Nation & World

Iranian rights abuses systemic

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Human rights activists speak at conference

“Iran has a constitution and specific laws that on closer scrutiny turn out not to be laws at all, because they can be interpreted in any way to the advantage of the rulers.”

That is the judgment on his homeland that Mohsen Sazegara, Iranian human rights activist and now a fellow at Harvard Law School, presented Friday (April 27).

He went on, “The rulers can undertake any transgression against the rights of citizens and against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the guise of upholding the law.”

Sazegara spoke at a conference sponsored by the University Committee on Human Rights Studies to explore the current state of human rights in Iran. He and other presenters gave a very dark picture. It wasn’t without some significant silver linings, though — even at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran that put activists within Iran in a precarious position.

Sazegara also articulated what Stephen Marks, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights in the Faculty of Public Health and the organizer of the conference, called “the profound issue of the fundamental incompatibility of Islam, as interpreted by the Islamic Republic, and human rights.”

To make Islamic law compatible with international human rights would take nothing less than “redefining what it means to be human,” asserted Sazegara, who initially supported the Islamic revolution but soon became disillusioned and who has spent several years in prison as a result.

In an Islamic state, he said, “there is no way to have human rights, a standard of human rights, unless you come out and redefine the human being, and accept modern rationality and modern reason, and then you will have another sharia.”

This isn’t a problem only in Iran, Sazegara said. The new constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted pointedly, insist that no law can be made in conflict with Islamic law.

Without such a rethinking and a coming to terms with modernity, Sazegara said, Islamic law “means they have to execute anyone who converts his religion from Islam; they can’t have any equality for men and women; it means they have to stone everyone who commits adultery.”

Despite this grim analysis, several of the eight presenters identified grounds for hope and practical approaches to engaging the government for positive change.

Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch described several branches of Iranian civil society as fairly active — notably women’s rights organizations, writers’ and journalists’ organizations, and a resurgent labor movement.

The position of women is more advanced than a straight reading of the law would suggest, he said. And women are better off trying to redress specific grievances — under-representation in the universities, for instance, given that 65 percent of those who pass entrance exams are women — than defending “human rights” in the abstract.

Iran is a member of or signatory to a number of different international organizations or conventions, and several presenters suggested that these could provide useful channels.

Heba El Shazli, director of the Middle East and North Africa department of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, reported that the bus drivers of Tehran have joined the International Transport Federation. “That is a very important step.” She also noted that the Iranian government has asked for technical assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO). This request, she said, represents an opportunity to seek quid pro quo.

At the end of the conference, Marks identified several “areas where our energies could be applied” to further the cause of human rights in Iran:

  • Harvard support for “tamizdat” publishing for the Iranian expatriate community. A takeoff on “samizdat,” the self-publishing of the former Soviet bloc, “tamizdat” is “publishing over there, ‘on the outside.’” The idea is that writing published this way would eventually seep back into Iran itself. One particular theme: rethinking the compatibility of human rights and Islam.
  • Use of the channels provided by Iran’s ratification of the U.N. Convention Against Discrimination in Education to lodge protests and file grievances. “There might be some traction to be made there,” Marks said, adding that Iranian participation in UNESCO also provides similar channels in the scientific and cultural realm.
  • Use of channels provided by Iran’s participation in the ILO and the Convention on Rights of the Child.
  • A media campaign within the United States to urge a return to diplomatic relations with Iran, to get the ear of the foreign policy advisers of the various presidential candidates, and above all to make plain that U.S. government support for Iranian human rights activists is the kiss of death.
  • Efforts to reach out to non-Western organizations. Marks said while he did not expect governments of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to turn against Iran, “There are other ways to broaden the message to human rights organizations that are not so clearly identified with their headquarters in New York or London or Paris.”