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Shirin Ebadi on Freedom of Expression and Scholars at Risk

ebadi1As we previously noted here, yesterday saw the official launch of the Scholars at Risk Irish network, supported by Universities Ireland. To mark the launch of SAR’s organised presence in Ireland (it had already been working in NUI Galway, particularly through the efforts of the Irish Centre for Human Rights), a very full Robert Emmett theatre in Trinity College Dublin was addressed by Nobel laureate and groundbreaking Iranian human rights lawyer, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. The lecture was delivered in Farsi with simultaneous translation, therefore my notes below are only notes and not direct quotes, but the lecture was a passionate and impacting argument for the importance of free expression, intellectual freedom, democracy and human rights.

Dr Ebadi began by recalling that scholars and intellectuals have always been subjected to risk as a result of their work, citing Socrates and Galileo as examples. Even though we live in the 21st century, she said, in some states people are still placed at extreme risk when they try to offer a plurality of ideas and theories that offer people choice in the way in which they think and conceive of the world. In some societies, whole theories are banned; textbooks and materials must be approved by state and cultural policy makers, and education must be based on ideas and view propagated by the state. Usually, she said, this occurs in states where governments are based on particular ideologies. She gave as examples, communist states such as Cuba, theocratic states such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and so-called secular states such as Syria and Egypt. Governments based on ideology, she said, deny free speech and expression because they know that these rights have the capacity to bring about their downfall.

Dr Ebadi spent a considerable amount of her lecture speaking specifically about the situation in her home country of Iran, giving an overview of the constitutional set-up: the primacy of the Shariah as interpreted by the Guardian Council, which in turn is all appointed directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader and has the capacity to veto or invalidate any laws it considers to be incompatible with the Shariah. She gave as an example, the well documented decision of the Guardian Council to prohibit Iran from becoming a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture on the basis that it prohibited some punishments (such as stoning, hand amputation and so on) which were used in Iranian law and considered by the Guardian Council to be compatible with, if not required, by the Shariah. Dr Ebadi noted that this represented an interpretation of the Shariah and that in fact there are plenty of Islamic countries who have found themselves able to become party to that Convention. It was not Shariah that prevented Iran from becoming a party to the Convention by rather an undemocratic ideology that rejected other interpretations of Islam.

She then reflected on the experiences of some named persons in Iran, including herself, in trying to promote humanSAR rights. She reflected on the reaction by the state to the protests that followed the recent presidential elections in Iran, and noted how numerous military and other leaders have placed blame on vehicles of free speech and expression—such as the internet—for the outpouring of protest and dissatisfaction that was witnessed.

Dr Ebadi did not, however, restrict her remarks to theocratic governments or to Iran. She noted, with eloquence and no small amount of accuracy, that the ballot box alone does not bring democracy. There are numerous ‘democracies’ for example, where power has essentially become hereditary—such as Syria and, if President Mubarak is successful in having his son instated as his successor, Egypt. Secular or non-ideological governments, she noted, can place scholars and intellectuals at risk as much as ideological or communist governments do. When fanaticism and power join forces, she said, scholars and intellectuals become exposed to risk.

Dr. Ebadi then went on to propose two solutions. The first, she said, was democracy and the sharing of power with the people. The second, she said, was raising public awareness and creating a spirit of tolerance and acceptance of opposing views. While democracy might have classically been taken to mean rule by the majority, it must now be seen as limited power, i.e. a situation in which those elected freely and fairly must govern within a framework of human rights law. Legitimacy flows from the combination of elections and human rights observance. Excuses for non-observance of human rights, including cultural relativism and religion, are, she said, unacceptable.

Dr Ebadi finished her lecture with some thoughts on the relationship between western governments and the government of Iran. These parties have, she noted, been talking for some time about Iran’s documented advances towards nuclear capacities. These western governments, however, seem to have forgotten about the human rights situation of those living in Iran. Do we, she asked, care only about nuclear security? Only about our human rights? What about the suffering of the Iranian people? Human rights violations anywhere, she said, have an impact on all of us everywhere. We can not proceed to speak to Iran as if only nuclear capacity mattered. She urged us to urge our governments to make human rights part of the dialogue with Iran; to look beyond our security and our rights, and to remember the suffering of those within Iran itself.

For that, as well as the remainder of her excellent and forcefully delivered speech, Dr. Ebadi received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Update: Irish Times coverage

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