Dec 15, 2016

Southern Azerbaijan Delegation to Washington DC Discusses Linguistic Repression, Enforced Cultural Assimilation and Environmental Disaster around Lake Urmia

Mr Mahmoud Bilgin, spokesperson for the Southern Azerbaijan Democratic Party (SADP) and Mr Habib Azarsina from the Southern Azerbaijan Alliance visited Washington DC for 5 days this December. They held a round of advocacy meetings to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Iran’s Southern Azerbaijan region. Through targeted meetings, the delegation sensitized US policy-makers and experts at various high-level think tanks for the current situation of Southern Azerbaijanis whose linguistic, cultural and environmental rights are being systematically suppressed by the Iranian central government. Some of the points discussed during these meetings, Mr Bilgin was also able to raise during interviews with the VOA Persian and Azerbaijani service.

During their 5-day visit to Washington DC in December 2016, the UNPO delegation met with Members of Congress and the US Senate, experts of various think tanks, as well as Human Rights Watch (HRW) officials. The delegation’s visit built on a previous round of advocacy meetings in December 2012, and was thus an opportunity to renew pre-existing links with supporters and advocates of Southern Azerbaijan and to establish new ties with US policy-makers and government representatives not yet familiar with the Southern Azerbaijani cause.

Through these targeted advocacy meetings, the delegation was successful in raising awareness of the lamentable human rights situation in Southern Azerbaijan. Meetings with experts on Iran at the prestigious Hudson Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) were particularly helpful in exchanging views on current geo-political developments in Southern Azerbaijan and the wider MENA region. During the discussions with distinguished researchers, as well with policy-makers on the Hill, the delegation in particular focused on the lack of awareness about the fact that – different from what the Iranian central government wants to make outsiders believe – Iran is a multi-national country. The representatives of Southern Azerbaijan underlined the fact that Iran’s population is not predominantly Persian, but rather highly diverse in terms of its ethnic, linguistics, cultural and religious composition, and thereby sought to change widespread narratives evolving around Persian supremacy.

The meetings also served to sensitize US government officials for the problems associated with linguistic and cultural suppression perpetrated against the people of Southern Azerbaijan. The representatives in particular raised the issue of Southern Azerbaijanis being denied access to education in their native language – even though Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution guarantees the right for minorities to be taught in their mother tongue. Just as during previous rounds of meetings both in Washington DC and at the European Parliament in Brussels, the man-made disaster at Lake Urmia was another prime concern raised during the advocacy meetings. The delegation underlined the fact that the mismanagement of water reserves at Lake Urmia already has devastating and far-reaching consequences, thwarting not only the livelihood of those communities living in the immediate vicinity of the lake, but – because of massive salt drifts – also those of Southern Azerbaijanis living in the wider region.