With Ukraine still dominating the headlines and the carnage in Syria overwhelming other stories from the Middle East, there was still a news item this week from Egypt that was breath-taking in demonstrating how far that country has fallen in terms of respecting basic human rights.
An Egyptian judge sentenced 529 people to death in connection with the death of one police officer in anti-government protests last summer. While the verdicts can be appealed, the sentences appeared to be part of the military government’s efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from the political scene and to force the public to rally around president-in-waiting, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The executions, if they take place, would come on top of the regime’s killing of more than 2,500 people and the arrest of more than 16,000 since the military toppled President Mohamed Morsi last July 3. As Michelle Dunne and Scott Williamson wrote this week for the Carnegie Endowment, “these numbers exceed those seen even in Egypt’s darkest periods since the 1952 military-led revolution that would bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. They reflect a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, reacting to the verdicts, said Wednesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the decision and by “the start of a new trial for nearly 700 more people in the same courtroom...The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt's commitment to international law and inclusivity.”
Human rights criticism by the West is often seen in targeted countries as reflecting double standards and cultural relativism. Iran, for example, bristles when the United States and Europeans chide it for one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world.
According to the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, Iran executed at least 624 people last year including at least 302 accused of trafficking in or possessing narcotic drugs. Iran, which has refused to allow Shaheed to visit the country, argues that its human rights record does not merit a “special rapporteur” and that the death sentences are necessary to deal with the flood of narcotics from Afghanistan, which more than a decade of US-led military intervention has failed to stem.
The Iranian government is also hyper-sensitive about criticism of its detention of political dissidents and civic activists - nearly 900 of whom remain in jail, according to Shaheed - and about charges that the regime discriminatesagainst women and religious and ethnic minorities.
According to journalist Robin Wright, who was in Iran earlier this month when European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran and met with a group of women activists, billboards went up around Tehran as soon as Ashton left showing her face melding in to that of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Wright said the caption on the billboards asked “Where were you on human rights when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against us” during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war?
Indeed, Western countries - many of whom provided the precursors for those chemical weapons to Iraq - were shamefully silent about Saddam’s atrocities during that period when Iran was seen as the greater danger to the international order and Western values.
Double standards and historical second-guessing aside, however, there is a value in pursuing a human rights agenda with both allies and adversaries in hopes of prodding them into changing their ways.
That includes criticizing the Barack Obama administration for its over-zealous surveillance of foreign and domestic private communications, going after Iran and China for their heavy reliance on capital punishment and after Egypt for its counterproductive and ultimately doomed campaign to expunge the Muslim Brotherhood from the country’s political and social fabric.
Criticism of foreign governments works best when it is combined with engagement. The change in president in Iran, for example, from the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the less strident Hassan Rouhani, has opened the way for Ashton and other Europeans to visit Iran to talk about issues beyond a nuclear deal.
Marietje Schaake, member of a small European Parliament delegation that went to Iran in December, told a Washington audience this week that the delegation had stressed to the Iranians that, “there is not some zero sum equation between focusing only on the nuclear issue and forgetting about the plight of the Iranian people who live under systematic repression.”
While Rouhani has prioritized the nuclear issue and cannot dictate policy to the judiciary, which is run by a cleric directly appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leadership as a whole does respond to international pressure and cares about its image abroad. It was no accident that the regime freed about 80 political prisoners last September just before Rouhani came to New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Among those freed was Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer who was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought while she was in jail in 2012.
Schaake said her delegation visited Sotoudeh in December, which created a stir in the Iranian media for several weeks - as did Ashton’s meeting with women activists. This kind of debate within Iran is valuable, Schaake said, and an added benefit of greater Western engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Another sign that Iran is listening to outside criticism was a remark made by Mohammad Javad Larijani - the head of the Iranian government’s official human rights body and the brother of the head of the judiciary - that Iran was considering abolishing the death penalty for drug-related offenses. If it does, Schaake said, that would enable the European Union - which bans capital punishment - to contribute materially to Iran’s efforts to deal with the scourge of narcotics coming from Afghanistan.
From the days of the old Soviet Union to the current stand-off over Crimea, US officials have raised human rights concerns when dealing with the Russian leadership.
How a country treats its own citizens should not stand in the way of cooperation on other issues of mutual concern, such as de-escalating the crisis over Ukraine, resolving differences over Iran’s nuclear program or aiding Egypt’s campaign against true violent extremists in the Sinai and the streets of Cairo. But that is no excuse for being silent when governments violate the basic human rights of their populations. Speaking up - both privately and publicly if private entreaties do not work - is the least the international community can do to show solidarity with those persecuted for their nonviolent expression of political, religious and personal beliefs.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. (see more of Barbara Slavin's columns)
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