Human Rights in Iran

Honourable senators, I too congratulate Senator Frum on her inquiry condemning human rights violations in Iran. As heart-wrenching as it was to hear the stories many of our colleagues told last week of Iranian citizens unlawfully imprisoned and tortured, I am nonetheless thankful. Senator Frum’s inquiry to condemn human rights abuses in Iran could not be more relevant, and I appreciate her initiative as well as this opportunity today to express my revulsion with that country’s ruling power.

In 1987, as I said last week, and it is difficult to talk about those days, I was on assignment in Iran to cover the Persian Gulf War and the story of a Canadian engineer being held in Evin Prison. I stood outside the walls of that prison under the open sky, free to observe the activities taking place in front of me. While there was certainly a difference between what I saw and what I was restricted from seeing on the other side of those walls, that difference was not as stark as you might assume.

Daily life in Iran is fraught with restrictions. What can it be like to live in a country where women and girls are not allowed to even choose what they wear and where you can be seized from your home, held, questioned and tortured, without even hearing your alleged crimes? What does it do to the human psyche to have to constantly conform to the government’s socio-religious norms or risk punishment, and not just your own punishment because the risks extend to your family and friends?

As a reporter with the responsibility to get the story and share it, I felt conspicuous and wary. Whereas Iran’s belief system was foreign and offensive to me, there I was, the foreigner; and 25 years later, Iran’s human rights crisis is worsening every day. Despite the government’s severe restrictions over independent reporting and monitoring, we have more than enough information to put together a clear and ugly picture. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch, the Iranian government crushes all voices of opposition while scoffing at the international community’s growing concern over human rights.

World Report 2012, a publication of Human Rights Watch, provides overwhelming evidence of the systemic and ruthless nature of human rights abuses in Iran. As Senator Cowan mentioned, despite the urgings of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and four UN experts for a moratorium on the death penalty, Iranian authorities carried out more than 600 executions in the past year.

Limits on rights and freedoms abound, but as for limits on the horrible powers of Iranian authorities, there simply are none. Iranian law allows capital punishment for people who have reached puberty. What exactly does this mean? In Iran, people who have reached puberty, honourable senators, are 15 years of age for boys and 9 years of age for girls. In 2011, the Iranian courts allowed three children to be executed. What must it be like to grow up in a country where self-expression carries grave risks and to know right now that the situation in your country is getting worse?

Following the 2009 presidential election, the government issued a crackdown on anti-government protest. That crackdown is still in effect, and social activists, including women’s rights advocates, lawyers, students and journalists, are being targeted. Honourable senators who stood last week to condemn human rights violations in Iran highlighted in their statements the ordeals of various individuals. We heard of men and women, all of them distinct in their personal and work lives, yet also connected because they are among those who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of Iran’s intense security sweep.

Now, as the country moves towards its next parliamentary elections on March 2, human rights advocates in Iran and throughout the world are on high alert. Past and current experiences tell us that these elections will be a sham, yet another slap in the face of democracy. It could also lead to a violent conflict between police and protesters.

In the face of this crisis, we need to remember that it is the respect for human rights and freedoms that makes Canada and like-minded countries throughout the world strong. Iran’s egregious system of government betrays a fear of its people. A government that spits on the rights of its citizens is a country propped up by cowardice.

This challenge can be met and Canada is among a formidable united group of nations and international mechanisms that can do it. We must pursue any and every reasonable avenue, including tightening sanctions. Iran’s leaders may say what they want about self-reliance and resentment toward the West, but their words are bravado.

Speaking to a group of editors for The New York Times last week, Mohammad Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged that the sanctions are cutting deep. He said:

The good news is that we have learned very much how to manage with sanctions. But nobody can say that the sanctions are not hurting.

I am a firm believer that any official role Canada takes must be through the United Nations. Though we are starting to hear the drum beat of war, we must remain grounded and be careful about the role we will take.

The inquiry by Senator Frum is a good inquiry. It addresses the issue of human rights. An inquiry like this shows that senators on both sides of the chamber can and do agree. The Iranian Government is an abusive regime that kills and tortures its citizens. in their statements, Conservative senators were able to put faces to the abuses: real people trying to live real lives.

We must never turn our backs; we must never turn away from them. We must always voice our opinions and believe that one day Iran will recognize and guarantee the fundamental rights of its people and Iranians will be free — free to worship; free to think; free to love; free to wear what they want to wear; and free to know that, when they place their votes, they are helping to shape a better future for themselves and for generations to come and that they are creating a real democracy.