House of Commons Hansard #132 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was fednor.

Topics

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

8:55 p.m.

Calgary—Nose Hill
Alberta

Conservative

Diane Ablonczy Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs)

Mr. Chair, I am very interested in the work the committee and members did. I know they have worked very hard and have a great deal of expertise.

I have a question about consular cases, not surprisingly. In my last answer I referred to Mr. Ghassemi-Shall's case and I should tell the House that I inadvertently got it mixed up with Mr. Malekpour's case as I have been dealing with both of them. I apologize for that and I will try to correct the record in Hansard.

My question is about Mr. Ghassemi-Shall, who is a Canadian citizen and was arrested on charges of spying in Iran, and Mr. Malekpour, a computer programmer, who is not a Canadian citizen but a permanent resident. Did the committee come to any conclusions about new avenues, different avenues, more effective avenues that we as Canadians can pursue in order to support and assist individuals like Mr. Ghassemi-Shall and Mr. Malekpour and their families who are in these terrible circumstances?

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

Mr. Chair, we are very much concerned also about consular cases.

We tend to focus on witnesses who actually have on the ground expertise and are witnessing also what is taking place in terms of the human rights abuses taking place in Iran. The reports that came back to us are very shocking and very alarming. We are talking about mass murders of people. We are talking about a government that silences critics, imprisons critics, tortures them, kills them. According to Human Rights Watch, there are mass executions of over 100 people just this year alone, which makes it per capita probably the number one country in terms of mass executions, far outreaching any other country.

In terms of specific consular cases, many of these are done, as the minister would probably know, through diplomatic channels and through different friendly countries who might be able to assist us. We are asking the government to take whatever steps are necessary. It has our support to bring Canadians home safely. We have seen what could happen if a Canadian citizen, or someone who wanted to reside in this country, are captured by the Iranian regime, once they are jailed without even a fair trial, which they never have, the possibility of them being executed is quite great. We have seen what happened with the journalist, Ms. Kazemi. That was a situation where she was arrested and killed. That was basically what took place.

We have to act in an urgent manner, because the lives of those who are taken by the Iranian regime are at risk. It really is a question of life and death. It is not a question of waiting too long. We have to bring pressure and assistance to our neighbours through whatever country that will be supportive. To get their assistance is very important. That would be the appropriate way.

The other concrete thing we said is that we have to support NGOs both domestically and internationally who are working on this file and who could also be witnesses to what atrocities are taking place and to document it. That also requires financial assistance from the government.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, I may be rising on the same matter that the member for Mount Royal is about to rise on.

I want to emphasize that the nature of this debate is about the worsening domestic human rights situation in Iran, but it seems to me that there has been no progress whatsoever domestically in Iran on the regime's willingness to continue to argue and to incite in favour of a massive genocide in which it seeks and advocates the destruction of an entire other country, the state of Israel.

I would invite the member's comments on that ongoing worry.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

February 16th, 2011 / 9 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

Mr. Chair, I want to thank my hon. colleague for the question and also for the excellent leadership he provides as chair of our subcommittee. It is a great pleasure to be a member of that committee because we tend to find consensus in most issues, unlike some of the other committees where there is a little bit of antagonism. I feel very close to the members of the committee and I am very proud to sit on the committee.

The member makes a very important observation that we have also discussed in our committee, which is the genocidal tendencies of Ahmadinejad's Iran toward the state of Israel and the Jewish people. That is one of the reasons why we are asking that the government make sure that in relation to our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the specific obligations that Canada has as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, to enforce them.

We are talking about also raising this with the permanent members of the Security Council. We are asking that this be brought before the human rights council and other agencies. We also request that this issue be raised at the highest possible level, because we have a responsibility through the genocide convention, specifically article III, which I mentioned before, that this matter be dealt with and appropriate action taken to hold Iran accountable for its actions.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:05 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, I want to join, also, in commending my colleague for his excellent stewardship of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. As well, I want to recognize my colleague, the member for Davenport, who served as vice-chair of the committee, for his commendable work and submission this evening.

