Following the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and in anticipation of the lifting of most economic sanctions against Iran, delegation after delegation of government officials has shuttled between Tehran and European capitals looking to discuss new diplomatic and economic ties. And while the nuclear deal is a significant achievement for peace and diplomacy, supported by me and many in the Iranian human rights community, there is still concern that the “Open for Business” sign hanging on Iran’s front door will allow for ongoing human rights abuses to continue unabated.
European governments must not let their eagerness to re-engage with Iran and its markets overshadow the urgent human rights reforms desperately needed within the country. Instead, the same emerging diplomatic and economic channels should be utilized to hold Iran accountable for its abominable human rights record.
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Ending global isolation will likely be good for many ordinary Iranians. Still, as Europe begins to trade with Iran, it cannot assume that engagement alone, while positive, will fundamentally improve the lives of the people. Iran is still a country where journalists and lawyers go to prison for doing their jobs, women cannot travel or seek employment without the consent of their husbands, floggings and amputations are conducted (and done so in public), and people are put to death at a more frequent rate than virtually anywhere else.
Moreover, human right abuses often implicate the business community, in terms of state surveillance programs embedded in the IT sector, discriminatory policies that lead to the closing of businesses owned by members of the Baha’i faith, and systemic corruption that goes largely unchecked.
If the EU and other European governments want to ensure that increased diplomatic and economic cooperation with Iran will also improve, and not exacerbate, the country’s human rights situation, they must do four main things. They must maintain a focus on Iran at the United Nations; supplement multilateral efforts with strategic bilateral dialogue; work closely with Iranian civil society; and establish standards for business and social responsibility.
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In recent months, Iran has attempted to establish new bilateral human rights dialogues with many U.N. member states, such as Austria, Switzerland, Brazil and South Korea, to name a few. These dialogues can be effective avenues to promote rights, but foreign governments should beware that the Iranian government’s primary intent is to segment human rights issues into isolated discussions. Iran seeks to minimize public scrutiny from within the U.N. system and keep Iranian human rights defenders and civil society from having an audible voice in the conversation.
We’ve already seen this in 2002, when a bilateral human rights dialogue with the EU was set up, in part, as a substitution for a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. By the EU’s own admission, the dialogue went nowhere, and in 2009, when mass human rights violations spiked after the disputed presidential election, the UN had no expert in place to deal with the crisis.
This is why Europe and its partners should utilize the broad legitimacy of the U.N. system and continue to support the two annual resolutions on human rights in Iran: the U.N. General Assembly resolution, which outlines the concerns of the human rights community, and the Human Rights Council resolution, which establishes the mandate for the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Outside the U.N., European governments can effectively pursue bilateral dialogues with the Islamic Republic only if these dialogues are benchmark-driven and focus on specific human rights issues and individual cases of abuse. Otherwise, Iranian officials will again try to undermine the efficacy of such relationships. For example, the head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, met recently with Austrian President Heinz Fischer and suggested a bilateral dialogue on the “philosophy” of human rights. With so many human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience languishing in Iranian jails, European officials cannot afford to hold abstract philosophical discussions with their Iranian counterparts. There are real issues and human lives at stake here.
In this regard, the role of Iranian civil society — both in-country and in exile — is paramount. The EU must support and work with Iranian rights defenders to shape an agenda that can actually have an impact. Iranian human rights defenders know better than anyone what is needed and what is achievable.
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Finally, any European business venture in Iran must establish standards for social responsibility. When Nokia-Siemens provided telecommunications technology to Iran a few years ago, it was used to track, monitor and arrest activists — some of whom spent years in prison as a result. Siemens and other European companies looking to re-enter Iranian markets have an obligation to ensure their businesses won’t contribute to the Iranian government’s human rights abuses as outlined in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Moreover, the European Parliament and individual governments should also establish human rights reporting requirements for firms working in Iran. These requirements would encourage businesses to evaluate the human rights impact of their trade with Iran and report that assessment in a transparent manner. In the end, investors also will benefit from the stability and openness that human rights reforms, especially those that strengthen the rule of law, will bring.
The lure of economic engagement with Iran right now is massive. For many in Europe, now is the time to turn the page on the heightened political tensions of the last decade. I hope that Europe can see past the noticeable financial appeal, and view this era as an opportunity to help the many in Iran who cannot yet enjoy basic human freedoms, despite nuclear compromise. If we let Iran off the hook now, there may not be another chance.