Sep 29, 2015

Beyond the Nuclear Deal: Side-Event at UN Discusses Minority Rights in Iran

Geneva, 21 September 2015On the occasion of the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, the first after the nuclear deal reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), the Southern Azerbaijan Alliance and the Nonviolent Radical Party convened a side-event at the Palais des Nations entitled Adding Fuel to Fire or Paving the Way for Peace? Human Rights Post-Iranian Nuclear Deal. In the wake of a new phase in the relations between the world’s powers and Tehran, this conference aimed at reasserting the scepticism that Iran’s ethnic and linguistic minority communities, in particular Southern Azerbaijani Turks, feel towards the outcomes of the nuclear agreement. In light of the passivity of key international policy-makers in addressing Iran’s human rights records, representatives of Azerbaijani Turks and other marginalized nationalities joined forces with international experts in a heated discussion on the challenges ahead and ways forward for Iran.

Mr Nasser Boladai, UNPO President, opened the conference with an overview of the differing opinions that surround the Iranian nuclear deal.  While some groups consider the agreement to be a positive achievement, the overall fear is that the lifting of economic sanctions will provide the Iranian state with billions of dollars which will not be invested in the people, but in the very structure of the repressive regime.  Drawing on past experiences, Mr Boladai cautioned that, whenever there was a rapprochement between Iran and the international community, Tehran’s repression towards its national minorities increased through arrests, executions, extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances. It is therefore of utmost importance, he concluded, that the United Nations assert pressure on the Iranian government to respect human rights and the principles of self-determination and democracy towards its minorities.  

The Executive Director of UN Watch, Mr Hillel C. Neuer, introduced the multiple approaches of the UN to human rights in Iran. Using the examples of who he called some of “the most courageous human rights activists in the world”, Mr Neuer emphasized the struggle of political dissidents in Iran and how he believes the UN and the international community should support them. He praised the work of Mr Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, but reminded that even some democratic countries have failed to endorse the UN General Assembly’s resolution on Iran.

Ms Ayda Karimli, Spokesperson of the Southern Azerbaijani Alliance, opened her speech by reminding that 70 per cent of Iran’s population are non-Persian. She put especial emphasis on the need to include the multi-ethnic minorities in Iran in the political and decision making process. This would ensure respect for human rights as well as bring about regional peace and stability. Moreover, Ms Karimli shed light on Iran's deliberate intent to hinder Lake Urmia's survival: due to the drying up of the lake, we are now on the brink of one of the greatest ecological disasters of the XXI century, affecting not only Azerbaijani Turks only, but possibly the whole world. She concluded by saying that, despite the overall distrust in the regime, the negotiations over the nuclear issue  opened a loophole that should be explored by the world’s powers in order to hold Iran accountable to its human rights obligations.

Closing the first panel, Mr Adam Kuniuszewski, Chief Operating Officer at Green Cross International, delivered an illustrative presentation about the situation in Lake Urmia. Firstly, he introduced the overall natural panorama, highlighting the continuity in droughts as well as the impacts of climate change. The reasons for the imminent ecological disaster surrounding Lake Urmia, however, are due to human negligence and mismanagement, he explained. The intense demand for water by the agricultural sector, coupled with a rising pressure to irrigate urban centres, has led the government to engage in major infrastructure projects.  However, in a country with such an intense population growth as Iran, developments projects like these are exhausting the environment. Mr Kuniuszewski concluded his presentation with the alarming remark that, considering Tehran’s policies of not acknowledging the ecological impacts, Lake Urmia is becoming a catastrophe soon to reach a point of no return.

Mr Sabir Rustemkhanli, Member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Azerbaijan, opened the second panel by sharing a linguistic perspective to the issue. A poet having published numerous books, Mr Rustemkhanli lamented the fact that over 55 million Azerbaijani Turks are not able to read his books due to the ban in Iran. With over 1500 years of written history, the Azerbaijani Turkish language is being deliberately destroyed through the Iranian government’s assimilation policy. He drew special attention to the ban imposed on teaching Azerbaijani Turkish in schools, and pointed out that naming children and places in languages other than Farsi is also forbidden.  Overall, Mr Rustemkhanli showed sharp skepticism towards the nuclear deal and concluded his speech by stating that change will only be possible if all the marginalized nations in Iran work together.

Next to be given the floor was Mr Karim Almoor, Representative of the Ahwazi Human Rights Organization (AHRO). Speaking about the situation of the Ahwazi Arab population, he was emphatic in saying that the lives of millions would not be improved in anyway as a result of the nuclear deal. Although Tehran is using the momentum of the deal as an opportunity to portray itself as open to negotiation, Mr Almoor emphasized that the Islamic Republic will use the lifting of economic sanctions to continue sponsoring terrorism in the region and enforcing Persian state violence. He reminded that the Arab population, through forced demographic change, is becoming a minority in their own land and will continue to be exposed to a slow systematic ethnic cleansing.  

The conference ended with a speech by Mr Mahmud Bilgin, Spokesperson of the South Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Speaking of the challenges of self-determination, Mr Bilgin stressed that bringing democracy to Iran is impossible under the current regime framework. As a colony of Iran, he said, the South Azerbaijan region’s exploitation of coal, silver and oil are used to sustain Tehran’s Persian-centric regime. He concluded by calling upon the international community to, now more than ever, remain vigilant on Iran’s human rights abuses.

Attracting media coverage and a diverse audience of activists, politicians and academics, the side-event explored the various challenges ahead for Iran’s minorities following the nuclear deal. Focusing on the deliberate policies to assimilate nations such as the Azerbaijani Turks and Ahwazi Arabs, panelists shared a feeling of distrust and a concern of having an economically empowered Iran to expand its systematic crackdown on the non-Persian population. Overall, the conference concluded that the revival of Lake Urmia and respect for the linguistic and cultural rights, as well as civil liberties for Iran’s various nations are unlikely to be attained if expectations rely solely on Tehran’s own initiative to change its policies. If the world’s powers aim at holding Iran accountable to human rights and wish to ensure long-term stability for the whole region, key international actors must have a leading role in pressuring the country to comply with international law.