In The Media

Liberals face more criticism for engaging countries with poor human rights records

by Chelsea Nash (feat. Thomas Juneau)

The Hill Times
October 12, 2016

A group of Iranian-Canadians last week demanded the Liberal government include mention of a 1988 Iranian massacre in Canada’s annual resolution at the UN on Iranian human rights, and only re-establish relations with the country conditional on the improvement of its human rights record. 

Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran called on the government to take a stronger stance towards Iran in a press conference Thursday, even as the Liberals look to strengthening ties with the country.

The Liberals have been performing what some say is a balancing act with economic opportunity and human rights issues, as they attempt to reopen and broaden relations with countries that have poor human rights records. The government’s commitment to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, after Canada closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012, is drawing fresh criticism.

The 1988 massacre, in which it is alleged that thousands of people were killed for political dissidence, has been brought back into the spotlight due to an audio recording that became public this past August. The recording, according to a briefing paper distributed at the press conference, is 40 minutes long, and features the voice of the late Iranian cleric, Hossein-Ali Montazeri. At the time, Mr. Montazeri was the designated successor to then-leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

According to Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and other reports, the recording depicts Mr. Montazeri in a 1988 meeting with judges, and judiciary officials involved in the mass executions. In it, he is said to berate those in the room for the large-scale executions, warning that history would condemn them as criminals.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) who said he is sympathetic to the cause of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran, said interacting with countries like Iran, which have historic and ongoing human rights abuses, is a tough sell domestically.

“There’s no question about that. People would say well, ‘why would you do business with a country with a poor human rights record?’ I understand where people are coming from there, and sometimes we put in place economic sanctions. But I’ve always believed, and still do, that in many cases, having a relationship…gives you an easier opportunity to open a door than just having a door closed. You’ve got to find that balance,” he said.

Mr. Easter said having relations with a country like Iran is okay, as long as there’s no hesitation in voicing concerns over human rights issues.

“I do think we need to deal with the human rights issues, but I’m one who believes that establishing economic relations increases your ability to give input to government. I think we would be very forceful on the human rights side, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in some economic issues, which I think gives us more reach, not less,” he said.

The Liberal government made the same argument when defending its decision to open to the door to having diplomatic relations with Iran.

Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.), wrote in an email that “engagement is not about agreement.” She said the government is “committed to a step-by-step re-engagement with Iran because isolation helped no one—not Canadians, not our allies, not the Iranian people.”

Ms. Gagnon said that engaging with countries allows the government to hold them to account, “including on their inexcusable human rights record.”

As for the group’s request that the Canadian government include mention of the 1988 massacre as a “crime against humanity” in its yearly resolution at the UN General Assembly, which is currently being drafted, Ms. Gagnon said “Canada intends to lead again this year the resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran at the UN General Assembly’s 71st session.”

Canada supported a November 2015 resolution in the UN calling on Iran to improve its human rights record alongside 44 other co-sponsors. The resolution did not specifically mention the massacre.

The Conservatives who attended the press conference, and gave remarks in support of the organization’s request that the federal government take a “conditional” approach to relations with Iran dependent on their behaviour towards human rights, included MPs Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.), James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.), and Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton, Alta.).

“The current regime…is a brutal one that needs to be stopped. If we want to stand up for women’s rights in Canada, we need to start with standing up for women’s rights in Iran, and not normalizing relations, and the kind of behaviour they exhibit,” Ms. Bergen said at the press conference in the Centre Block of Parliament.

Mr. Cooper stuck to the same message: “In the current, present context, I will, and my colleagues in the Conservative opposition, will continue to call on the prime minister to re-evaluate his ill-advised policy of normalizing relations with the Islamic regime. If the lessons of the summer of 1988 teach us anything, it’s that the Iranian regime is anything but normal.”

Former Liberal MP David Kilgour, who serves as co-chair of Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran,  was also present, though the conference ran out of time for him to deliver remarks. 

Shahram Golestaneh, who was at the press conference on behalf of the Iran Democratic Association, said in a later conversation that he did not intend for the press conference to be a partisan event. He said it was only due to scheduling conflicts that Liberal supporters of his organization, including Mr. Easter, and Liberal MP Judy Sgro (Humber River-Black Creek, Ont.), could not make it. That said, he agreed with the Conservative position of not engaging with Iran until those responsible for the massacre and ensuing human rights abuses are held accountable.

“Honestly, at least from our perspective, and even my personal preference, we try to make it as non-partisan an issue as possible. That said, let’s also be very clear: I believe the decision the Conservatives had made was the right decision in the right direction,” he said.

Mr. Golestaneh said he is “not saying we should cut off relations with every country in the world. There are many human rights abusers. When I say Iran, I am not saying this because I am from that country…I’m saying this because Iran is perhaps unique, in the sense that it’s not only human rights issues within the country.”

He alleged that Iran “exports fundamentalism and terrorism”, and that doing business with Iran would only be funding the agenda of Iran in the Middle East. He said in the long run it would be “counter-productive” to do business with the country.

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s International Affairs faculty, said opposition to the Liberals’ re-engagement, and further engagement with countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran, was unsurprising, but that the government was doing “the right thing.” 

Mr. Juneau said the economic benefits of re-engaging with a country like Iran far outweigh any potential consequences of sanctioning, or cutting off ties with Iran.

In addition, he said there is political strategy to being involved with Iran, as well.

“As much as we disagree with its human rights, it’s an important regional player. There are many reasons to be there, on the eyes and ears on the ground. The information they were sending back was very useful,” he said, speaking of the information Canada’s embassy was able to send back to headquarters before it was shut down.  

Mr. Juneau also agreed that re-engaging with countries that have poor human rights records is a tough political sell.

“Foreign policy is about calibrating,” he said. “You never have harmony of all of your interests,” particularly when it comes to evaluating economic interests, human rights, and international defence strategies.

Conservative criticism of the Liberals for re-engaging countries that have poor human rights records is “a bit rich,” he said. He pointed to the former Conservative government’s close ties to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and its eventual attempt to pivot towards strengthening relations with China.

“On a case-by-case basis, you always have to be ready to evolve,” he said.

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