By Irwin Cotler and Kaveh Shahrooz
Iran’s presidential election is set to take place on June 14. Yet, with candidates hand-selected for their loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, the press muzzled by the imprisonment of independent journalists, and the leaders of Iranian civil society in detention, this election will be neither free nor fair.
The absence of democratic elections should not be viewed in isolation. It should rather be understood as both a cause and symptom of a larger repression in the Islamic Republic. Canada is well-situated to assist in the battle against this authoritarianism, and it must do so in solidarity with Iranian people.
The Iranian government imprisons and tortures thousands of activists, ruthlessly curtails free speech, enforces a system of gender apartheid, and imposes severe religious discrimination, dramatized in particular by the persecution and prosecution of the Baha’i, and the imprisonment of their entire leadership.
Most alarming among the many serious violations of human rights is that, per capita, Iran executes more people than any other country in the world. Many of those executed are political dissidents and they are offered no due process.
Killing people for their political beliefs is nothing new to Iran’s theocrats. The government consolidated its power in the 1980s by executing thousands of dissidents. Its most brazen violation of human rights was a massacre of its political opponents in 1988. That summer, pursuant to an order by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian regime subjected all of its political prisoners to one-minute “trials” and hanged nearly 5,000 dissidents. To date, no one has been held to account for these crimes. To the contrary, those who implemented Khomeini’s order have thrived, becoming cabinet ministers and Supreme Court judges.
As the 1988 killings show, Iran’s government has systematically used its prisons as sites of mass murder. With at least 2,600 political prisoners today, it would not hesitate to do so again to create fear among a restless general population that has strong democratic aspirations.
There are several steps Canadian lawmakers can take to promote accountability and prevent the Iranian regime from directing another reign of terror toward political dissidents.
1. Canada’s parliamentarians (including an author of this piece) have recently launched the Iranian Political Prisoners Global Advocacy Project. Modelled on a similar initiative which once defended Soviet prisoners of conscience, the Advocacy Project encourages all Canadian parliamentarians to “adopt” Iranian political prisoners and advocate on their behalf. Political prisoners who escape Iran have consistently said that international attention to their case was their best protection. The participation of Canada’s parliamentarians in the Global Advocacy Project can literally mean the difference between life and death for many Iranian activists behind bars.
2. We must combat the Islamic Republic’s pervasive culture of impunity by shining a light on gross human rights violations that Tehran wishes to hide. On June 5, Canada will become the first country in the world to officially recognize the aforementioned 1988 massacre as constituting crimes against humanity. This will be a significant blow to the Islamic Republic’s quarter-century effort to deny those killings. The recognition will send the strong message that Canada demands accountability for gross human rights violations, no matter how long ago they occurred. We propose, in fact, that Canada expand on this recognition by identifying the perpetrators of the massacre and advocate for their prosecution.
3. Canada must continue to lead the annual resolution at the UN General Assembly that “names and shames” Iran for its terrible human rights record. We must also work with likeminded countries, particularly those in the global south, to require Iran to permit the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran to visit that country’s prisons and talk freely with dissidents. The intensity with which Iran fights the annual resolution and the Rapporteur’s investigation indicates that Iran is vulnerable on this issue.
4. In recent years, there have been troubling reports of functionaries of the Islamic Republic immigrating to Canada and living in Toronto and Montreal’s most affluent neighbourhoods with their ill-gotten gains. Canada’s immigration system can and must do better. We must signal to Iranian leaders that Canada will not be a safe haven for them and their families. At the same time, we should be more generous in providing refugee status to many democracy activists who have escaped Iran and languish without status in countries like Turkey. With a large and vibrant Iranian-Canadian community, our government has a tremendous resource in identifying both those with ties to the regime and those with legitimate refugee claims.
5. Our sanctions need to be more focused on human rights. The current sanctions regime, made even tougher in late May with the banning of all imports and exports, focuses almost exclusively on those affiliated with Iran’s nuclear program. We should similarly identify human rights abusers and subject them, their families, and any front companies they establish, to asset freezes and travel bans.
6. In particular, we must sanction members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps under the Special Economic Measures Act for their human rights violations; list the IRGC as a terrorist organization under the Criminal Code; and expose the fraudulence of the upcoming Iranian presidential elections wherein two of the candidates, Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Velayati, have themselves been indicted for terrorist acts.
Iranian citizens yearn for human rights and the rule of law, as they clearly demonstrated during their massive and peaceful 2009 post-election uprising. They will not achieve these things at the ballot box on June 14. But solidarity and assistance from Canadians and the international community will help them pursue their demands and protect their rights. It is what Iranians require. And it is what Iran’s dictators fear.
Irwin Cotler is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and Co-Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran. Kaveh Shahrooz is an Iranian-Canadian lawyer in Toronto.