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Minister Baird: We must judge the Iranian government by its deeds

The original version of this op-ed was published in the National Post on November 7, 2013.

Earlier this year, Iran elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani, whose manner, style and language stand in stark contrast to the posturing and belligerent behaviour of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The conciliatory tone and approach of the new president is welcome, especially with regard to Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, and we were relieved to hear of Iran’s release of a small number of political prisoners. All of us who long have felt despair over the Iranian regime’s baneful influence abroad and its ruthless oppression of its own people want to believe that the country is genuinely committed to positive change at home and in its foreign relations.

But we do not have the luxury of being naïve. Nor do the Iranian people, who have suffered for far too long. Standing in front of cameras and tweeting about change 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. President Rouhani marks his first 100 days in office on Tuesday and, by any measure, these deeds have fallen short.

Through human-rights monitoring and reporting efforts by the UN Secretary-General and the UN 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 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 organizing 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 UN 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 candidacies 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.

Our skepticism 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.

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.

National Post
John Baird is Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister.