Thursday, 24 November 2011

Human Rights and Iran: Engagement or Boycott?

The UN Watch blog has criticised me for speaking in Tehran at an international conference earlier this week.
My speech in Tehran yesterday morning began by referring to recent developments in Egypt, and more generally to the quest for freedom throughout the Middle East over the past eleven months. The theme of my presentation was the responsibility of the International Criminal Court and of other international bodies to intervene in order to protect people exercising their legitimate rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The message for Iran was inescapable.
I also recalled the film Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today that Sandra Schulberg showed to the conference the previous evening (discussed in a previous blog entry). In my remarks, I clearly indicated the importance of the film's message in challenging those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. I urged Iran to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. I also spoke about the issue of capital punishment, where Iran stands virtually alone now as a state where the rate of executions is actually increasing.
Furthermore, I took advantage of my visit to Tehran to lecture to university students in a classroom setting about international justice, the need to abolish the death penalty and the promotion of human rights.
It is important that such messages be transmitted in Iran, where NGO activists are intimidated and persecuted and where academics are threatened with dismissal and imprisonment if they say similar things. To the extent a space exists in Tehran for foreign scholars like myself, it is our duty to travel there and speak as freely as we can. We would be betraying those who fought and died in the post-election protests two years ago if we refused to do this.
Engagement with Iranian civil society is a much better option than the approach that Hillel Neuer and UN Watch espouse. The latter amounts to ostracism and boycott, and is unlikely to contribute to progressive development within Iran.
In reality, the critique of my engagement with Iran by UN Watch is a rather incoherent diatribe that begins by condemning my host, the NAM Centre for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, essentially because it was created by the Non-Aligned Movement (an organization that comprises more than half the states in the world). Then it goes on to attack the Non-Aligned Movement itself, because it gives ‘a free pass to the oppressive rulers of Iran, Syria, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe and others’. But that can hardly be true, because the resolution condemning Iran adopted in the General Assembly’s Third Committee a few days ago could only have passed with the support or abstention of many members of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The charge that ‘cultural diversity’ is incompatible with universal human rights is a very simplistic proposition. Human rights have always involved a degree of deference to local cultures and practices. Even within Europe, which may appear culturally monolithic to the rest of the world, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently acknowledged the relationship between universal rights and ‘cultural diversity’ through its doctrine of the margin of appreciation. Human rights will make more headway in Iran by addressing the cultural issues than it will by sanctimonious lectures about universality.
UN Watch constantly attacks the UN for one-sided criticism of Israel, but then commits the same sin with its obsessive focus on Israel’s critics. I suspect that had I spoken at an event associated with the Non-Aligned Movement of states in India or Mexico or Indonesia or somewhere else far from the concerns of Israel’s propagandists, there would have been no interest at all from Hillel Neuer and his blog. He complains about demonization of Israel and then demonizes its enemies.
Iran, Syria, Cuba, China and Zimbabwe should certainly not get a free pass. But then neither should Israel. Whether I am speaking in Tehran or in Tel Aviv, I hear the same hypocritical grumbles about how double standards prevail in the area of human rights.
UN Watch no doubt benefits from the warm glow (and confusion) that results from the impression that it is associated with the distinguished and credible NGO Human Rights Watch, but of course there is actually no connection. UN Watch is more like the Geneva equivalent of a right-wing US radio talk show. 
Academics are fortunate because we can, in a sense, pass under the radar. I would probably have been refused a visa had I been asked to go and speak on behalf of Amnesty International. But as a academic, I can get in to the country and then speak my mind. It would be a shame to pass up the opportunity by boycotting such events, as UN Watch urges me to do.


PiL said...

Well said.

ShimSean said...

Did you criticise Iran directly while in Iran ? After all, it is your duty to "Speak as freely as you can", it would be a shame to waste such an opportunity.

A bit of logic: in Iran,
1. NGO activists are intimidated when criticissing the Iranian regime
2. NAM is not initimdated, but encouraged to hold international conferences (who pays for flights & accomodation ?)

hence, NAM is not an NGO.

Demonizing Iran: the current regime turtures, kills & discriminate to an extent it's hard to Demonize. it can not be compared to a democracy (Israel included)

The UN earned the critic of UN watch (you failed to mention were UN watch actually failed). "Human rights watch" has a chequered record (reserchers with Nazi simpathies, positive reviews of Gaddafi's libya etc).

Maitre Corbeau said...

I want to congratulate you , Mr Schabas for taking the time and having the courage to speak in Iran on human Rights issues. It would be so easy to only speak in secure democratic venues or writing in academic reviews. You unlike many others ,walk your talk.