April 22, 2011

by Matt Duss

Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi called upon the United States yesterday to help strengthen international human rights law, and stressed the need for political, as opposed to economic, sanctions against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran for its human rights abuses.

Speaking at an Iran conference at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, Ebadi, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, examined how democratic countries should behave toward non-democratic countries like Iran. "The worst solution is a military attack," Ebadi said. "Democracy is not merchandise to be exported to a country, democracy cannot be purchased and sent to another country."

In the past, Ebadi has strongly criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying that it increased Iran’s influence in the region and politically benefited hardliners in Iran. "Dictators actually like to be attacked by foreigners," Ebadi said yesterday, "so using excuse of national security, they can put away their opposition."

Ebadi also opposed the use of economic sanctions, "because they will hurt the people." "Notwithstanding the ten years of economic sanctions against Iraq," she said, "Saddam was still there, while many people died deprived of food and medication."

The best tools against regimes like Iran’s, Ebadi said, are political sanctions, which she described as "measures taken against violators of human rights, [but] that do not hurt the people."

"The most important part of political sanctions is the International Criminal Court," Ebadi said, and it was important that human rights violators be referred there. Ebadi noted, however, that while "the European countries have ratified the ICC convention" — 114 states in all — "the ICC has a few serious enemies that stop its progress — Israel, America, China, and Russia."

"I want to ask you, the progressive citizens of the United States to put pressure your government to ratify the International Criminal Court," Ebadi said. "We are in the globalization era, what we see is that trade has been globalized, but justice has to become globalized as well." Ebadi also acknowledged the recent designation of a special United Nations monitor for human rights in Iran — which the Obama administration supported against heavy Iranian lobbying — as an important step.

Ebadi downplayed concerns over increased Iranian influence in the region as a result of the Arab uprisings, saying that Sunni-Shia tensions would mitigate against too much Iranian influence. Governments should have normal relations with each other, Ebadi said. "I don’t see any problem that any government, even a government like Iran’s, has relations with other countries."

Ebadi specifically predicted that Libya would not become an ally of Iran, because "the [Libyan] people will not forget what the West has done for them" against Gaddafi. However, noting the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, she cautioned against simply replacing secular dictatorships with religious dictatorships, using the Iranian revolution as an example of a revolution that had been hijacked by religious extremists. "We rose against the shah, a non-democratic government, and we wanted freedom and democracy, but we have not achieved that," Ebadi said. "Therefore we have to pay attention. Getting rid of the dictator is not enough."

Ebadi also criticized the Obama administration’s different approach to government crackdowns in the region. More people were killed Yemen and Bahrain than in Tunisia and Egypt, she said, but "It looks like Obama has closed his eyes and ears to Shi’is being killed in Bahrain and Yemen."

In a conversation before her remarks, Ebadi praised President Obama’s recent Nowruz message, in which he named several Iranian dissidents currently imprisoned by the regime, and the administration’s sanctions against specific human rights abusers in the Iranian government, something she said “is good for spirits of the people in Iran.”

Asked about the state of Iran’s pro-democracy Green movement, Ebadi cautioned that she was not a spokesperson for the movement, but said that it was still a force in Iran. "I don’t accept the claim that the Green movement doesn’t know what it wants, what it wants is democracy and human rights," Ebadi said, "but there’s no single strategy, it is not a political party." While many in the movement accepted the Iranian consitution as it is, "There are articles where rights are guaranteed, freedom of association, freedom of demonstrating, and we need those rights enforced." Once these rights are enforced, Ebadi said, the movement "can step by step go after other reforms."

As to whether it was possible for the U.S. to continue talking to the Iranian government without betraying Iranian democrats, Ebadi replied, "It depends what they talk about."

"In general I’m going to say that it’s better for the U.S. to focus on human rights than on nuclear [issue]," Ebadi said. "Focusing on human rights proves that America finds itself obligated to [these] international principles, and does not attract peoples’ nationalistic sentiments in favor of Ahamdinejad," as the nuclear issue does. Iran’s nuclear program enjoys broad support among Iranians.

After her speech, Ebadi was asked by a young audience member what Iranians outside the country, specifically students could do to help Iran, Ebadi replied, "The best thing that a student can do is study well — and then go back to Iran."

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