January 30, 2017 | The Hill Times

Using SEMA to advance the Canada-Iran relationship

When Parliament reconvenes on Jan. 30, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development will continue to review the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA). SEMA enables Canada to impose targeted sanctions against a foreign state in response to a decision by an international organization of which Canada is a member, or where a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted or is likely to result in a serious international crisis.

As the study progresses, committee members should take note of S-219, a bill currently being studied by their counterparts in the Senate, which utilizes SEMA to structure a path forward for the Canada-Iran relationship.

Iran is one of several notorious regimes, alongside countries like Syria, Russia, and North Korea, to have been on the receiving end of SEMA sanctions. Although Canada was not a party to the nuclear agreement signed between the P5+1 and Iran, much of Canada’s sanctions architecture was dismantled after the deal was implemented. Bill S-219 focuses on what should happen to those measures that remain in place as the Government of Canada looks to balance holding the Iranian regime to account for its ongoing misconduct with Ottawa’s stated desire for re-engagement.

S-219 would tie the elimination of all current SEMA sanctions targeting Iran to requirements that the regime cease its terrorist activities, end its incitement to hatred of minority groups and its calls for the destruction of Israel, and put a halt to its vast system of domestic repression. Only once improvement is seen in these areas could current sanctions against Iran be eased or lifted. This is similar to the approach taken by the United States in reaching an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, which linked security, economic and human rights issues.

Iran is widely acknowledged as the world’s preeminent sponsor of terror and is formally designated as such in the U.S. and Canada. Iranian officials have been directly implicated in numerous terrorist attacks on multiple continents. Moreover, the IRGC-Quds Force, Hamas and Hezbollah, all listed terrorist entities in Canada, continue to receive billions of dollars of support and direction from Iran.

Iran’s incitement to hatred is defined in the bill as any public comment that incites hatred or contempt against an identifiable group or a member state of the United Nations. It is meant to counter the dehumanizing language the regime employs against minority groups in Iran, such as the Baha’i, as well as the calls to eliminate Israel. The latter actually constitutes a crime under the Genocide Convention. As former justice minister Irwin Cotler has written, combating Iranian incitement is a legal responsibility that Canada, as a State Party to the Genocide Convention, has an obligation to enforce.

The need to address Iran’s human rights abuses is especially acute. The regime tortures inmates as they enter the prison system, with methods including the surgical removal of eyes, hand amputations and flogging. It boasts the world’s highest per capita rate of executions; sentences girls as young as nine to death for minor offences; and persecutes members of the LGBTQ community and religious and ethnic minorities. Also deeply troubling is the regime’s propensity to arrest citizens of Western countries, including Canadians, for crimes like “insulting the sanctity of Islam” and “insulting Iran’s supreme leader,” or in Homa Hoodfar’s case, for “dabbling in feminism and security matters.”

Finally, while the public discourse in the West frequently discusses Russia’s support of the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s role is often overlooked. In the past five years, the Islamic Republic has provided essential funds, soldiers and military advice to boost Assad’s death machine, enabling him to commit war crimes and atrocities that have claimed the lives of nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country—the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.

Bill S-219 offers a concrete and well-calibrated program for balancing the Canadian government’s interest in re-engagement with its concerns regarding, in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words, Iran’s “position of violation of human rights, of nuclear ambitions, and indeed of sponsoring terrorism around the world.” The bill creates a blueprint for bilateral relations to improve by legislating clear and basic benchmarks for appropriate Iranian conduct.

SEMA is highly useful for managing Canada’s relations with foreign states displaying particularly egregious and dangerous behaviour. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development would benefit from examining Bill S-219 in the context of its review of SEMA, and even inviting the bill’s sponsor, Senator David Tkachuk, to share his insights directly with the committee. Iran must remain subject to Canadian sanctions under SEMA until it ceases to pose a grave threat to international peace and security.

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. She recently testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Bill S-219. Follow Sheryl on Twitter @sherylsap.