A leading United Nations expert on human rights in Iran says now is the time for Canada and other countries to re-engage with Tehran as it looks to improve its relationship with the outside world.
Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, made the comments to a Senate committee Wednesday. His appearance before the committee comes as the Liberal government looks to re-engage with Iran, after a period of soured relations under the previous Conservative government.
"I believe that now more than ever, it is time for, in my view, Canada and the world community to work hand in hand to find … effective and creative ways to engage with Iran on human rights as they look to broaden their political, economic and cultural links with the outside world," said Mr. Shaheed in a video appearance from Geneva.
"Inclusive engagement with Iran and continued focus on human rights are not in, my view, mutually exclusive realities," he said.
The special one-day Senate hearing falls during Iran Accountability Week in Ottawa, during which parliamentarians are leading a series of initiatives, including statements and questions in Parliament, highlighting human-rights abuses in Iran. Conservative foreign-affairs critic Tony Clement and Senator Linda Frum launched the annual event Monday by calling on the government to halt its re-engagement with Iran and reinstate the recently lifted sanctions against the country.
"We are calling upon the federal government to stop the unseemly rush to embrace the dangerous regime in Tehran," said Mr. Clement.
While Mr. Shaheed expressed support for re-engagement Wednesday, he cautioned against doing so if it comes at the expense of holding back on public criticism of Iran for its ongoing human-rights abuses.
"If there was a tradeoff between, say, a quiet dialogue and speaking out on really bad situations, then I think that doesn't work. But if engagement is an additional channel which can advance human rights, then certainly it is a value added," Mr. Shaheed said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has said that Canada will re-engage with Iran on a "step by step" basis, as it still has concerns about the government's "very questionable" human-rights record and its role in the region, especially for Israel.
The Conservatives are using Iran Accountability Week to bring attention to the transgressions of the regime in Tehran. Ms. Frum spoke in the Senate Wednesday on Iran's "egregious human-rights abuses," particularly the use of torture and the unlawful incarceration of political prisoners.
Mr. Shaheed said outspoken international support for political prisoners is vital to their morale as they suffer in Iran's prisons.
"When there is a person's case documented, when a person's case is spoken about out in the outside world … they certainly tell me they feel safer."
Relations with Iran deteriorated after the previous Conservative government closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and kicked Iranian diplomats out of Canada in 2012. The Liberal government is interested in re-engaging with Iran and took its first step in doing so in February by lifting sanctions on Iran's financial services, imports and exports.
Mr. Shaheed, who is barred from travelling to Iran to carry out his work as special rapporteur, said re-engagement creates a "golden opportunity" for businesses to invest in Iran and play their part in improving the human-rights situation there.
Mr. Dion's press secretary Chantal Gagnon told The Globe and Mail this week that discussions about the future of bilateral relations are ongoing, but said there are no immediate plans to reopen the Canadian embassy in Tehran.