Shoulder to Shoulder

The Iranian regime may have a new, PR-friendly president, but the plight of its people is not getting any better. And the world needs to stand by them.

It has now been one year since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. Rouhani came into power with big promises -- to tackle entrenched corruption, to grant Iranians basic freedoms, and to unleash the constrained talents and aspirations of Iran's citizens. His very mantra was one of hope and change.

These promises appealed to a wide array of Iran's long-suffering minority groups -- Ahwazi, Baluch, Kurd, Azeri, Christian and Baha'i. And they appealed internationally, where Iran purported to extend the hand of friendship and co-operation, and offered an escape from the downward spiral of zero-sum rivalry and regional turmoil. After the obtuseness of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this new language and tone was profoundly seductive to all those who long pined for hope and change in the country.

But one year later, we must be hard-headed, and ask ourselves: who has been accorded the dignity that President Rouhani promised? The honest answer cannot be optimistic. Not the Iranian defense lawyers imprisoned for defending the rights of their fellow citizens. Not the political prisoners beaten bloody by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) forces in Evin Prison's notorious Ward 350. Certainly not Hashem Shaabani, a member of the Ahwazi minority who was arrested, tortured and summarily executed for his poetry.

Indeed, Iranians hoping for moderation were let down almost immediately upon Rouhani taking office. On the day of his inauguration, Rouhani selected Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the former deputy intelligence minister, as his sole nominee for the role of justice minister. Pourmohammadi, as Iranians well know, was one of the key officials responsible for the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. Later, in 1994, he was head of foreign counter-intelligence when the government of Iran was implicated in court for the deadly bombing of the Israeli Cultural Center in Argentina. 

Now, joined in cabinet by old friends from the MOIS, the new justice minister supervises a legal system that has already put to death at least 470 prisoners since Rouhani's inauguration, earning him the unofficial title of "Minister of Murder." Even compared to Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's administration has almost doubled the monthly rate of executions. Their legal processes are as dubious as their purpose, with many charged under the pretext of narcotics-related offences, or the supposed crimes of "enmity against God" or "corruption on earth."

This disturbing trend is one of the more obvious causes for concern. Others have been blurred and obscured by an administration highly preoccupied with PR and perception. For example, to coincide with Rouhani's highly-publicized appearance at the U.N. last year, Iranian officials promised the release of 85 political prisoners as a tangible demonstration of his moderation. The reality? Only a small fraction ultimately made it out of incarceration, the news of which did not garner the headlines generated by the original promise.

Rouhani's administration then released a Draft Charter of Rights, a campaign promise that was meant to symbolize the new government's embrace of human rights. The reality of this document was that it was widely discredited by legal experts, entrenched existing inequalities, and did nothing to advance the rights of the Iranian people. The grand promise of its title was further undermined with the introduction of a "political crime" bill in Parliament last September, which would criminalize any criticism of the state.

In the same month, Rouhani introduced a resolution at the U.N. dubbed "World Against Violence and Extremism," supposedly an Iranian commitment to fighting extremism. Yet the reality of Iran's unwavering moral, financial, political, and military support to the Syrian regime has resulted in the death of over 150,000 people, a more deeply entrenched extremism, and further destabilization of the region. Despite Iran's long-suffering economy, it managed to supply Bashar al-Assad with a $3.6 billion line of credit and a mandate to continue the massacre of his own people. Iran unleashed Hezbollah to protect Assad, to undermine Lebanon, and to wage a clandestine sectarian war that impacts far beyond the immediate region.

Iran's campaign for international legitimacy continued in April with its successful bid to be appointed to the U.N. Economic and Social Council's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a body committed to women's empowerment and equality with men. Iranian women cannot get a passport without their husband's permission, and are barred from running for the presidency of Iran, yet their rulers purport to be advocates for women on the international stage. Most shockingly, Iran's appointment to the Commission came only a few weeks after the Rouhani government upheld the hanging sentence of a 26 year-old victim of sexual assault.

Neither the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, nor the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, reported any tangible improvements with regards to the human rights situation in the country in their March reports to the Human Rights Council. According to the secretary general, "The new administration has not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the president during his campaign and after his swearing in," and Dr. Shaheed continues to be denied access to the visit the country in order to carry out his mandate from the international community.

Cynics may see unrealistic rhetoric and unfulfilled promises as par for the course for politicians. But the chasm between Rouhani's style and substance belies a more sinister truth. Under the careful watch of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the organized machinery of a clerical dictatorship remains in place. The Iranian regime's scale of terrorizing its people at home and sponsoring terrorism abroad is staggering. That continues to be Iran's reality.

Why does Canada care so much about how Iran treats its own citizens and the citizens of neighboring countries? Because we believe those citizens deserve better. They deserve the dignity of an economy free of corruption and cronyism. They deserve deep reform that delivers jobs, not just empty propaganda or deceptive games.

The international community must be a voice for those who are silenced by the Iranian regime. That means, as we work toward a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue, the international community must press Iran to respect human rights and to cease its support for terrorism. Otherwise, Iranian recklessness abroad and oppression at home will continue to feed regional destabilization and deprive a population of over 75 million people their basic rights and freedoms.

