Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee, good afternoon.
I'd like to begin by thanking you for the opportunity to appear before the committee. I'm sorry that I can't be there in Ottawa with you, in person.
For more than 10 years, I have been reporting on human rights issues in Iran, and while many things have changed, much has stayed the same. However, we are now at a crucial point in the relationship between Iran and the international community, making this a perfect opportunity for Canada to revisit its policy on Iran to determine whether and how restoring diplomatic ties with the country would improve the human rights situation for Iranians.
I will reflect today on whether and how Canada should restore diplomatic relations with Iran in order to advance the cause of human rights. I will begin with a short summary of the current conflict to shed some light on this complex question.
As you're aware, on July 14, 2015, the P5+1 concluded the joint comprehensive plan of action in Vienna to resolve the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. This was made possible by the pragmatic shift in the foreign policy of Iran, beginning with the presidency of Mr. Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
Under his more divisive predecessor, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relations with Iran were defined by threats of war and punitive economic sanctions on the nuclear issue. The willingness to compromise on the nuclear issue reflects the cost-benefit calculus of self-preservation. The regime needs international engagement to survive. It struck a bargain because it had no choice.
This rapprochement has certain benefits. For one thing, it has reduced the threat of war. The violent disintegration of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of armed conflict. The nuclear bargain has also given ordinary Iranians hope that the lifting of sanctions may improve their difficult living standards, just as they suffer from hyper-corruption and economic mismanagement.
The pragmatists understand that they must produce results for the people in order to keep the hard-liners at bay. The regime has not forgotten the Green Movement of 2009. Although it was brutally crushed, it signalled a seismic shift in Iranian popular consciousness. Just beneath the surface of authoritarianism, there is a significant fragmentation of power among political elites and, more important, a vibrant youthful population and civil society clamouring for change. These forces cannot be repressed indefinitely.
Among bad options, a gradual non-violent political transition is still the least bad option for the future of both Iran and the region. Having said that, there should be no illusion that strategic concessions in foreign policy would immediately translate into improvements in the human rights situation.
The pragmatists are not reformists. They are skilful at the double-talk of telling western audiences one thing while continuing business as usual at home. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center reports that in 2015, the same year as the nuclear accord, there were 966 executions, an increase of 34% over the previous year. This spike in capital punishment occurred at the same time as Iran's diplomatic charm offensive; so did the escalation of atrocities against civilians in Syria, in which the IRGC and Hezbollah have played a vital role.
In their eagerness to reap commercial profits, some of the Europeans have hastily swept human rights concerns under the carpet. There are lucrative deals to be made, but those who would only think of money without ethical concerns should think twice about doing business in a country in which anyone can be arbitrarily imprisoned.
Consider the case of Siamak Namazi, a respected Iranian American businessman and vocal opponent of sanctions who was imprisoned in October 2015 on baseless charges. To add insult to injury, his 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, was also arrested in February of 2016. It seems that dual nationals are particularly attractive bargaining chips for the Iranian regime.
Canada must consider renewed relations with Iran with its eyes wide open. In particular, there's a danger that the diplomatic pendulum will now swing from belligerence to appeasement. In that regard, the resumption of diplomatic ties is an important bargaining chip that Canada should not easily throw away. Canada is important for the Islamic republic's political elite, and not just for international legitimacy. Many regime insiders have both their families and their investments in Canada. Canada benefits from this immense flight of capital. It also benefits from the massive brain drain of highly skilled young Iranians who leave in search of opportunity.
With such a significant Iranian community, Canada has a special moral responsibility to speak truth to power, at the very least.
We should not forget that many Canadian Iranians are deeply affected by these abuses. In fact, today is the fifth anniversary of the execution of two brothers, Mohammad and Abdullah Fathi Shoorbariki, aged 27 and 29 when they were put to death, apparently on political grounds. Their mother, Ms. Mahvash Alasvandi, lives in Toronto, mourning the loss of her children every day. The suffering is right here in our own midst in Canada.
In this context, while there may be good reason for Canada to cautiously begin engagement with Iran, the resumption of diplomatic ties is a bargaining chip that can only be used once. Since the Islamic Republic of Iran is so good at bargaining, what will Canada get out of giving Iran what it so eagerly seeks? Of course, Iranian Canadians need consular services and Canada needs to play the geopolitical game in the volatile region of the Middle East, but is there also room to extract concessions from Iran on the human rights front?
I will begin with the notorious case of Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian resident awaiting his citizenship when he visited his ailing father in Iran in October 2008. He was imprisoned on baseless charges and has endured eight years of abuse in the infamous Evin prison. Surely, Canada can demand his release as a precondition for diplomatic re-engagement. Yesterday, Saeed's sister, Maryam, living in Vancouver, sent me the following message:
The only hope we have for Saeed's release is the Canadian government. I would like for them to ensure that Saeed's release is a pre condition for reestablishing relations with the Iranian government. If the Canadian government doesn't push for Saeed's release, I can't see the Iranian authorities releasing him.
What a powerful message it would send to Iran if Canada demanded the release of Mr. Malekpour.