One of the recommendations of the foreign affairs committee and of the subcommittee had to do with providing a civil recourse for victims of gross human rights violations by removing the immunity under the State Immunity Act for foreign officials who perpetrated such violations.

I wonder if the member for Davenport could comment on that recommendation.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:05 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

Mr. Chair, first, I want to thank the member for Mount Royal for his excellent work, not just on this file, but specific on that issue of the State Immunity Act, which he has put forward to ensure that the government in fact allows the legislation so that we can get after those individuals who are creating and perpetrating both genocide and hateful language. That particular legislation needs to be enacted as soon as possible by the government.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:05 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, I am here in my capacity today as the chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. I want to take members through the history of the hearings we have had and some of the very extensive evidence we heard at committee in the course of hearings that started under a different chairman in 2007 and continued on under my chairmanship in 2008-09. We thought we could wrap the committee up and then realized that we had to continue on in the wake of the repression following the rigged Iranian elections and the subsequent crackdown. We produced a report and just recently have had hearings again into further abuses in Iran. Just yesterday we heard some testimony.

When we are dealing with human rights violations on a vast scale we become numb to them. As I was preparing my remarks, I was put in mind of a saying that is attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Joseph Stalin that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.

To make the point about just how awful the human rights situation is in Iran, I thought I might draw upon a piece of testimony.

I should mention as I begin that when I was in university I studied Russian literature. Russian literature is rich in prison diaries of people who describe what happened to them, the horrible situation in the gulag, Dostoevsky describing the situation to the czars.

Nothing can surpass the testimony which we heard at committee from Ahmad Batebi:

I was kept for 17 months in a small room by myself, and that room was no more than a washroom. This situation caused health problems. They took me twice for execution. In one case, I was taken for execution with a group of others. Of course, I was not executed. I was in the middle, with one man on the left and another on the right. They blindfolded us and forced us to stand on top of a chair, as if to hang us. They pulled my blindfold aside a bit so I could see what was happening to the other two. These were people who were imprisoned next to me in small cells. I saw their execution.

He goes on to describe some specific tortures to which he was also subjected, but that gives us an idea. That story has been repeated in other versions many thousands of times in Iran over the course of the past three decades.

There have been periods in the past three decades under the current regime that have been worse. There have been periods that have been better. There have been times when one group has been singled out and times when another group has been singled out. At the moment dissidents, those who are calling out for democracy, are a particular target as the government seeks to crush dissent.

The government has a long record of going after groups of all description. For example, there is religious repression in Iran, which includes, as others have noted, the murderous oppression of the Baha'í minority, the largest religious minority in Iran.

But it also includes the repression of Iran's Christian and Jewish populations. It also includes, perhaps to a lesser degree but nonetheless significant, repression of Iran's Sufi and Sunni populations, and it includes the repression of dissident Shia clerics, including the imprisonment for over 20 years of a prominent Shia cleric who issued a fatwa against the murderous behaviour of the regime toward the Baha'í. It was religious repression on a massive scale.

Iran is a country of many nationalities. Under the current Iranian regime it has become a prison house of nationalities. The oppression of, for example, the sizeable Azeri population. The population of Azeri in Iran is perhaps as large or even larger than the population of Azeri in Azerbaijan. They are significantly oppressed.

There is a very large population of Baluchis. They are very significantly oppressed. Arabs face similar oppression. Kurds face oppression.

To give a sense of what that is like, I thought I would quote from some testimony relating to the Baluchi minority. Fakteh Zamani, when testifying before our committee on March 24, 2009, said the following:

What I have heard from Baluchis is that there is a special judge appointed by the government to try these cases. Confessions have been obtained under severe torture, and these people are tried in 10 to 15 minutes in their cells, without a prosecutor or a defence lawyer present. Just because of the special Baluchi situation, a judge shows up and asks a few questions of this tortured individual and sentences them to death. There are hundreds of Baluchis on death row.

That is ethnic oppression.

Iran has a large and quite well-educated population. It has a cosmopolitan past. Tehran is a very cosmopolitan city.

Women acquired, prior to the current regime, a relatively significant role in society. The repression and the stripping away of those women's rights is a prominent feature of the human rights oppression of the current regime.

