Dec 17, 2020

UNPO Welcomes EU Parliament's Commitment to Countering Iranian Interference in Europe


On 17 December 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Iran focusing on 2012 EU Sakharov Prize Winner Nasrin Sotoudeh and other Iranian human rights defenders. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) strongly supports the resolution's instructions to the European Commission and EU Member States to form an inter-institutional commission to support Sakharov Prize laureats and to strengthen capabilities to counter Iranian interference on European soil. Over recent years the level and severity of this interference has noticeably increased rending EU citizens and residents of Iranian-descent, including those that have received asylum protection within the EU, vulnerable to intimidation, suveillance, and even murder. In this context, the European Parliament's resolution provides welcome guidance to the European Commission and EU Member States on how to address the dangers posed to human rights defenders in Europe.

Over the past few years, as part of our Compromised Spaces campaign, the UNPO has been working to highlight the increased vulnerability of human rights defenders, particularly those from minority and indigenous communities from places such as Iran, China, and Russia or illegally territories occupied by them, to intimidation and reprisals in Europe and North America because of their advocacy against repression.

Our reporting has highlighed as sustained campaign at the United Nations, particularly around the Geneva-based human rights mechanisms, to target these activists, either directly of via their family members. And our work with these communities has emphasized that these activities stem far beyond the walls of the UN buildings, but reach into the territories of liberal democracies, where illegal state-sponsored activities are carried out.

We have strongly supported the efforts in the United States of America to address this issue via law enforcement as it relates to such attacks by China against the Uyghur community. And we have recently kicked-off a multi-year research and awareness raising effort to work towards the extension of such efforts to the European Union and across a wider set of countries engaged in such practices.

The Islamic Republic of Iran looms large over any debate over foreign interference and state-sponsored terrorism within the European Union. In just the past two years alone we have witness numerous shocking instances of the impunity with which the Islamic Republic of Iran feels that it can operate within the EU.

Last year, Swedish authorities broke up an Iranian espionage network on its soil that was actively collecting personal information about members of the Ahwazi Arab community in Europe. Around the same time the government of the Netherlands linked two murders on its soil of Iran human rights defenders to an Iranian intelligence unit, and the governments of France and Denmark uncovered and foiled plots to carry out attacks in their countries, including a bomb plot targeting a demonstration of an opposition group in Paris.

Last week, the journalist Ruhollah Zam was executed in Iran. Given asylum in France he was somehow tricked to travel to Iraq by the Iranian authorities, where he was rendered to Iran. Meanwhile, Professor Ahmad Reza Jalali, and Iranian-Azeri and Swedish doctor and professor is imprisoned and sentenced to death.

These are just some of the instances of direct engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran on European soil, with regular reports coming to the UNPO about a broader trend towards intimidation, surveillance and reprisals against people in Europe working for the human rights of the people of Iran, particularly those working to protect the rights of minorities.

In its 17 December 2020 resolution, the European Parliament highlighted the urgent threat that these activities posed. As part of a broader initiative to condemn the repression of human rights defenders in Iran, the European Parliament noted the broader threats that are being posed to winners of the EU's annual human rights prize, the Sakharov Prize, and by the government of Iran to the integrity of the European Union. Accordingly, it requested the European Commission's foreign service (the "European External Action Service" or "EEAS") and EU Member States to form an international taskforce to protect Sakharov Prize winners who are at risk, and to strengthen institutional capacities to tackle Iranian interference in Europe.

The European Union has a range of tools that help EU Member States to coordinate on issues related to internal security and criminal justice. Such tools could be effectively used to prevent Iranian interference and protect people of Iranian descent living within the EU. The UNPO's work to-date indicates, however, that such tools may not be being utilized to the best of their ability in service of this goal.

The European Parliament's resolution marks an important turning point in this regard, and, if heeded by the European Commission and the EU Member States could have a profound impact on EU citizens and residents of Iranian descent. The UNPO, therefore, strongly supports this resolution and urges the other institutions of the European Union, the Commission and Council of Member States to act upon it.

Photo: A poster demanding the release of Ahmad Reza Jalal, on February 13, 2017, in front of the Iranian embassy in Brussels. DIRK WAEM / AFP