At 24 years old, the Iranian Saba Kordafshari is currently serving a sentence matching her age for merely taking off her hijab on the streets of Tehran. She will spend her youth in prison for standing up for women’s rights in a country that regulates every aspect of a woman’s life.
Soon after her arrest, she was joined by her mother, Raheleh Ahmadi. Raheleh, who had spent the previous two months seeking justice for her daughter, found herself in prison as a way of pressuring her daughter to make a false televised confession.
Charged with “inciting and facilitating corruption and prostitution” for taking off their hijabs in public, mother and daughter were serving their respective 31 months and 24 year imprisonment sentences together in Evin Prison, until Saba was transferred to another prison (Qarchak) Wednesday. Raheleh begged the authorities to transfer her with Saba. They refused.
Iranian Human Rights Defenders
Saba and Raheleh are two of 53 Iranian human rights defenders profiled in a recent report published by the human rights organization Iran Human Rights.
The 53 defenders, who have collectively been sentenced to nearly 400 years imprisonment and 787 lashes, include lawyers arrested for defending their clients, trade unionists asking for their legal rights, environmentalists working to preserve Iran’s wildlife, and children’s rights activists.
These 53 defenders peacefully raised their voices to defend their and our common human rights. In return, they have been harassed, humiliated, beaten, denied due process, and subjected to grossly unfair trials.
Some have had to helplessly witness their families being harassed, some have lost their source of livelihood, and some have been caught in a web of court cases on trumped-up charges that overlap and will ensure they are kept behind bars for years to come.
International Human Rights Day
Yesterday was International Human Rights Day. Human rights defenders were praised and applauded by civil society and governments alike. As with every year, we heard government representatives making laudatory speeches about the bravery of human rights defenders and the importance of their work.
Yet none of the celebrations will amount to any substantial action. From today, it will be business as usual in the world of international politics.
Human rights, and the situation of human rights defenders in particular, rarely feature in bilateral talks and negotiations. Very seldom would you find the issue of human rights and the persecution of human rights defenders being a red line or a deal-breaker. Human rights have become a topic of discussion in international fora, where non-binding resolutions are passed and “International Days Of” celebrated, not an issue that shapes strategies and policies.
In Iran, the situation of human rights, and that of human rights defenders in particular, is graver than it has been in the last three decades. The intensified crackdown has not just targeted those criticizing human rights breaches by authorities, but now effectively includes anyone who, even within the legal framework of the current establishment, has taken a step towards protecting human rights.
While headlines and talks on Iran are dominated by the nuclear deal, it is high time for the people of Iran to be included. The situation of human rights defenders in Iran is critical and demands urgent international attention. It is short-sighted to exclude human rights from negotiations; after all, the nuclear deal is, by definition, a temporary measure – a band aid – from which signatories can withdraw at will when it no longer serves their purposes.
Let’s look at it another way. Today, few remember that the apartheid regime of South Africa also had a contentious nuclear program. But once apartheid ended, South Africa’s nuclear program was no longer an issue, and the new government ultimately voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons.
If Iran’s democratically elected leaders were held accountable for their actions, all citizens treated equally regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religious and political belief, would its nuclear program still pose the same threat as it does today?
Democratically elected governments cannot afford to spend billions of dollars on nuclear programs when workers and teachers have not been paid and millions of people live in poverty and don’t have access to healthcare or education. Democratically elected governments do not need to imprison their critics or citizens seeking their very basic rights.
Time for Action
After yesterday’s International Human Rights Day, let us collectively demand real action. Ignoring human rights issues is no longer a viable solution. It is time to call on democratic nations to prioritize a human rights-based foreign policy. Not only because of the values and principles that are the basis of our rights system but because sustainable peace and stability cannot be achieved without human rights.
We ask citizens and civil society globally to demand that human rights remain perennial fixtures on the global agenda, and push for a human rights shift in foreign policy.
Saba, Raheleh, and all other human rights defenders profiled in our recent report have already started the work by risking their own freedom. We ask you to read their stories, learn their names, and amplify their voices.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.