Unless we see concrete action, we owe it to the Iranian people to forcefully encourage Iran’s rulers to comply with international human rights obligations

November 12 marked the hundred days in office of the government of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Like all new governments that enter office, President Rouhani’s government has received attention of the world. Canada too has been watching this new government with interest. What is most obvious is the reassuring style and language used by the new government, which is in total contrast to the one of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The democratic world has welcomed the conciliatory approach of President Rouhani’s government with regard to nuclear diplomacy and the release of some political prisoners. This has provided the hope that the country is genuinely committed to end the ruthless oppression of its own people and its bad influence abroad.

However, as Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs John Baird recently wrote, we cannot afford to remain complacent. Nor do the Iranian people, who have suffered for far too long. Standing in front of cameras and tweeting about changes are all too easy. The hard part is following through, making difficult decisions and undertaking meaningful change. We must judge the Iranian government by its deeds, not its words. Unless the hope generated by the initial approach of the Rouhani government is backed by concrete action, the international community will have to keep up the pressure on this government to respect the human rights of its people. The first 100 days in office have failed to show any significant change.

Human rights record

Through human-rights monitoring and reporting efforts by the U.N. Secretary-General and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, we know that Iran’s human rights record is deeply troubling and that these abuses are continuing. Women continue to face serious discrimination. Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities also continue to face disproportionate discrimination, as well as harassment by authorities. More than 100 members of the Bahá'í faith alone remain imprisoned on charges related to practising and organising for their religion, and advocating for their rights.

These are not deeds that give us confidence in a genuine desire for change on the part of Iran’s leaders. In order to demonstrate its seriousness about meaningful change on human rights, Iran would need to go beyond half measures and take a number of concrete steps to address the legitimate concerns of the international community about how the country’s people are treated.

First, allow the U.N. Special Rapporteur to visit Iran and to investigate conditions there without hindrance or restrictions on where he travels or to whom he speaks.

Second, ratify and implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That would involve legal prohibition of these forms of treatment or punishment, which include prolonged solitary confinement, extraction of confessions under torture, flogging and stoning, and denial of medical treatment to prisoners.

Third, investigate allegations of abuse of prisoners in Iran’s detention facilities, and ensure the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators.

Fourth, guarantee freedom of expression — in law and in practice — including full, unfettered access to the Internet.

Finally, the Iranian leadership should prohibit by law all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity and gender — and enforce such a law.

That includes ratifying and incorporating in domestic legislation the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; adopting policies and laws that promote the participation of women in public life, including candidates for the office of president; and amending Iran’s civil code so that a husband may no longer prevent his wife from working or pursuing a professional career.

Reason for scepticism

Our scepticism regarding Iran is drawn from seeing decades of inaction on issues such as these. The concrete steps outlined above would signal to the people of Iran, and to the world, that the Iranian government finally is serious about respecting and upholding the human rights of its people.

This isn’t just in Canada’s interest: It is in the interest of Iran and the Iranian people. A free society that respects the human dignity of the Iranian people will loosen the shackles of sanctions and promote the ingenuity and prosperity of all Iranians. Their future is at stake.

We stand ready to support real change if actions such as those noted above are genuinely undertaken. Until we see these concrete actions, we owe it to the Iranian people to forcefully encourage Iran’s rulers to comply with its international human rights obligations.

This is why Canada has, this year, once again tabled a resolution on Iran’s human rights record at the United Nations. We seek to put pressure on Iran to stop the discrimination, persecution, unfair imprisonment and torture of so many of its people.

The people of Iran deserve to have a future in which they can live without fear. A future where they can enjoy the benefits of their hard work. A future where they can raise their families with the realistic hope that their children will have a better life. Canada stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran, in the hope that one day soon they will enjoy the fundamental rights, dignity and respect to which we believe all human beings are entitled.

(Stewart Beck is the High Commissioner for Canada to India.)

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