Trade unionists are repressed. We have heard testimony to that effect.

Sexual minorities are oppressed in a particularly grotesque way. Male homosexuals, gay men, are executed. Being a gay man is a terminal offence in Iran.

However, for peculiar reasons, it is acceptable to get a sex change operation. Sometimes Iranian gays have effectively been forced to undergo unwanted sex change operations to escape the death penalty. Many Iranian gays who do escape are currently in a situation of being effectively unrecognized refugees trapped in Turkey.

Young people are similarly subject to peculiar and extraordinary persecution, unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The majority of the executions of minors in the world takes place in Iran.

If one treats all forms of the death penalty as being a kind of persecution, then Iran is a world leader. In terms of per capita executions it leads every other country in the world. There is some evidence to suggest that with the current increase in executions, it may now be the leader in an absolute number context. Remember that this is a country with 70 million people, which is large but not as large as China with 1.2 billion people. At this point there may actually be more executions in Iran than there are even in China, making it tragically a world leader in a very sad way.

The question arises, could the situation in Iran get worse? We are talking about the worsening human rights situation in Iran. The answer is yes, it could, and it has been worse at certain points in the past. Such a rise of oppression into an outright reign of terror is entirely possible.

To make that point, I will conclude by turning once again to our testimony. Dr. Abbas Milani, who testified before us in October 2009, said that in the past 30 years in Iran, “there have been moments of respite and moments of true revolutionary terror”. He pointed out to us that in 1988 there was the “execution of an estimated 4,000 prisoners, who were serving time for other crimes, in order to cleanse the prisons of potential opponents”. This could happen again on just as massive a scale.

The prisons were cleared in 1988, according to a witness from Amnesty International, largely to make space for more prisoners. It was effectively a form of housecleaning.

A regime that can do that kind of thing is obviously one that we must speak openly about. I am glad that all members were willing to do so today and it has been a privilege to speak to this matter.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:15 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Chair, I want to note that the member is the chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights and it has been a pleasure to work with him over the last number of years.

One of the recommendations that came from the subcommittee was to do with the broadcast of Farsi into Iran. Young people are using Twitter and other forms of communication on the Internet, which could very well be shut down or controlled, or could lead to their capture. I would like the member's comments on the recommendation of the committee. Has he heard any reaction from our government on that suggestion?

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:15 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, to answer the second question first, I have not heard a reaction.

On that recommendation, I have to confess that when the committee was hearing testimony, I remember thinking to myself that a chair is not supposed to express any opinion on matters that do not strictly relate to the rules. I remember thinking at the time that shortwave transmissions are an out-of-date technology and we hear broadcasts on the Internet, and given the fact that Iran has a well-connected, well-wired population and quite a bit of Internet and technical savvy, there was really no need for the old-fashioned broadcasting over the airwaves.

Having watched events in Tunisia and Egypt and the shutting down of the Internet as an attempt to control the population, I have realized that the thoughts I had privately were incorrect. I am only now expressing them to say that I realize that I had been incorrect about them and I did not express them at the time when I might have had some impact on the committee.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:20 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Chair, I know the member sits on the subcommittee and I am aware of its report. It contains 24 recommendations and I have read them. I realize the report was finished in December 2010, not that long ago, but events are unfolding rather quickly. Could he give me a rundown as to how many of the recommendations have been dealt with specifically?

I also had a question about consular services, but I will ask that later.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:20 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, normally after a report is issued, at some point the government issues a response, but if it is a report of the House, there is a requirement that the government respond to it.

It is important to get concurrence in the report from the House. At this point, that has not happened. That is not to say the government should not be looking at it and responding to it, but that would ensure that point by point, all 24 recommendations would be dealt with, perhaps not in the manner the committee or the House would most want but, nonetheless, there is a requirement that it be done.

That being said, I cannot point to my knowing anything specific as an insider. Although I am on the government side, I am not actually a member of the government in the sense of knowing government secrets. I suppose if I were, I would not be able to share them extemporaneously, so I am going to be of less help than I wish I could be.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:20 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Davenport, ON

Mr. Chair, I want to commend my hon. colleague on his excellent speech and the work he does in the committee.