I would also like to mention here the case of the Baha'i religious minority. This community is the canary in the mine shaft for human rights in Iran. As the regime's scapegoat of choice, Baha'is are vilified through a steady stream of hate propaganda as American spies, Zionist agents, Russian imperialists, Wahhabis, satanists, promiscuous drug dealers, and every other conceivable evil in the fertile imagination of Iran's demonologists. More simply, they're deemed wayward infidels and systematically denied basic human rights. Putting an end to the persecution has emerged as the litmus test for equal rights in Iran.
I should mention here the case of the seven Baha'i leaders who were arrested on May 14, 2008, exactly eight years ago this past Saturday. They were sentenced to 10 years for baseless crimes of espionage and insulting Islam and the like.
It is a sign of the times that human rights icon, Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh has joined forces with the eminent Shia Ayatollah Masoumi Tehranito call for their release.
One of the prisoners is Ms. Fariba Kamalabadi. Her daughter was 13 years of age when Ms. Kamalabadi was first arrested. She had to watch from behind bars as her daughter graduated, then married, then became a mother. Just recently Ms. Kamalabadi was given a short leave. She was visited by her former cellmate, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Iran's powerful former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Her visit was a matter of acute controversy. It was covered, apparently favourably, by the Islamic republic's television news. This is an unprecedented rebuttal to the hate-mongering of the past, yet at the same time there have been mass arrests of Baha'is elsewhere in the country, and many have been subject to torture.
In these circumstances if Iran wants diplomatic relations, could Canada call for the release of the seven Baha'i leaders as a gesture of goodwill?
These contradictory forces are a stark illustration of the past and future of Iran. Just as a new political space of reconciliation and shared humanity emerges, the fanatics and hard-liners desperately cling onto their old ways through hatred and violence.
As Canada pursues its policy of principled pragmatism, or what Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion called “responsible conviction”, we should ensure that we are on the right side of history. The political elite of the Islamic republic are only one part of the picture; the people of Iran are the more important part. Re-engagement must go hand in hand with moral clarity.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, honourable Chair, and honourable members.
I will begin by thanking the committee for inviting me to contribute to hearings as part of Iran accountability week, and on my work for the UN in investigating the human rights situation in Iran.
In 2011, when I began my mandate, Iran's record of co-operation with UN human rights mechanisms was arguably at an all-time low. Iran was still reeling from the effects of its biggest post-revolution crisis: the post-2009 election protests, which led to the death of peaceful protestors at the hands of security forces and thousands of arrests and convictions following grossly unfair trials. The experience appeared to have emboldened hard-liners' stance against engagement, or as they called it, “interference” by the UN or the international community in the name of “human rights”.
The UN special procedures had been denied country access for six years despite a standing invitation pledging to allow special procedure requests to visit the country, and Iran had the largest number of unanswered communications issued by the special procedures. Despite being a signatory to five international human rights treaties, Iran had not undergone a review by a relevant treaty body in years. At the start of my mandate, the government rarely addressed the allegations in my reports with qualitative information, and instead chose to dismiss them as propaganda and lies.
Now almost six years later we can look to a record of co-operation with UN rights bodies and mechanisms and acknowledge Iran has indeed made some progress toward engagement on this front. It has invited two mandate holders to visit the country in the coming months, undergone reviews by three treaty bodies, and will submit to a review by a fourth treaty body next year. Its rate of response to special procedure communications has improved, including my own. In fact, over the past five years, the quality of the government's response to my reports has improved and now includes substantive information regarding specific allegations.
In addition, the Iranian authorities regularly meet with me in New York and Geneva and have increasingly arranged meetings with other stakeholders, including judges, security forces, and members of civil society, including independent NGOs.
I firmly believe the current course of action taken by the world community has contributed to Iran's reorientation. This includes the UNGA resolution on Iran first tabled by Canada in 2003, after the torture and murder in an Iranian jail of the Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, and the Human Rights Council's decision to return Iran to its agenda in 2011.
Both of these measures have played a unique and vital role in encouraging the authorities in Iran to increase their co-operation with UN human rights mechanisms. Without a doubt, some of this progress in co-operation is a result of internal political changes in the country, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and an administration that has put re-engagement with the international community at the top of its agenda albeit, as Professor Akhavan noted, out of lack of choice.
There is little doubt in my mind that continued international focus on Iran's human rights record has also played an important role in the government's changing behaviour. After all, Iran is a country that cares about its global reputation, and I believe the price of non-cooperation became too high to accept for government officials keen on re-engaging with the world community.
More specifically, when it became obvious to government officials that non-cooperation with my mandate would not prevent me or the UN Secretary General from producing detailed reports alleging serious rights violations in the country, cooler heads, I believe, prevailed and decided to advance a policy of engagement with the international human rights system, even if it meant only to give their side of the story. Even if, as some say, this change is a result of moderates convincing hard-liners in Iran that it makes sense to engage with the UN rights mechanisms in order to ultimately convince the world community that they no longer needed it, it is indisputable that the pressure and focus have resulted in a change in behaviour. If this change continues in a meaningful way, it can save lives.