Canada has been listening to the voices of all those inside Iran who want to see a better future. Our support to initiatives like the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which now has grown to reach over 4.5 million unique users inside Iran, amplifies the suppressed voices seeking the basic dignity of a peaceful and prosperous life, and those who defend democratic values and human rights.

We are determined to respond to these voices with more than rhetoric. Through Canada's leadership on the United Nations Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, the world calls Iran to account for its appalling human rights violations. Canada has also passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, enabling victims to obtain redress for the awful wrongs done to them by terrorist states like Iran. Plaintiffs recently won a first case against Iran under this act in Ontario's Superior Court, but now the government of Iran, the IRGC and the MOIS have decided to appeal the verdict. To do this, they will benefit from the legal system of an open and democratic country like Canada while at the same time suppressing human rights defenders, jailing lawyers and demonstrating virtually no respect for the rule of law at home.

Let us unite in reminding Iranians of the limitless possibilities of freedom. That a woman who had been jailed and tortured in prison could one day stand for presidential office -- and succeed. That the halls of a notorious prison could one day be permanently closed to its brutal guards and opened to those who wish to reflect on past tyranny. These are not only the powerful true stories of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, or Cambodia's Tuol Sleng prison. These could be the stories of someone like leading Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and of the notorious Evin Prison that confined her and many other political prisoners.

To be truly optimistic about Iran's future, we must be realistic about Iran's present. Until we see reform rather than rhetoric, Canada will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran in their desire for real hope and dignity.



Could Colombia's Election Kill Its Peace Process?

Oscar Iván Zuluaga has vowed to axe talks with the FARC if he wins. But can he really follow through?

Colombia's presidential campaign is in its final days before run-off elections on Sunday, June 15, and as the contest winds down, it has become clear that the fate of the two peace processes that have been spearheaded by President Juan Manuel Santos hang in the balance. An election marked in an earlier phase by dirty politicking and mudslinging -- with mutual accusations over narco-financing and wiretapping (complete with authenticated audiovisuals of efforts by challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga's campaign to undermine the peace process) -- has suddenly blossomed into a debate about more substantive issues, including peace. And now each candidate is jockeying to play the peace card to his advantage.

Formal talks have been underway with the hemisphere's oldest guerrilla group -- the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) since late 2012. The peace process, which has been advancing steadily since Santos came into office in August 2012, may well be his most significant, if incomplete, accomplishment. And it has continued even against the specter of its unceremonious end. On June 10, Santos announced that secret meetings with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have lead to the initiation of long-awaited exploratory talks for the "common purpose of ending the conflict and building a country in peace and equity."

The threat of the election derailing the slow, but so far promising, peace effort is real. Zuluaga, who has taken a hard stance against the talks, won handily in the first round, with 29.3 percent of the vote to Santos's 25.7 percent -- the three other candidates were eliminated. An unprecedented 59.9 percent of eligible voters boycotted the polls -- a sign of what the regional hemispheric democracy-promoting Organization of American States electoral observation mission report called "a sign of citizens' serious disenchantment with the political system." But even if Zuluaga wins, there is reason to think that the promise of finding peace might not be lost.

On May 26, the morning after the first-round votes were tallied, a newly emboldened Zuluaga -- an avowed disciple of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who oversaw the renewed militarization of Colombia following the failed peace process a decade ago -- announced that as soon as he was inaugurated on Aug. 7, he would decree a "provisional suspension of the talks in Havana." For them to continue, he said, the FARC would have to "cease all criminal actions" and agree to a "verifiable and permanent cease-fire" before talks would resume. He also insisted that some FARC leaders would have to serve jail time, a condition that FARC has always refused and that is considered by many a deal breaker. Zuluaga, like Uribe, has now reaffirmed his view that in Colombia there is no armed conflict, only a terrorist threat.

The peace process, however, has become a much more visible issue than it was in the first round. Santos's campaign had resisted adopting a slogan on peace, seeking to insulate the peace process as much as possible from electoral politics. But the hard line that Zuluaga has drawn has brought it into the fore of Santos' pitch. "Neither history nor the new generations would forgive us" if we fail to bring the peace process to fruition, Santos said on May 28. His allies -- including a newly launched Broad Front for Peace that unites most of the left, and the five major labor confederations -- have recently presented the election as a referendum on war and peace, even while maintaining distance from the social and economic agenda they've frequently clashed over. Many, it seems, fear a return to the days of Uribe, when speaking about peace and a political solution earned them persecution and stigmatization as guerrilla sympathizers. The left is giving its all to ensure a Santos win.

Colombia's last peace effort with the FARC, under President Andrés Pastrana, broke down 10 years ago and left the public highly disillusioned. This, the fourth attempt, has been marred by a weak communications strategy that has created a wide rift between the negotiators in Havana and the Colombian citizenry.

