For the past 15 years, Dwight Bashir has worked on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom issues. He is a senior advisor for an independent U.S. commission focusing on international religious freedom. The views expressed here are his own personal views.
Now that the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russian, China + Germany) have embarked on multilateral negotiations with the Iranian government, it is time to look forward, not backward. The one-day talks in Geneva held last week will resume after an October 25 visit to Iran by representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess Iran’s newly-declared nuclear facility.
As expected, international attention has focused on Iran’s apparent willingness to send most of its enriched uranium out of the country and to allow the IAEA to inspect its latest facility. What has not received adequate attention is what happened on the fringes of the formal talks –- separate discussions between American and Iranian diplomats on human rights.
Here’s how the U.S. State Department spokesman characterized these conversations: “In addition to the focus on the nuclear program, they also had a frank exchange on a number of other issues, including issues of human rights. And we also raised the issue of American citizens who are being held in Iran…”
Understandably, the United States government asked about American detainees in Iran, but what other human rights issues were discussed? Unfortunately, there has been no further explanation.
Did anyone inquire about the hundreds of Iranian citizens injured or killed while peacefully protesting the contested outcome of the June 12 elections? Or the scores of dissidents and reformers who have been beaten by Iranian security and militia forces and unlawfully detained for weeks? What about before the elections, and the thousands of brave women’s rights activists, journalists, bloggers, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders and others who have been unjustly imprisoned?
For that matter, did anyone raise specific cases such as the seven Baha’i leaders, in jail since early last year, who could be sentenced to death on October 18 on baseless espionage charges? What about the status of two Christian women, Maryam and Marzieh, who reportedly have serious health concerns yet continue to languish in prison — now for more than six months — without charge and facing the death penalty for apostasy?
Let’s also not forget that just two weeks ago, President Ahmadinejad arrived in New York on very shaky international standing with internal turmoil alive and well in Iran. Nevertheless, he still felt confident enough to spew anti-Semitic rants and anti-Western vitriol during his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
All is not lost. There is a way forward.
In addition to holding the Iranian government to account for its nuclear ambitions, the P5+1 should use its new platform to raise substantive human rights issues, and not just behind closed doors. The Iranian government has already agreed to “embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations,” so human rights are fair game. In particular, the P5+1 should publicly express its genuine concern about the plight of Iranian citizens, as well as raising specific cases (a similar method was used successfully by the United States during the 1970s when it raised human rights effectively during arms talks with the Soviet Union). This message must emerge in future deliberations, otherwise the morale of Iran’s reformers and — of advocates of freedom and democracy globally — will have suffered a major blow.
The P5+1 can cite Iran’s obligations under international human rights law; in particular, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Iran is a party. Not only would this present a unified front among P5+1 partners, but would also demonstrate solidarity with the Iranian people. If Russia and China balk, the four Western partners can still take a powerful stand. The Iranian people need to know that the international community cares about their fate and will not trade away 30 years of transgressions for potential nuclear concessions.
The U.S. Congress can also play its part. Both the Senate and House are moving forward on providing the Obama administration with a new set of targeted economic sanctions should Iran fail to produce tangible results in a timely fashion. Current legislation under debate identifies nuclear proliferation and support for international terrorism as justification for imposing new sanctions. Final legislation should add international human rights violations to the list. This inclusion would demonstrate that the Iranian government’s poor human rights record is on equal footing with other security concerns.
Even if symbolic, Congress should also consider triggering a targeted sanction under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). Iran has been on the U.S. blacklist of religious freedom violators for 10 years, yet no new sanction has been imposed. In addition, the State Department has a statutory requirement under IRFA to identify foreign agencies and officials responsible for violations of religious freedom and can bar individuals from entry into the United States.
This requirement remains unfulfilled.
Ideally, the ultimate goal would be to get international agreement among the P5+1 on any new sanctions. Although this isn’t a must. Again, if Russian and/or China hold out, the four Western allies can still work together. Since late 2006, the U.N. Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions penalizing Iran’s nuclear program and imposing travel bans on those individuals involved. Why not do the same for Iranian officials involved in human rights abuses? It’s high time to identify Iran’s human rights violations as a justification for tougher sanctions. This act alone would bolster Iran’s reformers to play their part inside Iran.
– Dwight Bashir