Iran acquiring nuclear arms is a genuine threat to Middle East stability. There is a quieter story that isn't a mere threat, but a reality: The government's violation of the human rights of so many Iranian citizens with impunity.
Too few know that Canada has led a firm resolution at the United Nations General Assembly for more than a decade denouncing Iran's human rights record. Before that, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a similar resolution from 1984-2001. Canada has led the world in defending the human rights of the people of Iran since the early days of the Iranian Revolution. We were the first to raise our voice in June, 1980, with an all-party resolution of the House of Commons, and resolutions in other countries around the world followed.
A litmus test to judge Iran's record has been the treatment afforded to its largest non-Muslim religious community, the Baha'is. The record was appalling in the early '80s when more than 200 leading members of the community were summarily executed or 'disappeared.' Canada responded, while I served as Minister of Employment and Immigration, with a refugee program that enriched this country by welcoming several thousand Iranian Baha'is. Lately the record of Iran has worsened – for religious and ethnic minorities, students, journalists, women, and labour leaders – and once again for the Baha'is, who provide a clear measure of just how deplorable the state of human rights is in Iran.
Five years ago this month, seven Baha'i leaders were wrongfully imprisoned and given 20-year sentences – the longest of any current prisoners of conscience. Five years are too many. I join many others around the world in calling for their immediate release.
The state-sponsored persecution of the Baha'is follows them from the cradle to the grave. Baha'is are routinely and arbitrarily thrown into jail. Currently more than a hundred are in prison, including three babies and their mothers. Several hundred others await sentencing or trials. They are denied work in the public sector; pensions; business licenses; and access to post-secondary education. Their cemeteries and holy places are destroyed. They are vilified in government-sponsored media hate campaigns – a strategy the Iranian people are learning to ignore as increasing numbers are, with great courage, speaking out in defence of their fellow Baha'i citizens.
The Baha'is reflect the cultural diversity of the people that make up Iran. They harbour no partisan loyalties and their contributions to the educational, scientific, and cultural advance of Iran since the religion emerged in the nineteenth century are significant. While the Baha'i Faith is an independent religion with a prophet-founder, Baha'u'llah, they respect the Prophet of Islam, just as they honour Iran's classical heritage and the religion of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism. They are not militant and have no intention of bringing down the regime, despite such false accusations by their oppressors.
The theocrats that run Iran follow a chilling plan laid out in a government document made public in 1993 by Professor Galindo Pohl, the UN Commission on Human Rights Special Representative on Iran. Described by The New York Times as "Iran's Nuremburg Laws," Tehran has been persistent and even clever in doing all it can to strangle the Baha'i community quietly, without relying on executions, by erasing the cultural, social, and educational tools that any community needs to survive.
The equality of women and men, the importance of being loyal to government, the need for universal education, the role of science in advancing society, and the need of humanity to cherish religion as long as it contributes to social cohesion and harmony instead of sectarian, exclusive, and extremist claims – these are the Baha'i principles which enflame the animosity of the government.
On this, the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of Iran's Baha'i leaders, it is time again to renew whatever means are available to press home to Iran's leaders how important it is to live up to its historical reputation as a leader of human civilization. Iran's leaders must come to understand the serious costs to that country's international standing, its domestic economy, and the long-term prospects for a prosperous and flourishing country if they continue to undercut the freedoms basic to any modern nation. Let Iran free the seven Baha'i leaders, and all other prisoners of conscience.
Lloyd Axworthy, a Canadian minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000, is president of the University of Winnipeg.