The member stated very clearly what is faced by a lot of the minority groups in Iran, whether it be the Baluchis, the Baha'is, or some of the minority Christian and Jewish communities, and how they are being persecuted by the Iranian government.

One community the member knows very well is the Baha'is which appeared before our committee. They documented the incredible persecution they face on a daily basis by that regime, without any access to the media, without any access to any type of state protection.

In fact, the minister of intelligence of Iran, the prosecutor general, said:

The administration of this miscarried Baha'i sect at all levels is unlawful and banned and their ties to Israel and their opposition to Islam and the Islamic regime are clear. The danger they pose to national security is documented and proven and therefore it is necessary that any substitute administration that acts as a replacement for the original be confronted through the law.

In other words, he is making it very clear that this is a group to be targeted. Just as they targeted Israel and the Jewish people, they want to target the Baha'is. They almost put a target on their foreheads and say that it is okay to shoot them, that it is okay to kill them, because it is a sect that they want nothing to do with.

That dehumanization of Iran's own people continually goes on. The Baha'is are peaceful people who originated in that part of the world, in Iran. They are just as much Iranians as are other Iranians. I am struck by the sheer violation of human rights against such a targeted group.

He also mentioned the gay community, which is also targeted by the regime. It continues to target its own people.

It is a country that has an incredible wealth of history. It is a country that has many incredibly intelligent people. Luckily for Canada, many of them are here in Canada because many of them have left that regime. There still is a very young, vibrant population there. They want to see change. They see what is happening around the world. They want to know what we can do, how we can act in solidarity with them.

Does my hon. colleague want to add anything further about the human rights abuses taking place against those communities?

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, the Baha'is face particularly severe persecution. There are probably three reasons for that.

The first is that they are relatively numerous and therefore a bigger target in a sense. The second is that they are a post-Koranic religion; that is to say, they recognize the authority of a prophet after the prophet Muhammad which is seen as being particularly unacceptable by the regime. The third is that the holiest site of the Baha'is is in Israel. I think it is in Haifa, but I stand to be corrected.

It should be mentioned though, and this is an important point regarding the third point, that it is purely an accident of history that Haifa is in the state of Israel. The events that led to its becoming a sacred site had to do with the imprisonment by the Ottoman Turks of the founder of the Baha'i faith in, I think it was the 1840s or the 1850s, obviously in years pre-dating the creation of the state of Israel, which resulted in its being there.

That does not imply in any way that Baha'is are incapable of being loyal citizens of Iran. It does not imply any particular point of view on behalf of the Baha'is, whether they are in Iran or anywhere else in the world, any opinion regarding the state of Israel. The use of that fact by those who would persecute the Baha'is is a terrible wrong against the peaceful people of the Baha'i faith who historically have been very good and loyal citizens of Iran.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:25 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Chair, I am pleased to speak to the take note debate tonight on the situation in Iran sponsored by the member for Mount Royal. I know he has a very good command of the issues in this area. We spoke a couple of weeks ago on the situation in Egypt.

As members know, the situation is very fluid and has developed just in the last few weeks. The government fell In Tunisia and then the government fell in Egypt, which I believe was a bigger surprise. Now we are talking about recurring protests in Iran and other countries in the region. I do not know how much of it is facilitated by the up-to-date information that is available today through networks such as Al Jazeera because people can access that information. We are being told that new technologies, such as Facebook, the Internet and so on, have been big facilitators, whereas maybe 50 or 100 years ago we would not have had these types of activities. I do not know that we can actually be 100% sure of that but suggestions have been made that this has been facilitated by these modern mediums. If that is the case, it is important and incumbent upon the friendly support of governments across the world to take action and support the protestors for the purposes of establishing democratic regimes to the extent that is possible in some of these countries.

I must admit that I am impressed with the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights which produced the report on human rights in Iran. Our member and members from other parties are on the committee that produced its report in December 2010. The report contains 24 fairly excellent recommendations that came out of that committee and I think it would be a travesty if those recommendations were simply not followed up on.

