Making human rights defenders off limits

Protecting activists should be centrepiece of diplomatic efforts with Syria, Iran and other governments in the region.

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was recently released from prison in Iran [EPA]
Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was recently released from prison in Iran [EPA]

In recent months, leading diplomats and statesmen from the international community have been logging frequent flier miles and consulting technical treaties in order to curb the use and development of chemical and nuclear weapons in Syria and Iran. While these efforts have seemingly yielded previously unachievable results and established a new tone in the dynamic between adversaries on the global stage, they are also extremely limited and serve to mask more significant problems.

In Syria, while the deployment of chemical weapons on multiple occasions has targeted and killed civilians, the use of conventional weapons has caused the overwhelming majority of casualties. And in Iran, the focus on that country’s nuclear programme and negotiations to contain it seems to be blind to the vast abuses taking place in Iran’s other dark sites – its prisons.

One area in which progress can be made with a bit of effort and goodwill is the situation of those human rights defenders in both countries who remain imprisoned. In the early months of the Syrian uprising, the government released lawyer and prominent human rights defender Haitham Al-Maleh. Just days before his release, he had signed a petition to the authorities demanding an end to political detentions. In Iran, just after the election of President Rouhani, lawyer and human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh was released from the infamous Evin Prison, though a punitive travel ban remains in force.

These two examples show that in both situations, governments can be flexible and can shift positions on human rights defenders. This should be a point of engagement with the Syrian, Iranian and other governments that lock up human rights defenders. The US, EU, Russia and other actors in the international community can achieve real, practical results by ensuring that respect for human rights defenders is universally applied

This should be a norm in international relations and among states; but like any norm, it must be reinforced through active engagement and realisation. Today in Syria, the use of chemical weapons has been determined as a red line that will no longer be crossed. In Iran a similar effort is under way to prevent the development of technology to build a nuclear weapon.

Why not a red line on arresting, detaining, fabricating charges against, forcibly disappearing or killing human rights defenders? And why not make this a centerpiece of diplomatic engagement by the international community?

Yes, eliminating the production, use and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction would certainly make this an inherently safer world. But there are also other steps that can be taken to achieve this goal. One group to start protecting are human rights defenders – and it has already been proven that this can be done.

Mary Lawlor is Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization that works for the protection of human rights activists at risk.

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