The president of the International Federation for Human Rights is convinced that the situations of Iran and Belarus are similar.
Iranian lawyer Karim Lahidji became the head of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) this May. In Iran, where he worked with defense of political prisoners, he was exposed to arrests and assaults and even an explosion attempt. When it became evident that the Iranian powers would not hesitate to murder the unwanted lawyer, Karim left the country and continued his fight for the fate of the Iranian nation abroad. But Karim Lahidji’s goal is to help other countries ruled by dictators, such as Belarus.
Today the FIDH President answered the questions of editor-in-chief of charter97.org Natallia Radzina.
- Mister Lahidji, it is the first time an Iranian became the head of the FIDH. You know from your own experience how dictatorships function. How will your background impact the organization?
- During the time when I worked as a lawyer and human rights advocate in Iran, I had to deal with two authoritarian regimes (first the Shake’s government, then – the government of the Islamic Republic). And all that time I demanded that the power should be based on respect of basic freedoms and human rights, not on lawlessness.
Presently 178 organizations from all over the world are members of the FIDH. Our members continue this fight in different corners of the world, in their countries, and yet all together.
My personal experience (sometimes very tragic) makes me even more convinced that our fight is indispensable, and I hope that I can invest my energy and my enthusiasm in this common task.
If we compare situation with human rights in different countries, we’ll see that all dictatorships are alike. The only difference lies in the level of impunity and cynicism of their rulers. Impunity however often depends on economics, which defines whether the regimes can be influenced or not.
- As the president of the FIDH, you addressed your first speech to imprisoned human rights advocates from all over the world. Your Belarusian colleague, vice-president of FIDH Ales Bialiatski is in prison. What, in your opinion, can help his release?
- It is to our greatest sorrow (and I have raised this issue in my first speech as the newly appointed president of the FIDH) that more than 20 activists of our member organizations are imprisoned because of their human rights activity. Two of them are members of our international board, the Federation’s main institution. One of them is Ales Bialiatski that you know so well. He was re-elected as the vice president of the FIDH during our congress in Istanbul in May 2013.
Nabil Rajab is presently in the prison known as “jaws” in Bahrain, and I would like to use this opportunity and thank our Belarusian colleagues for the rallies of solidarity held in Minsk and Navapolatsk. Nabil got photographs even from other rallies held to support him, and he was deeply touched that, despite their own complicated situation, Belarusian human rights activists show solidarity with colleagues from distant parts of the world.
The fact that, despite the arrests and persecutions, both Ales Bialiatski and Nabil Rajab have been re-elected as board members of the Federation merely shows our solidarity. We will not give up on our efforts and we will continue to do everything possible to help their release and the release of our colleagues and victims of lawlessness from all over the world.
In particular, I expect a more effective diplomatic pressure on the Belarusian regime from the part of international structures where Belarus is a member and where our Federation is a consultant. The European Union and other influential structures, in their turn, should be firm and consequent in their demands.
The ruling regime and specific persons are responsible for what is happening in Belarus, for all these systematic severe breaches. We should not forget their personal responsibility.
I have just said that dictatorships are similar. But what differs is the level of cynicism and, probably, criminality of their governments. When I say cynicism I refer to how little they care what people say about them at an international level, and how little they care about their own reputation, about what is honor and what is disgrace.
Some prefer to create a less dictator-like image, while some find joy in being treated as dictators… I believe that the international community should always keep in mind when it applies sanctions, diplomatic or economic measures, who it deals with and what category with ruler belongs to.
- In Teheran, you used to be a lawyer of hundreds of political prisoners. In Belarus, lawyers who defend prisoners of consciousness are persecuted: they lose jobs and their license is recalled. What would you recommend your colleagues? How can they remain faithful to their profession and be able to help political prisoners?
- The lawyers that work devotedly pay a high price for defending the law. In many countries they are arrested, persecuted, convicted to prison. My colleagues and friends, Iranian lawyers Nasrin Sotoudeh and Abdolfattah Soltani serve long sentences in Iran. I myself was there, and my work led to my forced exile.
In Belarus, lawyers are often persecuted, too, and their licenses are recalled so that they cannot defend political prisoners. We remember each of them and try to help all these courageous people. We also work closely with the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. It is crucial both to stop these targeted repressions and to help “unpopular” lawyers continue their much needed and entirely legitimate work.
- In 1982, you had to flee Iran because of political persecution. Do you have any regrets now?
- For 20 years I worked as a lawyer in Iran. I was indeed exposed to a great pressure, arrests, and physical assaults. They even put explosives to my office. But in spite of that I never considered leaving the country even if I had to. But the situation became even worse in 1981-1982, and I was going to be arrested.
A trustworthy acquaintance who had access to the government told me in a private conversation that not only was my arrest a certain thing, but even my life was in danger. I left Iran in March 1982, and it took me one month to get to France.
Of course, I went on with my work here, too. The first 10 years were the hardest. But then the situation in Iran changed a little bit: in the early 90s my friends in Iran and the civil society in general could re-consolidate; political organizations were restored; women’s and students’ rights activists and journalists resumed their work. And I joined the stream from here. Unfortunately, this period didn’t last long. After the presidential elections 2009, NGOs were shut down, activists arrested and sentenced to long prison terms or exile.
It is definitely hard to work for the best of your country in exile. But when you have no choice, this is the only way. Many Iranian colleagues found themselves in a similar situation. We united in two human rights organizations in exile. It is important to understand that it wasn’t our choice to work in exile. We simply couldn’t accept the exile and continue our work trying to do our best.
