Mr. Chairman, honourable Vice-Chair, committee members, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you today about human rights in Iran.
Let me start by first commending the Government of Canada, which year after year has been a leader in the UN General Assembly in denouncing the systematic abuses that the Iranian regime commits against its own citizens. Freedom House applauds that effort, and we pledge to work with the Canadian government, as ever, on that.
We're at a different juncture from that we experienced two years ago. International engagement on Iran's nuclear program has given hope to Iranians that they might emerge from decades-long isolation imposed on them by their own government.
Dialogue and diplomacy should always be welcomed, but they aren't ends in themselves. The talks with Iran have unfortunately coincided with deprioritizing and delinking human rights from the global agenda, when they should instead advance the concerns of the Iranian people and ensure that the world share concerning the regime's repression of its citizens.
Two years ago, in a tense environment, Iranians were deciding whether to vote in another deeply flawed election in their own country. In a courageous move, many returned to the polls in an attempt to shed an increasingly repressive eight years under the Ahmadinejad administration and to help avert the spectre of conflict between their country and the West. Some Iranian pragmatist described the choice as one of “the best of the worst” among eight candidates approved by senior clerics.
Hassan Rouhani, the self-proclaimed moderate aligned with leading reformists and supporters of human rights, was elected promising to remove restrictions on speech, advance women's rights, and release dozens of political prisoners. Eighteen months later, Rouhani's campaign promises haven't materialized. Despite the president's rhetoric and some superficial steps, he hasn't delivered on his vows of reform, and the administration is focused almost entirely on the nuclear negotiations.
The country's hardliners have deepened repression. The human rights situation has deteriorated further, whether with respect to gender equality, increasing imprisonment and execution of political opponents, as my colleague here has noted, or crackdowns on freedom of expression and religion.
Iranians continue to demand gender equality but have instead seen further deterioration. Vicious acid attacks against women have gone unpunished, and pending legislation restricts the hours during which women are allowed to work and creates a hierarchy for public sector hiring that would marginalize women, particularly those who aren't married. Other bills would empower employers and members of the religious militia to enforce the government's conservative dress code for women, curb the use of modern contraceptives, outlaw voluntary sterilization, and dismantle state-funded family planning programs.
Since 2013, authorities have banned women from 77 fields of study, effectively reversing hard-earned educational achievements. Another law, passed over the fervent objection of Iran's human rights community, effectively legalizes forced marriage by allowing men to marry girls as young as nine, provided that they are adopted daughters or step-daughters.
Iranian women are banned from watching public sporting events and have campaigned for years against this discriminatory policy. In a sign that international pressure works, warnings by international sporting authorities that would refuse Iran hosting privileges have led officials to signal a possible change. Pressure like that works.
In this context, in an especially ill-informed move on April 10, UN members elected Iran to the board of UN Women, a public embarrassment to the body's efforts to advance women's empowerment.
A second and increasingly blatant violation of human rights is the staggeringly high execution rate. Iran is second only to China in the number of executions it carries out, and that's not per capita, but just as an absolute matter. It leads the world in juvenile executions. Let's look at a comparison. As my colleague noted here, Iran reached its highest level in 12 years last year, with 753 individuals put to death, 53 of whom were publicly executed and 14 of whom were juveniles. Think about this in comparison. Saudi Arabia, which is not attractive in its own record on executions, executed 90 in the last year. The execution rate is even higher—it seems to be 20% higher—in the current calendar year.
Iran holds at least 1,150 political prisoners, with likely far more, given many Iranian families' fear of government reprisals if they come forward. Some of these political prisoners are held in solitary confinement in facilities outside the purview of Iran's formal prison authority. The 2009 presidential candidates and leaders of the green movement remain under house arrest without charge for a fourth year in a row. Just this morning, prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi was arrested for alleged national security crimes as punishment for her peaceful activism in support of abolishing the death penalty.
Iran's media and online environment are among the most repressive in the world. This is a focus of Freedom House work. In 2014, seven newspapers and magazines were shut down, and blogs and news websites were subject to state censorship and filtering. At least 44 Iranian journalists were imprisoned. Of course, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was among them. He's been in prison for nine months under espionage charges.
Iran's conservative Press Supervisory Board recently banned a popular women's magazine that had received a new licence from the Rouhani government after years of being shuttered under the previous government. What was the violation? It was publishing views on the cohabitation of unmarried adults and access to public sporting events by women. How dare they?
Among 65 nations that are studied in Freedom House's Freedom on the Net report, Iran is ranked at the very bottom. Authorities restrict online access to information through control of Internet infrastructure, extensive website filtering, rampant surveillance, and systematic arrests. Millions of websites, including Facebook and Twitter, remain blocked for Iranian citizens.
