Making Iran pay for abusing human rights

Why challenging Iran over its nuclear program isn’t enough

In September, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Iranian officials determined to be responsible for serious human rights violations.

The idea that individual Iranians must be targeted for such violations, rather than exclusively because of involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, has long been advocated by McGill University international law professor, and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Payam Akhavan. Maclean’s understand the State Department consulted IHRDC while compiling its list of blacklisted individuals.

Obama’s order is significant because until recently most sanctions imposed on Iran have focused on the nuclear file. That this might be misguided is something I explored in an article last year. Challenging Iran over its nuclear program allows the regime to play to nationalist sentiments. Challenging Iran over human rights does not. Moreover, focusing on nuclear and other weapons suggests that should the Iranians involved cooperate, sanctions will be lifted and they will not suffer long-term consequences. But targeted sanctions based on human rights violations, says Akhavan, are an intermediate step before prosecution. They send a message that, one day, you will be held to account.

“The question is what are you incentivizing,” said Akhavan in an interview with Maclean’s. “Are you incentivizing cooperation on the nuclear program, or atrocities?”

This summer Canada imposed sanctions on 42 Iranians and 279 corporations. All individuals were singled out because of suspected involvement in Iran’s nuclear or other weapons programs, or because of membership in or affiliation with the senior ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This results in some overlap with the American list. But Akhavan says the fact that those Iranians blacklisted by Canada have not been targeted specifically because human rights violations is a crucial flaw. It is notable that former Tehran prosecutor-general Saeed Mortazavi, whom Ottawa accuses of responsibility in the murder of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi, is blacklisted by the United States but not Canada.

“The point is not just declaring these people inadmissible, but setting them up for eventual prosecution,” says Akhavan. “There’s no sense [in the Canadian case] that what is being incentivized is better compliance with human rights regulations. It may seem academic, but it’s not.”

Akhavan says it is particularly important for Canada to target Iranian officials guilty of abusing human rights, because many of them are putting down roots in Canada.

“Canada is probably one of the biggest money laundering centres for the Islamic Republic,” he says.

“The rhetoric of the [Canadian] government is very strong, but very little concrete action is taken to make Canada inaccessible to those who are responsible for crimes against humanity. Many of their families are here. They send their children to schools here. They have investments here. The themselves have contingency plans for when there is a democratic change in Iran. Where are they likely to escape to? Well, they are likely to come to countries like Canada. So they set up an alternative life here. And one of the messages the international community has to send is that you will have nowhere to hide, because you’re blacklisted. Only then are they going to take seriously the use of human rights violations as a political instrument — when they realize that they are individually going to have to pay a price for it.”