Last year, 70 members of Parliament tabled a bill, which if approved by the Parliament and the Guardian Council, would reduce the punishment for non-violent drug crimes from death to life imprisonment.
If the bill becomes law, it could reduce execution rates by as much as 65% to 70%. Officials, including judges, who have sentenced non-violent drug offenders to death, cited the increasing number of criticisms from UN human rights bodies regarding execution of drug offenders as a reason that it was necessary for them to rethink the use of the death penalty in Iran. The world community needs to continue supporting these mechanisms because we have not yet seen demonstrable and concrete improvement in the situation in the country on the ground.
Though I applaud the government's increasing engagement with my mandate, I want to stress that Tehran still refuses to allow me into the country to carry out my work.
Perhaps more troubling, people in the country who the government assumes have co-operated with my mandate have been the targets of government reprisals. And although two special procedures have been extended invitations, Iran continues to ignore repeated requests for country access from special procedures that have been trying to visit the country since 2003 to document pressing rights violations. Iran has refused to accept the vast majority of recommendations that member states provided regarding core civil and political rights reforms during the last two rounds of the universal review process conducted as part of the universal peer review process in 2010 and 2014.
More importantly, however, the human rights situation in Iran remains quite grim and requires continuing international attention. Just this morning I heard the grim news that 13 individuals were put to death in Iran, including one public execution. In my last address to the Human Rights Council this past March, I identified some very real challenges Iran faces and must address if there is to be a real improvement in what's happening in the country.
My last report included information regarding a wide range of issues, from the staggering surge in the execution of at least 966 prisoners in 2015, executions that Professor Akhavan referred to just now, the highest rate now in well over 20 years to discriminatory practices against women and girls. The government continues to execute juveniles, fundamental problems with the administration of criminal justice persist, religious and ethnic minorities face persecution and prosecution, and human rights defenders, including journalists, the mainstays in any democracy, continue to face capricious treatment at the hands of the authorities.
In short, much work remains ahead, and I don't believe that now is the time to divert attention away from Iran's human rights record, abandon the support for rights mechanisms, and course of action that have been invested to date, and which may have produced some results.
We must not forget the lessons of the past. In 2002, the mandate of the previous UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Professor Maurice Copithorne, was not renewed. At the time, a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami had just begun his second term. The UN began a dialogue with Iran, and there was much hope that the world community engaging with Iran would improve the public situation, but this didn't happen. Hard-liners in Iran increasingly frustrated Mr. Khatami's reforms, and the political openness that characterized his first four years soon evaporated.
By 2005, the EU’s dialogue ended. Iran stopped granting access to UN procedures, and Iran became ripe for rights abuses perpetrated by members of security forces and the judiciary.
Today as we consider our future engagement, we must reflect on this past and on the sense of the time. We must encourage accountability by applauding progress, demanding accountability, and admonishing non-compliance.
I believe now more than ever it is time for Canada and the world community to work hand in hand to find effective and better ways to engage with Iran on human rights as they look to broaden their political, economic, and cultural engagement with Iran. Increasing engagement with Iran and continued focus on human rights, in my view, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As I've said before, Iran's re-engagement with the world provides a golden opportunity, not just to reach out to world leaders, but also to ensure that businesses and others can also contribute to advancing human rights in the country. But such engagement, partly inevitable as the sanctions regime is wound down, must still proceed with caution, never at the expense of clear, strong, and public support for better human rights protection without which there are no real long-term dividends. Engagement must create more transparency and not obscure the focus and concern for human rights.
I think, as Dr. Shaheed said, it's very important to understand that there is a civil society in Iran, which is an entirely different political space, and that the Canadian government should include in its restoration of diplomatic relations people-to-people diplomacy.
We have in Canada a very large number of Iranian students, for example, and we have different means of trying to influence that growing public space.
I think in that regard, the total isolation of Iran has served the interests of the hard-liners. The more that Iranian civil society is cut off from the rest of the world, the better it serves the interests of hard-liners who want to keep people backwards and disengaged and isolated.
I also want to explain that sometimes symbolic gestures can go a very long way. For example, a delegation from the European Union visited Iran a few months ago and they insisted on meeting with Miss Nasrin Sotoudeh, who I mentioned in my testimony.
She is, if you like, Iran's Nelson Mandela. We had a question about gender discrimination. The biggest heroes of human rights in Iran are women like Shirin Ebadi and Nasrin Sotoudeh. The fact that the delegation insisted on meeting her very seriously irritated the Iranian government, but it sent a signal that these are the rules for re-engagement with the European Union.
I know that within the European Union there is also a big fight now among those who want human rights to be an ingredient and those who want to sweep it under the carpet.
In that sense, Canada can do a lot that may be of a purely symbolic nature, in addition to having programs that reach out to students, labour unions, women's groups, and environmental groups. That's why the gradual opening, if it is skilfully exploited, can actually help empower those progressive forces, which I think will reshape the future of the country.