Last fall, Iran's Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of 30-year old blogger Soheil Arabi for a Facebook post deemed insulting to religious sanctities. Other online offenders were sentenced to between seven and twenty years for blogging, for a technology website, for contributing to a Sufi website, and for a Facebook post deemed blasphemous to the regime.
Religious freedom is also under serious and continued threat. Bahá'ís, Christian converts, Sunnis, and Sufis continue to be targeted and dozens put in prison.
Academic freedom is limited, especially for Bahá'ís and women, but President Rouhani has taken some positive steps to ease repression on university campuses. In 2014, about a dozen student associations were allowed to renew their work after being forcibly shut down under the previous administration, while several new groups have been recently granted permits to operate. However, real reform is unlikely, as the Minister for Science, Research, and Technology, who had lifted restrictions, was impeached by the parliament.
Independent labour unions continue to be banned, and those who participate in protests are fired or summoned to court. At least 230 people were arrested in peaceful labour protests over the last year, and nearly 1,000 were fired in February 2015 for participating in labour protests. Five labour leaders were arrested on the eve of International Workers' Day.
Unfortunately, it appears that these crackdowns will continue. The parliament has introduced new legislation that would further restrict Iranians' rights to expression and association and would enable regime conservatives to control the country's civic and political space ahead of Assembly of Experts and parliamentary elections next year. These measures would bring political parties, journalists, and NGOs firmly under the control of commissions and councils dominated by the hardline authorities and would outlaw any activity that the regime considers harmful to its interests
Indeed elections, which are used in Iran to legitimate theocratic rule, rarely change the country's political reality. They rarely do because unelected institutions—the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and increasingly the judiciary and security services—effectively have a veto over decisions of elected institutions.
While Khamenei may wish to be viewed as an overarching supreme guide, he is in reality a micro-manager over an expanding web of committees and councils and various organs and branches of the government. Khamenei's appointees control, oversee, and influence socio-cultural, foreign, and economic policy and ensure that policy making is in line with the leader's views and that no centre of power gains more influence than the leader.
Similarly, the country's electoral system is designed to ensure that candidate selection and the entire electoral process are carried out under the authority of the Supreme Leader and not the Ministry of Interior. All candidates for high public office are heavily vetted by the Guardian Council on the basis of subjective criteria and non-transparent procedures. In practice, this means that public officials and political hopefuls are accountable primarily to the Supreme Leader and only secondarily to the electorate.
Iranians have repeatedly attempted to achieve reform through the ballot box and through peaceful protests, but two decades of experience have proven that it will be far more difficult and costly, if not impossible, to achieve it without international support. At this critical juncture, the world must not turn its back on Iran's people's aspirations for democratic reform. Governments engaging with Iran should make clear to Iranian authorities that attention to human rights won't take a back seat to the pursuit of strategic and security co-operation.
Leading human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh said recently, in April, that with regard to the nuclear negotiations, “To think that reaching an international consensus [on nuclear talks] will by itself lead to an opening in the domestic scene...is a mistake”.
Freedom House looks forward to supporting a Canadian-sponsored resolution again in the UN General Assembly. That General Assembly action should urge the Secretary-General to take additional steps to strengthen his office's engagement with Iran. In particular, Freedom House recommends that the Secretary-General appoint a special adviser on Iran, similar to the one Kofi Annan appointed on Burma since 1995 to provide political guidance to Burmese authorities. This would provide access to the country by the UN special rapporteur on Iran and for other special procedures of the UN and would push for full co-operation by the Iranian government with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Further recommendations are as follows.
We hope that Canada will work in conjunction with the United States and Sweden at the UN Human Rights Council next March to build a stronger resolution than what already exists, that passed in 2011 on the human rights situation in Iran.
The mandate of the special rapporteur needs to be given more heft. The rapporteur's access to Iran should be a priority of international diplomacy, and countries with significant populations of Iranian refugees should allow access to their territories by the rapporteur.
As a final recommendation, I want to emphasize that Iranian officials responsible for human rights abuses should be held accountable with targeted sanctions. Even if comprehensive sanctions are lifted in the context of diplomacy on nuclear capabilities, those targeted sanctions would place effective pressure and stigma on those responsible for violating the basic dignity of women and men in Iran. We hope that Canada will join the United States and the EU in applying asset freezes and visa bans on Iranian officials responsible for abuses.
To close, the human rights situation in Iran is abysmal. Canada has been a leader in calling attention to that point. Your annual accountability week at the subcommittee is part of that leadership effort. Human rights respecting nations of both the global north and the global south need to show their solidarity with ordinary Iranians subject to repression by the government. A focus on nuclear talks and understandings doesn't justify sweeping acute human rights abuses under the rug.
Thank you very much.