- Last year I met with Souhayr Belhassen in Paris. She was born in Tunisia, but she understands the situation in Belarus well, and she is a passionate advocate of changes in our country. Is honesty and a caring heart FIDH’s trademark?
- The most important in our fight is the universal nature of human rights. They are crucial and necessary for all countries of the world. I do share this conviction (this passion if you will) with my predecessor.
”Vocation” is probably the right word to describe our fate, the fate of a human rights activist. You know about the difficult life of Souhayr Belhassen who returned to Tunisia after her mandate was over. It was hard for me, too, but it is even harder to Ales Bialiatski. We all have common vocation and goals in life.
- Do you have any expectations from the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani?
- The Iranian constitution implies significant limitations on the president’s role. The highest leader (ayatollah) has much more power and impact on the executive institutions. And this post is lifelong…
Indeed, Rouhani’s presidential campaign sent signals that our nation and the world community received with hope. It seemed as if politics was about to change for the better, even political prisoners could be released.
But the balance of political forces in the country is very complicated; it leaves the president no space for initiative. Iran has already faced this problem in the past. I am not particularly optimistic about Rouhani’s chances, even if we assume that he is willing to improve the situation with the liberties of his people. Anyway, the highest leader will eliminate any possibility of political liberalization.
- Why did he begin with horrific and scandalous threats to Israel?
- I’m not defending him, but let me remind you that after the first shock it became known that the media had distorted his words. He literally used other expressions, but the information was adjusted later on.
In any case, our Federation and I personally condemn any expression of intolerance coming from anyone, especially from a head of state. We have frequently expressed our position regarding the Palestine-Israeli conflict. We demand that both parties recognize the norms and resolutions of the UN and international law on the whole.
- You are a wise man who has been through a lot in his life. And obviously, you know your country well. In your opinion, what should the West do to help bring democracy to Iran?
- Undoubtedly, first of all it is up to the Iranian people to keep on the fight for freedom and democracy. We ask for just one thing: the world community, including the West, should realize how hard our fight is, and help us with all the necessary diplomatic pressure. It will lessen repressions strangling the civil society that is trying to struggle against the dictatorship. That is why we try to draw attention to the lawyers, human rights activists and journalists. Until they are intimidated and repressed, the people cannot “spread their wings”. They are the warrant of civil activity.
Of course, there are similarities between Iran and Belarus, even in the way they cooperate with the international community. For that reason I do want the international community to be determined and firm regarding these two regimes, and to give the people of our countries a possibility to define their way in a more liberated manner.
- Today in the West it is common to say that any change in a dictatorship depends entirely on the people, while any international pressure on dictatorships is an attempt to ”interfere into internal affairs”. Don’t you think that western politicians are leaving the oppressed people to their fate?
- Human rights are universal. That is why to use the crucial principle of non-interference into internal politics of a country is - pardon my language - the same as to cover the international community’s inaction with a fig leaf.
After the World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna in 1993 and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was established right after it, the world community elaborated a common plan to strengthen the work in the field of human rights all over the world. 7 000 participants, including governments, national institutions and NGOs, laid the foundation for new principles. The universal nature of human rights and the absolute necessity to respect them became the main principle.
This is our common task. No tragic situation can remain without an answer and international solidarity with the victims of the crimes.
- It is common knowledge that the Belarusian and Iranian dictatorships are closely connected. Lukashenka is known to have supplied weapons to Iran despite the sanctions. Why isn’t there a reaction from the world community?
- Unfortunately, this is not the only case, neither for Iran nor for Belarus. Geopolitical strategic alliances often replace the law, even international law. But even when this seems to be a norm, we shouldn’t ignore it, and democratic countries at least provide a possibility to openly criticize such practices – a possibility that we actively use. And this is something to take into account. Unfortunately, in countries like Iran and Belarus our possibilities are completely different…
The same goes for Russia. Moreover, this powerful state has a great impact on many countries. Even the Syrian issue is linked to Russia and China. Recently we have spoken about the outrageous way they use the right of veto when crimes against humanity are concerned. The coming Council on Human rights will be dedicated to that issue Countries that claim that they “think alike” (this is their own expression which has gained an official status in the UN) – Russia, China, Cuba, Uzbekistan and North Korea – will act together during the Council. They do their utmost to restrain influence from democracies and attempt of the civil society to impact…
As human rights activists, we can document human rights breaches, make them known to the public and call for justice with all possible methods.
- You knew Ales Bialiatski well. What would you like to tell him and other Belarusian political prisoners who remain in prison?
- Nothing new. I want to wish them courage, strength and hope. I was a prisoner myself, and I know how a human psychic reacts to imprisonment, not even to mention the physical sufferings. I am extremely concerned with Ales’ fate. I’ve known him for a long time, and I have a deep respect to him.
I am also worried about his family and the families of all political prisoners in your and other countries. I know from my experience what they and their relatives and friends have to endure. I know what it is to be exposed to slander, defamation, to lose job – everything that the families go through.
That is why we have created a website Freeales.fidh.net. The site has three language versions. With this website we want the world to know what is going on with the Belarusian civil society, its courageous and hard fight. We also want the Belarusians to know that the world is not passively observing their hopeless situation. Rallies of solidarity take place in different corners of the world; politicians, journalists and human rights activists do everything they can to help them.
Our weapon, the Law and the Publicity, cannot always bring immediate success. But they are the only guarantee of a long-term success. Ales and other political prisoners are still behind the bars, but we have been doing and will continue to do all we can to help their release. The Federation works all over the world, and when we look back and review the list of those whom we fought for, we see that we have managed to help lots of them. The most crucial thing is not to give up.