As Nuclear Talks Progress, Baird’s Concern for Human Rights in Iran Rings Hollow

Negotiations over the past three days in Geneva almost achieved a historic nuclear deal with Iran, and the parties’ concluding statements suggest there is a good chance a deal will be reached when talks resume on November 20.

Canada, however, appears focused on other concerns. As the Geneva talks began, Foreign Minister Baird, writing in the National Post, issued a strong denunciation of Iran’s human rights record. “Standing with [the] oppressed people” of Iran, Baird draws attention to the continuing dismal human rights record of the Iranian government, notwithstanding the election in June of a new president with a reformist agenda. Canada won’t be sending President Rouhani a card on Tuesday (his 100th day in power), Baird says, since persecution of religious and ethnic minorities continues, as do restrictions on freedom of expression, “serious discrimination” against women, arbitrary imprisonment and torture.

Although Baird’s criticism has merit, the evident bias of his approach will undermine the impact of his intervention. Indeed, it is likely to be viewed as timed to undermine the Iranian government’s credibility in the midst of the most serious discussions to date on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Doubts about Baird’s intentions are therefore likely to generate suspicion about the timing of his op-ed.

Baird sets a number of benchmarks to judge whether the Iranian government is serious with respect to its pledges to improve respect for human rights. The benchmarks include allowing UN human rights experts to visit the country, ratifying and implementing human rights treaties, investigating reports of torture and punishing perpetrators, guaranteeing freedom of expression and ending internet censorship, and prohibiting religious and gender discrimination. On the last point, Baird goes so far as to demand that Iran  “[adopt] policies and laws that promote the participation of women in public life, including candidacies for the office of president; and [amend] Iran’s civil code so that a husband may no longer prevent his wife from working or pursuing a professional career.”

Baird is right to argue that speeches promising human rights reforms must be matched by action. As he says, Iran will be judged “by its deeds, not its words”.  The problem, however, is that in evaluating Baird’s demands, the new Iranian government is likely to apply the same standard. Did Baird issue his comments (as he claims) because Canada is upholding international human rights standards without fear or favour? Or is Iran being singled out for special condemnation?

On this point, unfortunately, the foreign minister falls flat. Consider the human rights issues Baird raises vis-à-vis Iran: religious persecution, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, discrimination against women and censorship. All could equally be raised with respect to many of Iran’s immediate neighbours in the Persian Gulf: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and especially Saudi Arabia. In the latter country, reliable human rights reports document systematic torture, a deeply flawed judicial system, and the persecution of the country’s Shi’a minority. Saudi Arabia’s blatant denial of women’s rights and contempt for religious freedom are notorious. Further, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that repression in Saudi Arabia is worsening in the wake of revolts elsewhere in the Middle East.  And like Iran, Saudi Arabia has refused to permit UN human rights experts to visit the country.

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However, in two and a half years in office Baird has made at least two visits to the Gulf (including Saudi Arabia in March 2012, and Bahrain, Qatar and U.A.E. in April 2013), while issuing almost no public criticism of the human rights situation in these countries (except for some statements on protests in Bahrain).

How could the Iranians take seriously a demand from Canada that Iran promote women’s rights and their “participation in public life” when it already does so to a greater degree than the Saudis, who escape Baird’s criticism? How can Baird claim to be so concerned about religious freedom in Iran when he makes no mention of it in Saudi Arabia—a theocracy that severely limits religious practice?

These are not facile comparisons. The scope and degree of repression may vary; Iran’s record to date on political imprisonment, torture and execution is especially grim. Yet neither Saudi Arabia, Qatar nor U.A.E holds free and fair elections, nor even elections of the imperfect type that brought President Rouhani to power in Iran. Moreover, those countries are not simply Iran’s neighbours but also its enemies; and unlike Iran, they generally enjoy good relations with the West.

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Doubts about Baird’s intentions are therefore likely to generate suspicion about the timing of his National Post op-ed. He claimed the occasion was to mark the 100-day point in Rouhani’s term (which the University of Toronto’s Munk School, with DFATD funding, has been score-carding). But he released his op-ed on November 7—five days before the 100-day mark, but on exactly the same day as Western and Russian negotiators reconvened discussions with Iran in Geneva on the nuclear issue.

Is Baird aiming to undermine the credibility of the supposedly reformist new Iranian government by pointing out its domestic repressiveness? Or, by pointing to such repression, is Baird bolstering Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s denunciation of any deal in order to support Netanyahu’s view that the Iranians can’t be trusted? The hostile (and, some would say, unbalanced) nature of Canadian policy towards Iran in the past few years certainly supports such speculation.

In itself, the foreign minister’s criticism of the new Iranian government’s human rights record is well-founded. After several months in office, some political prisoners have been released but there has been little serious attempt to reform laws and institutions that permit continued torture, arbitrary imprisonment, repression of free speech and discrimination against religious minorities. Further, pointing to such abuses precisely as the nuclear talks progress might usefully remind the media not to forget human rights issues.

Nevertheless, the timing of Baird’s intervention will raise doubts about its true purpose, not least because of the evident bias in Baird’s approach. In any event, such bias means that no one—least of all the Iranian government—is listening.

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