Although the delegations in Havana have taken some flak for moving too slowly compared to other peace processes, they have been advancing at a steady, reasonable clip for almost two years. No one has stood up from the table and the parties have completed 26 rounds in Havana and reached agreements on three of the five major issues driving the the conflict: agrarian reforms, political participation, and illicit crops and drug trafficking. The remaining issues -- victims and the terms for ending the conflict -- are slotted to be addressed when the parties reconvene following the elections.

On June 7, the delegations in Havana issued a ground-breaking joint declaration of principles for addressing the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. The declaration promised that there would be no impunity for crimes committed and that victims will be at the center of the process in determining the measures for satisfying their rights.

With 220,000 dead, six million displaced Colombians , and an average of 14,000 new displacements per month, according to the United Nations, satisfaction of victims' rights will be a daunting task. The newly agreed principles should help the parties move through the remaining substantive issues on the agenda before they turn to the question of how an agreement would be ratified by the public and implemented in the territories.

As Santos solidifies his defense of the peace process, Zuluaga has deftly sought to sidestep the confrontation on peace and avoid being cast as the war villain. Forty-eight hours after he called for the suspension of the peace talks, on Thursday, May 28, Zuluaga modified his position. The move, which Santos called "cynical" and "electorally driven," was part of Zuluaga's effort to woo Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez and the two million voters who supported her presidential candidacy in the first round.

In a programmatic pact between Ramírez's Conservative Party and Zuluaga's Democratic Center, Zuluaga pledged that his government would "continue talking with the FARC in Havana, but would lay out a series of "conditions and deadlines that guarantee tangible, definitive, verifiable advances with international accompaniment." The pact calls for an immediate public evaluation of the first three agreements that have been reached in Havana and a series of "gestures for peace" from the FARC: the immediate end of child recruitment, the use of land mines, "terrorist attacks against the population," war crimes, and attacks against infrastructure. For the talks to proceed, these measures would have to be completed within Zuluaga's first month in office. Then the parties at the table would be required to meet a government-set deadline for completing the negotiations.

Ironically, many of the Zuluaga camp's demands address the humanitarian concerns of the broader Colombian populace and these issues are already on the peace delegations' agenda. As part of the confidence-building gestures in 2013, the FARC announced its decision to refrain from kidnapping and the statistics on this practice have come way down. In the recent joint agreement on drugs, the FARC have also promised their support to the government to assist with the de-mining and crop eradication, among other things.

Still, the two camps have vastly different approaches to the peace process that dictate different measures for the conflict's resolution. What Zuluaga calls terrorist acts, Santos understands as acts of war in the context of an internal armed conflict. The former demands strong militarized responses and the latter a political solution. Santos has accompanied the peace talks with an accelerated military strategy that has struck down dozens of FARC leaders, including members of their Secretariat.

The candidates also favor different negotiating strategies. Zuluaga is insisting on a series of pre-conditions that ex-President Ernesto Samper has called "unfillable." Years of efforts to attain peace by setting pre-conditions through the "microphones" -- i.e. making unilateral demands in the press -- have not proven to be successful in Colombia and could well preclude ever getting back to the table. Santos has had more success in getting concessions once the parties were at the table. Likewise, Santos has favored a protected, insulated process that would submit the results to public scrutiny once the accords are finalized. Zuluaga and others charge that the process lacks adequate transparency and has promised to subject all agreements immediately to public scrutiny.

Lastly, the Santos and Zuluaga campaigns have different understandings of the nature of a peace table. For a peace process to work, the parties must come to the table as equals. Although the FARC has been hard hit in recent years under both Uribe and Santos, it has not been defeated. With both the government and the FARC acknowledging that neither side can win the war militarily, the parties in Havana have been negotiating from a position of equals at the table -- considered to be the only way that peace negotiations can be successful. With a military stalemate, the FARC and its constituencies are not likely to accept an approach that forces it into submission and does not respect the principle of equality at the table.

The history of Colombian peace processes in the last three decades shows that with each new president comes a new approach to the war, with the pendulum swinging between peace and war. On Sunday, June 8, in an interview with El Tiempo, Zuluaga was asked if he would respect the agreements reached in Havana thus far. Zuluaga responded that he felt no obligation to comply with them, though he would review them. "There is a principle that the president  repeats every day," he said. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Here there is nothing."

It takes time to nurture a common vision for the country and to generate a climate of mutual respect in a negotiating process. Without these things, a peace accord has little chance. It would be a travesty if all of the work in Havana comes to naught.

What is clear is that while this Sunday's election may be a referendum on the peace process, it will not necessarily be a referendum on peace. We don't know how much of the population will be voting based on the issue of war and peace. Polls consistently show that other issues -- unemployment, urban crime, health care, poverty, and education -- are more likely to drive votes. Nonetheless, polls also show a majority of Colombians favor a peaceful settlement. The public is tired of war, particularly in the rural border zones where violence is worst. In those areas, Santos prevailed in the first round.

The Colombian peace process enjoys broad international support and accompaniment from Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, and Chile. The just-announced process with the ELN would have the added support of Ecuador and Brazil. The international community, which has encouraged peace as the best path forward and as critical to economic growth, regional stability, and international security, should be clear in its message. The time for peace is now, regardless of the outcome of the elections.