An Iranian request for South Africa

2014-03-26 16:19

Dear South Africa, I have a request:

You did not ask for it as this distinction was earned at a high cost, but among nations you have become one of the most important moral voices of the last century.

Your peaceful transition from brutal apartheid to a constitutional democracy is an example for all oppressed nations. South Africa is an example that fuels us as we strive to remove bias and violence from our societies.That is why so many Iranians look to you for support.

My simple request is: will you support them?

As one of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council, you have a big responsibility. This month, you can defend human rights in Iran by voting for a resolution that will extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran – a country notorious worldwide for its violations of fundamental rights.

An “abstention” vote, however, would be bewildering.

One vote can never tarnish the brilliant achievements of your national struggle. Yet your silence will foster doubts about whether South Africa is concerned with the dreams of other people living under discriminatory regimes.

Your disregard for our aspirations will only increase the confidence of a tyrannical government while disheartening young Iranians whose own ideals are rooted in the South African example.

Young men and women in Iran circumvent heavy internet censorship to read about South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. They live with the hope of emulating your path to democracy, your Constitutional Court and your abolition of capital punishment.

So far, there hasn’t been a leading voice like Nelson Mandela. But they do have a Robben Island – it is called Evin Prison.

The Iranian regime has imprisoned, killed or forced into exile any citizen with the capacity to lead.

Our last popular movement, which challenged an unhealthy election in 2009, led to authorities detaining, torturing, raping and murdering thousands of peaceful activists and forcing into exile thousands more.

Three of that movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard, have been under extrajudicial house arrest for three years without charges or trial, causing a UN working group to deem their imprisonment illegal.

In 2010, I was a guest at the University of Cape Town where I was studying South Africa’s post-apartheid political transition. During my stay and research, as an Iranian, I felt as one with the victims of the bloody history of apartheid. Discrimination is discrimination. It is repulsive.

Apartheid South Africa represented a deeply rigid type of discrimination. There are other types of bigoted and repressive systems, however, just as intolerable and in need of change.

Iranian laws unapologetically discriminate based on gender, religion and conscience. To fully understand it, you must be a woman in Iran forced to wear hijab or barred from watching a football match live.

You must be an ethnic Arab, Kurdish, Baluch, Azeri and Lur facing the government’s economic neglect and biased death penalty. You must be a Christian convert arrested and threatened for leaving Islam.

You must be a member of the Baha’i faith when authorities raid and vandalise your home, beat you, demolish your holy sites and close university doors on you. You must be a government critic or opposition activist whose life has been ended for things you said or wrote.

To keep this discordant system in place, the government dedicates a huge amount of its budget towards maintaining a rigged Judicial Branch and several repressive security organisations.

Of course, a discriminatory regime always has a small group of supporters, a population that is considered “better citizens” who benefit from advantages and favours in the system.

The Iranian government also spends money internationally and expands trade relations strategically within the developing world. Iran does not care to make any profits from these investments; it is just trying to buy votes in the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies so it can continue its unjust practices at home.

The next vote of the Human Rights Council is quickly approaching. Iranian human rights defenders are wondering what South Africa’s government will do. While ordinary Iranians have been calling repeatedly for dignity and equal rights for all citizens, why has South Africa remained silent?

Three years after the UN appointed Dr Ahmed Shaheed as Special Rapporteur, the Islamic republic has yet to allow him to enter the country and, using obscenities, try to deride his work.

Yet ordinary Iranians desperately need someone monitoring the widespread violations of human rights in our country. Eight months after President Hassan Rouhani’s election, little has changed. Victims of abuse need Dr Shaheed.

I know the international discourse over Iran can be complicated. Iranian rights defenders welcome the nuclear negotiations and the removal of sanctions, but cannot hide our fear that closed-doors negotiations will result in less attention to abuses in Iran. Human rights should not be negotiable.

South Africa, you are an inspiration. Will you support us? Will you vote “yes”?

» A former Harvard University Radcliffe Fellow, Mehrangiz Kar is a prominent Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and author of the book Crossing the Red Line, as well as many articles

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