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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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Genuine human rights activities

By Trita Parsi,
Executive Director
Iranians for International Cooperation

In a world where the importance of Human Rights is increasingly recognized, the overseas Iranian community suffers from the conspicuous absence of genuine non-partisan Human Rights organizations. In light of the rapidly evolving situation in Iran, the need for such groups is greater than ever.

Over the past decade, the concept of Human Rights has gained an unprecedented legitimacy in International Relations. It is significant that even the once sacrosanct principle of national sovereignty cannot prevent the pursuit of human rights. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has championed the idea that Human Rights know no border, giving rise to what has become known as the Annan Doctrine. NGO's are closely monitoring and capitalizing on these developments. Human Rights Watch, for instance, has argued that national sovereignty is becoming less of an obstacle to curbing serious Human Rights violations (CNN, December 10, 1999).

Even in long isolated Iran, a country known for its less than flattering Human Rights record, there is a trend toward the improvement of the human rights situation, although it remains far from being satisfactory. Maurice Copithorne, The U.N. Special Representative for Human Rights in Iran states in his latest report that "significant progress has become evident in a number of areas" and sums up the report with the following words:

"Overall, progress is certainly being made and, in the Special Representative's view, it is very likely to continue, perhaps even accelerate." (E/CN.4/2000/35).

Let us reiterate that this is not to say that the situation in Iran is acceptable, but rather that a positive trend is discernable. In Copithorne's own words, Human Rights is a "work in progress". It is clear that seldom social and political realities change overnight. However, it is incumbent on fair-minded and non-partisan observers and activists to acknowledge and even encourage any positive trend, in the hope of seeing it gain momentum and further narrow the gap between international standards and expectations and the realities on the terrain. The question is whether the groups that claim the title of Human Rights Organizations among the Iranian exiles, have adopted such a non-tendentious approach or not?

Unfortunately, in most cases, the answer is no. The current controversy surrounding Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi's appearence on Thursday at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to give a talk is a case in point. It is quite disturbing to witness groups that titles themselves as Human Rights activists, openly and blatantly opposing the freedom of speech of an individual, no matter how despised he or she may be. No one would ever expect a true Human Rights organization like Amnesty International, to engage in such behavior. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that cannot be denied to anyone-including a person accused of violating other people's human rights or guilty of representing a government that continues to show inadequate respect for these rights. This is a fundamental principle, as a tit-for-tat approach to Human Rights ultimately belies and undermines the very idea of these rights.

It was therefore a sad spectacle to witness the noisy opposition by these so-called Human Rights groups to Kharrazi's right to free expression at UCLA. It should be noted, moreover, that these groups are quick to disparage their critics by labelling them "supporters" or "lobbyists" for the Islamic Government of Iran. The quid pro quo here seems to emanate from the inability of these pseudo-Human Rights activists to draw a distinction between the violation or negation of human rights and its perpetrators.

Unlike genuine non-partisan Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International, the exile groups tend to focus their ire and condemnation on the perpetrators rather than on the transgression. Although it may appear trivial, the distinction is in fact fundamental and clearly sets apart non-partisan from partisan groups. Needless to say, it is of utmost importance for true Human Rights groups to preserve scrupulously a non-partisan stance. Otherwise, their very legitimacy could be in serious jeopardy, as they could easily be dismissed by human rights violators as simply being hostile political adversaries. When a political agenda is superimposed on the human rights agenda, the legitimacy of the organization becomes tainted.

An example of this type of mixing is provided by the call, often voiced by exile Human Rights groups, for the overthrow of the regime in Tehran, alongside with demands for an end to human rights violations. Some of the pronouncements of these groups are further indication of their politicization. For example, one of these groups has written that the "Islamic Republic of Iran is the oppressor of the Iranian people and its National Anthem is not ours. Help us fight the oppression. Don't respect the murderers.."

The question here is not whether the above views have merit or whether the claims are well-founded or not. The point is whether the national anthem is an issue that should be addressed by Human Rights organizations or by political opposition groups? Should there be no distinction whatsoever, then what is the difference between Human Rights organizations and political opposition groups? Further, the statement gives the impression that the group opposes the regime in Tehran more than it opposes its Human Rights violations. In denouncing the regime, these groups reveal more shared characteristics with political opposition groups than with Amnesty International, which scrupulously avoids political partisanship. After all, many people can gratuitously claim to work for human rights- even Stalinist groups such as the Mujahedin portray themselves as Human Rights activists. However, to strive to improve the Iranian people's human right predicament is another matter altogether.

One would like to think that these political groups would seize the opportunity offered by Kamal Kharrazi's appearance at UCLA to confront him verbally and voice their condemnations of the Human Rights violations that are routinely taking place in Iran. After all, arguments carry the most weight when they are developed in the context of a peaceful dialogue, rather than lost in the clamor of a shouting match. Articulated reasoning, based on sound logic, when put forth firmly and unequivocally, yet without resorting to intimidation and disruption, are likely to achieve the objectives of Human Rights much more effectively than noisy demonstrations. Indeed, threatening and disruptive behavior is essentially inconsistent with the embrace of Human Rights values and principles. Dialogue and respect for the rights of others to express their views- however unpopular, constitute the very foundation of a society that is respectful of human rights. When Human Rights organizations engage in undemocratic behavior, they not only discredit themselves but they also tarnish the very values that they claim to uphold. In this process, our nation's hopes and its rightful expectations are sacrificed on the altar of partisan political interests.

It is a recognized fact that the absence of political freedom in Iran has led Iranians, over the course of years, to avoid political involvement. Human Rights activity, insofar that it manages to preserve its independence from political influence, offers an avenue for people to engage in laying the foundations of democratic rule. The only result of confusing political activity with Human Rights activity is to ultimately cause people to shun Human Rights activity as well. This will, doubtlessly, constitute a serious setback for the cause of Human Rights in Iran. Since the culture of Human Rights needs time and effort to take root, it is imperative that advocates of democracy nurture and protect it, rather than weaken it by their reckless behavior. As Copithorne stated, Human Rights is a work in progress, and its proponents should increase their efforts to advance and consolidate this work in progress, especially given the much precious time that has already been lost.

In sum, and to conclude, the need for non-partisan Human Rights organizations, within the Iranian exile community, is more pressing than ever. Genuine Human Rights activists are needed to actively search for opportunities to put Human Rights on the agenda in as many circles as possible. The appearance of Kharrazi at UCLA was precisely one such occasion to promote the cause of Human Rights in Iran. These opportunities may be few and far between; hence, we can ill afford to lose them in the future. We need to de-politicize Human Rights and make sure that it is more than a slogan or a front used by opposition groups for political gain. We need to implement and nurture a culture of mutual respect and dialogue, and, once and for all, turn our backs on intimidation, verbal aggression and intolerance. We strongly believe that, today, this is a pivotal issue in Iran as well as among Iranians living outside of Iran, and we call for a wide exchange of ideas on the topic.

* I would like to thank Dr. Farid Sadrieh, Dr. Mohammad Ala, Javad Fakherzadeh and Dr. Brad Hernlem, for assistance and guidance.


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