Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.
By: /
May 22, 2013
Toronto-based lawyer

Reading about Iran these days is grim work.  What makes it even more disheartening is that a historical amnesia pervades much of the commentary on Iran.  Whether it is UN or NGO reports that reveal a deepening human rights crisis, or analysis by Western pundits of an upcoming presidential election no one believes will be free or fair, the emphasis is always on the latest catastrophe, with scant attention to how we arrived here in the first place.

If there is any hope of reversing Iran’s culture of impunity, and setting it on a path towards respect for human rights, this trend must change.  We must battle this amnesia and demand accountability for crimes committed long ago. 

In short, to get to a democratic future for Iran, it is essential that we revisit its painful past. 

As an example of the amnesia, take a recent article by Doug Saunders, columnist for the Globe and Mail.  He writes more perceptively than most on Iran, and yet manages to refer to Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and current presidential hopeful, as “an avowed reformist” and “an outspoken supporter of the [opposition] Green Movement.”   The historical revisionism leaves one flabbergasted.  Rafsanjani is, for those that do not know his biography, the ultimate regime insider.  He is known for his vast corruption, implicated in the assassination of dissidents abroad, and wanted by Interpol for his role in the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina.  It takes a special myopia to write at length about Rafsanjani without mentioning any of those facts.

 The same can be said of reports produced by Ahmad Shaheed, the UN-appointed Special Rapporteur on Iran, or the annual “name and shame” Iran resolution that Canada leads at the UN General Assembly.  Shaheed’s reports and the annual UN resolutions are all meticulously researched records of recent human rights violations, and for that their authors should be applauded.    But their focus and scope is so limited to the here-and-now that a novice reader may think that Iran’s disastrous human rights record simply began in the Ahmadinejad era.

The history of gross human rights violations is, alas, as old as the Islamic Republic itself.   To gain power in the 1980s, Iran’s theocrats killed, tortured, imprisoned, and raped by the thousands.  Between1980 and 1989, it is estimated that nearly 20,000 dissidents, including men, women, and children were executed by the regime. Gruesome torture - severe beatings, mock executions, and forcing prisoners to execute their peers – was common.  Rape was pervasive and carried out as a final act of indignity to female political prisoners. As noted by political prisoners in the 1980s:

“A woman's rape is frequently the last act that precedes her execution. This is explained by the rule in Iranian political prisons that the sentence of execution cannot be carried out if the woman is a virgin. Since there is a theological belief that if a woman dies a virgin she will go to heaven, the politically active virgin is forced to "marry" before her execution and thus to insure she will go to hell. She is forced to "marry" the hangman who will carry out her execution. This marriage is conducted as a legitimate and official contract which includes, among other things, an estimated dowry. This "dowry" is subsequently paid to the family of the victim; it simultaneously becomes the equivalent of an official notification that she was executed.”

Perhaps no incident better represents the brutality of the first decade of the Islamic Republic than the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988.  Iran’s then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa ordering the mass killing and the edict was implemented by high-level Iranian officials in all branches of government.  Approximately five thousand prisoners, most of whom had already served in prison for many years for non-violent political activity and who had been subjected to horrific torture throughout their imprisonment, were brought before specially constituted tribunals and were hanged after “trials” which often lasted no more than one minute.   The victims’ bodies have been buried in mass graves across the country. 

Nascent movements have begun to bring attention to such crimes and to correct the international blind-spots on these historical wrongs.  In the past year, the Iran Tribunal, a “people’s tribunal” established by families of victims, held successful public hearings in London and the Hague and provided international jurists with a chance to hear harrowing testimony about the gross violations of human rights in Iran in the 1980s.  In a similar vein, a number of Iranian-Canadian lawyers, academics, and human rights activists have recently begun a campaign to ask that the Canadian government recognize the 1988 massacre as constituting crimes against humanity.  (Disclosure:  I have been involved in both projects.)

These efforts all operate on the premise that even though the crimes took place three decades ago, and notwithstanding the numerous pressing human rights concerns that arise each day in Iran, there is significant value in talking publicly about this forgotten history.

First, understanding this distant past has enormous policy implications.  For one, it makes clear that the line dividing reformers and hardliners in Iran is a very thin one.  Some of today’s reformist leaders played an active role in the savagery of the 1980s.  Though we must acknowledge the possibility that people change and evolve, before we embrace anyone as an agent of democratic change let us investigate his/her past to see if (s)he is implicated in gross violations of human rights.  Those with such backgrounds can surely not be trusted to usher in a democratic era.

Secondly, knowing this history helps us recognize that the perpetrators are still in positions of power in Iran and, for that reason, these crimes remain an open sore on Iran’s body politic.  Any notion of justice, human rights, or rule of law in Iran will require that those who committed these crimes be held to account. 

It is also essential that the victims and their families be afforded a process through which they can be heard and their narratives acknowledged.  The models for addressing these serious demands for justice are many.  Countries as diverse as South Africa, Argentina, and Cambodia have each confronted similar issues in different ways.  Iranians, too, will have to find their own way to confront the legacy of the Islamic Republic’s brutality.

But first we must make sure that the Iranian regime’s crimes and the perpetrators of those crimes are not lost to history.

Also in the series


Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.

Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.