to bring Tehran to the negotiating table on the nuclear file. The regime must now be convinced that their human rights abuses will be closely monitored and met with a tangible response.

Iran’s blatant disregard for human rights has long been at the centre of strained relations between Ottawa and Tehran. Canada should continue its decades-old leadership role in confronting Iran’s ongoing crimes – no matter which party forms the next government later this month.  Imposing sanctions on countries like Iran that systemically abuse the basic rights of their citizens is a morally and historically appropriate course of action.

 Sheryl Saperia is Director of Policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @sherylsap


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