Who Is Afraid of Talking about Iran's Human Rights Crisis?

Hadi Ghaemi and Aaron Rhodes

As the latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group is about to resume, the ongoing human rights crisis in Iran is once more being overshadowed and ignored by the international community.

The question of holding the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for grave human rights violations has become deeply politicized and distorted. The lives of innocent people are being lost or devastated, victims not only of their own governments' intransigence, but also of confusion and tiresome ideological bickering among international policymakers.

The Iranian government is vulnerable to international criticism regarding human rights and can be pushed to reduce repression on its citizens, but its game of creating conflict, division and confusion has largely succeeded.

Many proponents of negotiations with Iran, who emphasize understanding Iran's need for respect and security in its region, oppose military threats, and find even President Obama's attempts at negotiations lackluster, also oppose demands to hold Iran accountable for its human rights abuses. Typically, they see human rights concerns as obstacles to dialogue, which will isolate Iran. Sometimes, human rights campaigners are even lumped together with warmongering neocons, because in some cases the latter have raised human rights concerns.

Such analysts who are against military confrontation thus downplay focusing on human rights because it is a position held, perhaps disingenuously, by some who favor military confrontation according to the narrow-minded, partisan tribalism infecting Western policy elites. It is not the first time the "peace lobby," which largely overlaps with left-wing orientations, has found itself apologizing for human rights abuses and telling human rights advocates to stop obstructing "engagement" and fueling international conflict.

A similar tendency may be seen among international officials who downplay Iran's human rights crimes, ostensibly because they fear that raising them, which is their duty and responsibility, will become a pretext for an attack on Iran. Officials refer to the fact that proponents of the war to topple Saddam Hussein gave as one of their rationales his government's murder of more than 300,000 innocent Iraqi citizens.

States that reflexively oppose "Western" policies also hide behind this excuse to ignore the abuses in Iran, while some also insist that the government's grotesque mistreatment of its citizens reflects its particular cultural, and thus legitimate approach.

At the same time, those preoccupied with nuclear nonproliferation and/or with Iran's expanding influence around the world also push the question of human rights issues to the side. A general consensus among Western diplomats seems to be that human rights should be kept separate from nuclear negotiations and other security questions, putatively for fear of derailing delicate negotiations or linking human rights to security issues in a way that might suggest bargaining for human rights. Of course, human rights are sadly and routinely bargained away in bilateral relations, especially the rights of people from powerful countries. But with Iran, human rights are not bargained away, they are given away, since the international community gets nothing in return for its silence except scorn.

Finally, the belief that pressure to comply with international human rights norms is a form of political interference in the internal affairs of another country is driving a general US effort to "reset" relationships with Iran and other nondemocratic states, one that has harmed their human rights communities. Those human rights defenders understand that upholding international human rights standards is not the same as interference in the internal affairs of another country.

All of these tendencies regarding addressing Iran's human right violations are illogical and harmful, both to the people of Iran and to the international human rights system. They all show the different ways in which the international community has fallen victim to the Iranian regime's guile.

The international community should learn from the position of Iranian human rights defenders, who have consistently opposed a military attack on their country, but also ask for Iran to be held accountable by international human rights mechanisms.

Iran's bloody human rights violations are a challenge to the integrity of the international system, which, if left unanswered, will encourage other states to follow suit and further threaten international security. Iran is attempting to rewrite and gut the rules on human rights, and, by continuing such practices as stoning people to death and cutting off their limbs as legal punishments, Iran is raising the tolerance threshold of the international community and dragging universal standards down, cheered on by other countries whose rulers can only stay in power if they violate human rights.

Perhaps diplomats would like to compartmentalize human rights and remain silent about the issue during discussions about other topics, but they need to understand that for the Iranian ruling clique, it is all about control. They seek to neutralize both their own people and their critics abroad; so far, the manipulation of anti-Western solidarity, and creating conflict via its nuclear file, have worked perfectly on both scores.

The international community has a choice regarding this manipulation. It should choose a tough human rights engagement line that will show solidarity with the Iranian people. The United Nations' Human Rights Council should end its disturbing silence on the ongoing crisis in Iran and establish a special mechanism to document and report on Iran's widespread violations. In doing so, the Council, as a multi-national body, can show Iran that the international community is serious about the problem and encourage Iran to respect its international obligations.

Hadi Ghaemi is the Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Aaron Rhodes is its Policy Advisor.