I have been around governments for a long time, 26 years as an elected person but a number of years before that working for the political apparatus. I can say that governments of all stripes operate more or less on a boiler room day-to-day crisis management basis. They do things when they have to do them. Often times we find that the follow up is not there. Promises are made by governments, which is why we have a press out there that regularly follows us around to ensure that we are actually doing what we said we would do.

Earlier on tonight, I had an opportunity, which I may have missed, to ask the new minister a question. I would also like to congratulate her on her long overdue appointment. I believe she talked about consular services in 260 locations having to deal with 600 cases a day. I would like to know from her or any other member of the government, should one be around later to speak to this, if perhaps someone could provide me with the number of consular service cases the government has been dealing with on a daily basis over the past year to give us a longer term view of that.

I also would like to know where the government sits regarding the 24 recommendations that are mentioned in the report. I had not intended to but I will go through some of those recommendations because some of them are fairly good.

As we indicated, the situation is changing and is very fluid so perhaps different recommendations that may be relevant today or were relevant in December may not be relevant in a few months. Maybe some more accelerated or extreme measures might need to be taken if the situation gets further out of hand.

Recommendation number one reads:

The Subcommittee recommends that the Government of Canada continue to provide moral support and should increase, if possible, its financial support for Canadian and Iranian civil society organizations and other human rights groups that document and report on human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime.

Once again the committee has to do a follow-up to ensure these recommendations are adopted. The government member just indicated to us, and I am not sure whether all members of the committee are even aware, that the government has not even adopted this report yet. Assuming that we are all on the same page, the government should get this report adopted tomorrow and then start laying out a plan as to how it will implement these recommendations.

The report talks about providing moral and diplomatic support to the democratic movement in Iran. The government is willing and able to do that, and it has been doing that.

The report suggests that the government consider funding a research chair at a Canadian university dedicated to the study of Canadian Iranian relations, including the human rights situation in Iran. The documentation of cases is really vital to successful cases long term. So much of history's atrocities have not been documented and, without proper documentation, it is hard to prove at the end of the day. If we could get cases documented, then we could move forward and get results through international courts and other adjudication bodies. The documentation is really the worst enemy of the tyrants because they thrive on being able to hide in the shadows, use force whenever it suits them and basically run and escape. It is only when the cases can be documented and the light is shone on those cases that proper results will be made.

I recall a police person telling me a number of years ago that while he really could not tell what would happen in certain situations, he knew that if the light was shone on it things might develop and people would start scurrying around. Sure enough, that is one of the approaches that it takes.

If world attention is drawn to a problem, then tyrants will not be very happy with that development, particularly if some sanctions are attached.

Another recommendations reads:

...Radio Canada International to consider programming in Farsi over its worldwide shortwave service, over conventional AM/FM broadcasting in the Gulf region, and over the Internet.

This is another excellent idea that must be followed through on and initiated.

We talked about all the modern technological advancements like Facebook, Twitter and the Internet to the extent that we can work around those issues and use those issues. That would be a positive thing to put these tyrants in their place. That is one of the things that we can use against them to try to get results.

There is talk about a prohibition of Canadian registered ships from docking in Iran and Iranian registered ships from docking in Canada. I was wondering about the airline issue. Maybe someone knows about the issue of airline service to Iran and what is happening there.

Human Rights Situation in Iran
Government Orders

9:35 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Chair, I would like to comment on something that came from the subcommittees report. We had witnesses before the subcommittee who were hopeful that the change in Iran can and must come from its people. Several witnesses told the members that the new generation in Iran, the children of the revolution, are not happy with the social, economic and political policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new generation is well-educated, worldly and very realistic.

Professor Akhavan referred to one of the slogans. One of the slogans on the streets now is, “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I will only sacrifice my life for Iran”. They are saying that they are tired of hate-mongering and the use of imaginary external enemies as a way of crushing internal dissent and that they want to live in peace with their neighbours. Professor Akhavan is from this area.

I am wondering if the member is aware of any other totalitarian governments around the world that use what I refer to as sleight of hand or distraction away from what they are doing to their own people by way of pointing at an external enemy.