'Human Rights Situation in Iran as Grave as Ever'
Thank you Dr Sadr Al Ashrafi -
Before beginning, I feel I should provide some background on the organization which I represent and its relevance among the experts and representatives you see gathered here today.
I then aim to discuss broadly some of the themes we see in the human rights abuses prevalent in Iran today - raising the question of what scope there is for international cooperation and campaigning on the Iranian issue - perhaps encouraging a bit of debate at the question and answer session this afternoon as well.
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization was established in 1991 when dissidents from Estonia, Tibet, and East Turkestan joined together to unite behind their respective campaigns for greater protection of their linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical rights.
Since that moment, UNPO has grown to number over fifty members, a reflection that the threats to nations and people remain as great now as they did almost two decades ago – no more so than in the Middle East - and the comments we have heard today must surely reinforce this sad conclusion.
UNPO’s members are united in the belief, and it can be a demanding belief, that nonviolent political action remains the only viable and practical response to the intimidation and marginalisation they face.
Cross-cutting UNPO’s membership are also themes which have considerable resonance among Iran’s minorities, namely the need for protection of the environment, support for tolerance, right to self-determination, respect for human rights, and the furtherance of democracy.
Beginning with the environment, we see in Iran environmental degradation in the country’s oil producing regions which impacts heavily on the Ahwazi and Balochs living there. Easy comparisons can be drawn to the catastrophe we have witnessed in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The appropriation of land, spillage of oil and harmful chemicals into soil and groundwater, and air borne pollutants from gas flaring all negate the quality of life in these areas and destroy agricultural communities.
The physical signs of the environmental damage we see being caused is only comparative to the economic and social ramifications being impacted on Ahwazi and Baloch families. Traditional roles are being undermined and compensation, when it is awarded, is no substitute for a regular means of income. There are still families waiting for their homes to be rebuild in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War – and for those Kurds whose land was appropriated by the Pahlavi regime, redress seems a long way off.
As a result the lack of respected familial role models and job opportunities for youth in the skilled and low volume hydrocarbon industry is fuelling disaffection and resentment.
The sense of tolerance embodied in the United Nations Charter, and which was marked only yesterday, is not readily to be found in Iran. A longstanding policy of ‘Persianisation’, matched by likely falsification of census records, has been used to muddy ethnic identities and disenfranchise Iran’s sizeable minorities. This has affected all of UNPO’s members in the area, from the Ahwazi to the Azeris.
Similar policies in the Peoples Republic of China can also be seen being enacted in East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. A forthcoming UNPO conference in fact intends examining this neglected issue and will assess the debates that first took place over a decade ago.
Key among these are the rights to protection of one’s cultural and linguistic heritage which Persianisation has put at great risk. Turkmen as a language, to my knowledge, is nowhere to be seen in official social services or education. Similarly, Ahwazi Arabic is restricted to the publication of religious texts – a measure that seems certain to consign it to the lexicon of dead languages in a not too distant future if nothing is done to sustain and protect it.
The impotency of the Majlis combined with the gozinesh selection process effectively removes a minority such as the Turkmen from government employment. This represents sidelining approximately 2.2 million people and is a contravention not only of Article 7 (i) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which Iran ratified in 1975, but also Article 23 of Iran’s own constitution.
A right to self-determination, as again outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, is a facet of tolerance that receives short-shrift in Tehran. This reflects both a weakness and a need of the Iranian state: namely to monitor and coerce its citizens., and the need to control the resources without which such a system would be infeasible. So many actors would stand to lose from the disassembly of such a system that the notion of a federal Iran is painted from many quarters as a threat to stability and security.
Aside from the vested interests alluded to here, the denial of the right to self-determination is again a clear contraventions on the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights where the rights of Ahwazi and Baloch people to “freely dispose of their natural wealth” and that despite this natural wealth, there is still massive unemployment in these regions compared with Iran as a whole.
This state of affairs is compounded by an agricultural sector that has been left underdeveloped and damaged by state-subsidized sugar cane cultivation. Widespread pollution from both this and the poorly managed hydrocarbon infrastructure means that it will take years for the region to recover – if at all. In the meantime this miserable situation has set in motion a cycle of unemployment, disaffected youth, and state sanctioned violence which undermines traditional social structures and creates the very instability which Tehran professes, at least publicly, to avoid.
Containing these sentiments falls to people such as those we see seated here, but their efforts to address and redress such grievances through peaceful means are being constantly frustrated by Tehran.
That is why I feel honored to join these speakers in what is a clear indication of the unity of purpose among those campaigning for greater freedoms in Iran – the death knell of any nonviolent movement is after all disunity. The Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran is just one such example that has successfully brought together minorities from across the political spectrum in Iran. This has been a crucial step from which to develop.
Unifying with other actors within Iran, such as Persian groups calling for women’s rights, press freedom, and such like, strengthens any campaign, discrediting state messages portraying those calling for greater regional rights as ‘separatist’ and demonstrate an outlook that is open and collegial. It carries risks for both sides undoubtedly, but it is important to raise the situation that liberal Persians face on a daily basis. This conference is examining the rights of all Iran’s people, Persians included, and there are many common causes to be found.
Amnesty International and its local partners have done a great deal in highlighting the human rights abuses that affect Iranian society as a whole - raising the profile of juvenile executions and the repeated failure to uphold the Constitution of Iran for example.
I also believe that UNPO has proven its worth in helping its members to look beyond their immediate region to those with similar experiences elsewhere. It is here that I really believe there is scope to project an openness that will capture the attention of international actors - whilst educating policy-makers and commentators in the internal politics of Iran, and at the same time helping to promote a better understanding of what is a truly remarkable multi-ethnic state.
This of course also provides an opportunity to inform Iranians of their own compatriots – if not changing positions then at least raising the standard of debate and exposing Tehran’s intractability. Such approaches can bring the questions of tolerance, human rights, and democracy to a human level - avoiding the simplistic accusations of separatism and subversion which are the mainstay of Tehran’s verbal attacks on its critics.
Therefore, to conclude, I hope that this conference will demonstrate two things – that the human rights situation in Iran remains as grave as ever, but also to impress upon the international community that there is a willingness and determination among the groups represented here to cooperate amongst themselves and with others to bring the realization of a open, free, and democratic Iran closer for all the country’s citizens.