Now that Iran is reconstructing its international relations through diplomacy and becoming a regional power, the West, through the United Nations, is considering using the issue of human rights as leverage. On December 18, 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution put forth by Canada that condemned Iran for alleged human rights violations. 86 countries voted in favor, 36 against and 61 abstained. While the UN resolution did express some concern over human rights abuses, the resolution emphasized that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to address women’s rights as well as the rights of minorities within Iran.
The resolution acknowledged and praised Rouhani’s efforts “to take concrete action to ensure these pledges can result in demonstrable improvements as soon as possible and to uphold the government’s obligations under its domestic laws and under international human rights law.” The UN resolution, which also signaled out Syria and North Korea, comes on the heels of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program. An interim agreement stipulates limitations on certain portions of Iran’s nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief.
In light of the UN resolution, it could be argued that some Western powers are using human rights to further isolate Iran. Importantly, as groups like the Roma continually suffer discrimination in many parts of Europe, many Western countries are given a free pass. Additionally, women, religious and ethnic minorities in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt who are allies of the West continually practice state sanctioned discrimination. Canada, the sponsor of the UN resolution, is accused of gross human rights abuses against indigenous groups. In a December 2012 report, Amnesty International noted “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples in Canada. Aboriginal Canadians have also faced other types of discrimination and injustice in recent decades, but there has never been a UN resolution to defend their rights and condemn the atrocities committed against them.
In Saudi Arabia, where the women are not allowed to drive cars, and constitute only 5% of the workforce, no voice is raised in protest in the West. Saudi women and men are not allowed to work with each other in public offices. Even prior to 2008, Saudi women were not allowed to enter hotels or furnished apartments without the permission from a male chaperon. Currently, every woman who wants to reside in a hotel for a few days must inform the nearest police station of her room reservation and the length of her stay.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and a founding member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but even Shiite Saudis who comprise around 10% to 15% of the population are deprived of their basic rights, including practicing their religious and denominational tenets in public like reciting the prayers exclusive to the Shiites and visiting the shrines of their deceased relatives.
In December 2012, Saudi forces raided a house in the province of al-Jouf and detained 41 people for “plotting to celebrate Christmas.” The state of civil liberties, political freedoms and freedom of press is deplorable in Saudi Arabia. Any criticisms of the House of Saud and the government can lead to detention and even execution, as has been the case with Saudi novelist and political author, Turki al-Hamad, and blogger, Fouad al-Farhan. These injustices and discriminating practices are being committed in a country, which is one the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East.
The situation in Bahrain or Yemen is not much better. Bahraini activists and human rights advocates have reported hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killing, illegal detention and abuse of the critics of the Al-Khalifa regime, especially following the February 2011 uprising in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. The violation of human rights in these Arab countries with whom the United States and other Western governments have strategic alliances are neglected and ignored. This indicates flagrant hypocrisy.
Iran is making progress on its human rights record. However, in light of a new administration in Tehran and the ongoing talks in Geneva, there perhaps are moments when states like Canada should be more diplomatic and allow political developments in Tehran to unfold before drafting any resolutions at the United Nations that hurts rather than helps Iran-West relations and could derails the best opportunity in decades for constructive talks.