Washington, D.C. – Human rights activists, scholars, journalists, and diplomats converged last week at the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland to discuss the future of Iran’s human rights movement, with keynote addresses from Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and NIAC advisory board member Ambassador John Limbert.
Participating in a panel discussion, Dr. Ebadi spoke about the evolution of human rights discourse within Iran and refuted the three typical responses of the Iranian government to demands for greater human rights in the country. One typical response of the Iranian government, said Ebadi, is the claim that human rights itself is a foreign concept and, as such, has no place inside the Iran. She dismissed this argument by asking how Iran can claim to support human rights at the United Nations and then say it has no place in its own country. A second stance taken by the Iranian government, Ebadi said, is the claim that human rights violations are an internal matter of Iran and no one else’s business. Ebadi argued that human rights are international and transcend country lines, adding that others have the right to talk about human rights within Iran, just as Iran talks about human rights in other countries. The final approach taken by the Iranian government is to deflect criticism by accusing other states of also committing human rights violations. Ebadi acknowledged that this accusation may be true, but said that the prevalence of human rights violations is not a justification for these violations to occur.
Speaking on a separate panel, Fereshteh Ghazi, an Iranian journalist and human rights activist, discussed the current state of the women’s movement in Iran and emphasized the role of women in the Green Movement. Ghazi noted the powerful role that Madaran-e Azadar, or “Mourning Mothers”, has played in the aftermath of last year’s disputed elections. According to Ghazi, the symbolism of these women, who gather once a week in local parks in Iran to mourn the death of their children or to demand their release from prison, has been so significant that Iranian government officials have been unsuccessful in preventing the continued public displays and press coverage they have generated. Madaran-e Azadar, along with the One Million Signatures campaign, are at the forefront of the women’s movement in Iran today, Ghazi argued.
Continuing the discussion on women’s rights, Dr. Reza Afshari, professor of history and human rights at Pace University, and Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and the Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran debated the relevance of cultural relativism when talking about human rights. “The concept of equal respect was alien to all cultures in the beginning,” said Afshari. “The West had to change its culture for the rights of men to become known. It was not self relevant that ‘all men are created equal.’” Afshari and Keshavarz agreed that, in order for women’s rights and human rights to truly be successful in Iranian society, there must be changes within Iranian families and culture as well.
Friday’s conference ended with a speech from a member of NIAC’s advisory board, Ambassador John Limbert, who most recently served as the State Department as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran. Limbert, whose experience living and working in Iran dates back to the 1960’s, opened his speech by saying, “My Iranian friends deserve much better. They deserve a government that listens to its citizens.”
Limbert captivated the audience at the University of Maryland with historical pictures of Iranians from different backgrounds coming together and fighting for change within in Iran. He presented a picture of a time when Iranians and Americans were working together in the early 1900’s to help build constitutional government in Iran and compared this with a picture of “a road that goes nowhere”, illustrating the state of Iran-US relations for the past 30 years. He argued that America’s role towards Iran should be based on four principles – “do no harm, bear witness to what is happening, state the facts, and stay out of Iranian political contests that we do not understand.”
Limbert concluded his speech by suggesting that the Iranian-American community can serve two critical roles. “The first role,” he said, is to “cast the light on what is happening in Iran. Those who have declared war against their own people should know they cannot hide.” The second role is to present a balanced and accurate picture of Iran to Americans. Limbert explained, “We’re dealing with a very complex and delicate situation. Ill-considered actions could have disastrous consciences, even for those who we claim we are supporting.”