Suzanne Nossel, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations
Washington, DC – “This effort is not about grandstanding or showdown, but about action on a practical step that we hope will lead to change over time,” declared U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel, discussing efforts now underway at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to establish a human rights monitor on Iran.
Nossel was joined by Swedish Ambassador to the United State Jonas Hafström at NIAC’s Capitol Hill conference on Wednesday, Answering the Iranian People’s Call for Human Rights.
Ambassador Hafström detailed the Iran monitor effort, which is expected to come to a vote on March 24 or 25 and is strongly supported by Iranian human rights defenders, international human rights NGOs, and NIAC. Sweden and the US are leading the effort at HRC with co-sponsors from every region of the world. “It is the task of each government to make sure that the human rights of all citizens are fully respected,” said Hafström. “This task cannot be delegated to anyone else.”
An Iran monitor, Nossel said, “will carry the imprimatur of the entire international community and will deliver information and messages that will be difficult for Tehran to dismiss or counter.” She highlighted how a monitor on Iran had previously been in place, but was eliminated in 2002 when the US left the UN human rights body under the Bush Administration. According to Nossel, US efforts to rejoin and reengage the HRC helped prevent Iran from winning a seat on the body, and have built momentum to establish an Iran monitor. “Human rights are now at the forefront of US foreign policy and global concerns, and those who question whether human rights really mattered in the Mid East now have their answer,” Nossel stated.
Both Hafström and Nossel acknowledged that the HRC remains flawed, but that both countries were working to reform the body through their membership there. Nossel stated that supporting the establishment of an Iran monitor is the Administration’s most ambitious task at the HRC to date.
Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) also appeared before the conference and discussed his work in Congress to focus attention on Iran’s human rights abuses. “If we don’t speak up about human rights in Iran, our silence will allow the Iranian government to continue beating, jailing, and killing, and executing the brave souls fighting for democracy,” Ellison said.
He discussed legislation he championed in the previous Congress, the Stand With the Iranian People Act, which was the first bill to impose targeted sanctions against human rights abusers in Iran’s government. While that measure was incorporated into law, Ellison emphasized measures in his bill that have not become law which would have eased restrictions preventing US human rights and humanitarian organizations from working directly with the Iranian people. Enabling humanitarian-based connections “creates a very positive impression about what the American people are all about,” Ellison said. “So we need to untangle the knots that make it so difficult to do that.”
Former Iran-based New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi said that Iranians face increasingly limited access to the Internet and satellite TV. “If the US wants to help, the first thing [Iranians] need is access to the Internet,” she said. “Lift the sanctions—Iranians cannot even buy Skype credits to talk on Skype lines, they have to rely on telephone lines that are monitored by the Iranian government. There is satellite internet over Iran, but because of the sanctions they cannot access it.”
Fathi also reflected on her experience as a journalist in Iran. “As a former reporter in Tehran, I can testify that pressure [on human rights] does work.” She noted that reporters were constantly pressed to not report on human rights abuses, while at the same time she heard from persecuted individuals that international attention on their cases helped ease government repression against them. “People on the ground always said that they wanted their message to be conveyed to the outside world,” she said.
Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation participated on a panel of Iran and human rights experts and noted that Iran has made “a relatively influential figure in Mohammad Larijani responsible for human rights in Iran,” which he said demonstrates vulnerability on the issue.
Also on the panel was Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver and Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. Hashemi said that the international community should shine “a global spotlight” on Iran’s human rights violations. Hashemi noted that Iranian human rights defenders have publicly questioned why the UN has managed to sanction Iran on its nuclear program, but has not yet acted on Iran’s human rights violations.
“Up until now, the spotlight on Iran has not been on human rights, it’s been on nuclear weapons. And the Iranian regime loves to talk about nuclear weapons, it loves to talk about Israel, it loves to talk about Ahmadinejad’s views on the Holocaust,” Hashemi said. “What it does not want to talk about is the state of human rights in its country.” By shifting the conversation, Hashemi said, the international community can advance the cause of human rights.
Whitson agreed and urged for the US to work with countries like Brazil to ensure that efforts like human rights sanctions are multilateral. But she also warned that the US must not seek to “instrumentalize” Iran’s human rights record as “a backdoor way of isolating Iran,” on other issues, which she said would be dangerous and ultimately fail.
Hashemi noted that the Iranian government’s statements regarding uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly those calling for other governments to not suppress demonstrators, have exposed Iran’s double standards regarding the human rights of its own population.
Whitson urged for the US to guard against accusations of its own double standards, cautioning that the Iranian government could deflect human rights concerns with evidence of US inconsistency. “It is incredibly important for the US to be consistent in its voice and treat all of the actors in the Middle East the same with respect to their human rights abuses.”