Today is International Human Rights Day. You probably didn't know that. Don't worry; you're in good company. For better or worse the contemporary calendar is littered with an untold number of days of celebration, commemoration and recognition ranging from National Beer Day to National Hugging Day. But while the vast majority of Americans might not have marked their calendars for International Human Rights Day, I've staked my professional credibility on the notion that fundamentally, you care.
For those of us who have focused on the issue of human rights and the range of offending countries, Iran stands out as one of the most egregious. But while Iran is a staple of the daily news cycle, we too rarely hear about the public hangings, trumped up charges against political dissidents, or state sanctioned amputations. We rarely hear about the persecution of religious minorities, stonings or execution of minors. Since the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan at the hands of the Iranian regime in 2009, can most of us name a specific Iranian human rights case?
When Iran180, an organization founded to raise awareness on Iran's human rights record and illicit nuclear program, held a panel discussion yesterday in New York City on Iran's Human Rights record on the eve of International Human Rights Day, we quickly saw how much concern there was. And as the diverse list of attendees quickly grew -- from Iranian dissidents to clergy of almost every faith -- we saw just how unifying an issue it is.
But what stood out most at the event's conclusion was the common participant refrain of, "we didn't know". It's one thing to know vaguely that religious minorities are persecuted in Iran. It's another to learn the names and faces of those at risk. And our panel yesterday was designed to do just that. So when Alemash Asfaw discussed how members of the Baha'i faith in Iran are regularly singled out for ridicule, arrest and even execution; when Bret Caldwell, representing the International Brotherhood of Teamsters told the story of Mansour Osanlou, the head of Iran's independent transportation union, who has "spent more time in jail than out in the last decade" simply because he's a member of a union, and has been beaten, harassed and stabbed; when Reverend Robert Stearns of Eagles Wings told the audience about Pastor Yousef Nadar Khani, imprisoned in Iran because of his conversion to Christianity; when all of these stories were told, human rights became, much more human.
Similar trends held true in a Iran180 survey of U.S. college students released yesterday; they grasp that Iran is a serious violator of human rights but have little to no knowledge of what actually constitutes breaking the law in Iran. A majority of respondents for example, didn't realize that homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran. An even larger majority, nearly two-thirds of respondents, weren't aware that one's religion can be grounds for the death penalty. The same ignorance extends to harsh punishments for offenses such as independent labor organizing, open critiques of the government, public displays of affection, and personal fashion choices.
Another obstacle in galvanizing activism on the human rights front is that in the face of a threat so enormous, people fear that they can't possibly make a dent. History shows this fear cannot be justified. Event panelist David Keyes of Cyber Dissidents reminded the audience the role that activism played in the ultimate release of imprisoned Russian
dissident Natan Sharansky. When Irwin Cotler, who served as Sharansky's lawyer and later became Canada's minister of justice asked former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev years later why he had freed Sharansky, he said he had learned of Sharansky only when greeted by protesters in Canada demanding his release. Because he had become such an international cause célèbre, the government knew it would pay a heavy price were he to be killed or continue behind bars. Of course, when a prisoner is invisible to start, no one notices that he's disappeared.
Overall, it seems that most of us, when asked, would say that we regard human rights as a priority. However, our true concern can only be measured by what we are willing to do about it when no one is asking. In attendance was Reverend Jacques De Graff of Canaan Baptist Church who offered a reminder at the event's conclusion that "today will be a missed opportunity unless we have inspired action on behalf of human rights".
What will it take for us to make Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani or Mansour Osanlou household names? What will it take for us to deliver tangible results on behalf of the students, dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community, who are daily subjected to the harsh and arbitrary treatment of the Iranian regime?
Maybe it takes something as seemingly superficial as a designated annual day to remind us. But while one day a year seems ample to fete beer and the hug (both, as it turns out, potentially punishable in Iran), we're sure that Dec. 10, the day commemorating U.N. ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is intended to remind us of the critical work that warrants our attention for the remaining 364.