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Political Salon: Human Rights in Iran

By Elizabeth Dovell

The 2009 Iranian election protests marked an undeniable turning point within the Islamic Republic. The regime continues its repressive measures against its own citizens, and the question of what the international community should do remains. Has the United States and the European Union turned their backs on the Green Revolution, missing a golden opportunity to induce positive change in Iran?

World Policy Institute and CDS International co-hosted a Political Salon on Monday, November 15 concerning the human rights situation in Iran and what role, if any, the international community should play in this hot-button issue.  The panel, moderated by Sebastian Gräfe of Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, included Barbara Lochbihler, German Member of the European Parliament and head of the EU’s Iran Delegation in the European Parliament, and Geneive Abdo, WPI fellow and Iran analyst at The Century Foundation.

The Iran-U.S. advisory group, organized by The Century Foundation’s insideIRAN project, Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, and the National Security Network, commenced its second meeting last summer in Brussels, bringing together European and American diplomats, Iranian academics, and former Iranian government officials who have defected to the opposition. In introducing Iranian activists to U.S. and E.U. policymakers, the advisory group provided a beneficial forum in which policymakers could glean firsthand information from activists.

 The group discussed the grave human rights situation in Iran, and exchanged ideas for what measures the United States and the European Union should take. A former Iranian diplomat who defected in January encouraged Western diplomats to discuss the human rights situation with Iranian diplomats, as the nuclear issue often dominates diplomatic dialogue.

The conclusions of the Iran-U.S. advisory group were presented in the Boell & Century Foundation's policy paper “Placing Human Rights Violations in Iran on Top of the Foreign Policy Agenda” by Genieve Abdo and Sebastian Gräfe. 

Ms. Abdo and Ms. Lochbihler echoed the paper’s sentiments during Monday's panel: Iran is indeed sensitive to the international community’s opinion on its human rights abuses, a fact that can be advantageous to the US and the EU. Both panelists emphasized the importance of pinpointing specific violations, promoting the efforts of the opposition, and combating any language in which Iran may imply that the West is meddling in human rights cases for the purpose of toppling the regime; Iran’s government may point to the Iranian Revolution as an example of this.

The panel agreed that it is essential for the U.S. and the E.U. to make a collective effort to bring human rights violations to light, and voice their support of Iranian civil society. President Obama has taken such positive steps as issuing an executive order in September 2010 sanctioning eight individuals the U.S. has identified as war criminals. Iran’s Green Movement greatly benefits from international recognition and support in the face of government oppression.

Since the June 2009 election that ensured President Ahmadinejad’s power, the Iranian government has taken such measures to crush dissidents as dissolving social networks they deem a threat to the regime, monitoring and punishing those in the media and academia who express dissent, and abolishing down civic organization such as students groups and women’s rights groups.

Additionally, the regime has been proactive in pursuing preventative measures to combat dissidents, such as stifling non-government administered media broadcast and using “soft tools” such as cracking down on other technological forms of communication such as cellular phones and the Internet. Keeping the public in the dark is yet another method of controlling the population

Iran has stringent policies concerning how many journalists can enter the country at a time, and keeps strict track of every bit of media coverage concerning Iran- yet another example of their domination and heavy monitoring of the media.

Thousands of Iranian citizens have been thrown into jails, victims of unspeakable acts of torture. From online bloggers to members of religious minority leaders, the regime has extended the same harsh treatment to all. 

The preservation of documentation and evidence of torture is vital in supporting Iran’s citizens. The U.S. and E.U. must assist activists and lawyers to preserve this evidence for future legal procedures.

Ms. Lochbihler maintained that it is too early to see empirical developments in Iran but is looking forward to further progress.

An entire section of the report is devoted to the issue of Iranian refugees in Turkey. The number of Iranian civilians fleeing their country- legally and illegally- for neighboring Turkey has increased, partially because Turkey has no state asylum law. Refugees have received less than a warm welcome, as certain minorities within the refugee groups such as LGBT refugees are being attacked. The application process for political asylum may take years, and many refugees have become stuck in Turkey with no options for employment. While the U.S. helping them to resettle, the E.U. has been more resistant.

According to Ms. Abdo and Mr. Gräfe’s report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is working on reducing the time period asylum applications generally take.

Ms. Lochbihler identified the three areas of recommendation at which the group arrived:

1.Monitor and Highlight Iran’s Human Rights Violations

2.Support the Rights and Needs of Iranian Refugees

3. Increase Assistance to NGOs that Support Iranian Civil Society

The U.S. and the E.U. must cooperate on the issue in order to produce the most effective policy responses. “Each side of the Atlantic thinks the other is doing much better in terms of the issue,” said Mr. Gräfe.

Since a military attack on Iran is unlikely at present, it would be more beneficial to offer support to the social movement. “Real transformation has to come from inside Iran,” claimed Ms. Lochbihler.

Photo of Iranians in Chicago protesting the election results, via Flickr courtesy of JSissonPhoto.

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