Thursday, December 11, 2008

Welcome

The Foreign Policy Centre is pleased to join the blogosphere with the new FPC blog. The blog will be an opportunity for the FPC team and some of our associates to post short pieces about global issues that might be of interest to our readers. We hope you find it useful and interesting and most importantly, please let us know your thoughts by posting your comments!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Revolution without Rights? Women, Kurds and Baha'is are searching for equality in Iran

By Stephen Twigg. Source: Progress (www.progressonline.org.uk)

On 10 December 2008, the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but sadly there will not be much celebration in Tehran. Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor from 559-529 BCE, is widely credited with producing the first known human rights charter and defending the rights of minorities. Yet in modern Iran women and minorities continue to be treated as second-class citizens.

While the world is focused on the Iranian nuclear programme, people in Iran are calling on its government to protect the human rights of its citizens. Many Iranians face routine persecution and discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnic or religious identity. A new pamphlet by the Foreign Policy Centre looks at the experiences of women, Kurds and Baha'is to highlight this challenge for equality in Iran.

Iran's constitution declares "the abolition of all forms of unjust discrimination and the provision of equitable opportunities for all." Iran is not living up to its own promises. The government regularly sidesteps its commitment to equality, especially when it comes to women and minorities.

As a theocratic state, Iran's government is influenced by a narrow interpretation of Shi'a Islam. This version of Islam provides women with fewer rights than men and it brands Baha'is (the country's largest non-Muslim religious minority) as heretics with little protection under the law. Ethnic Kurds are prevented from teaching their language and culture for fear that it will undermine Islamic unity. The marginalisation of these groups predates the Islamic Republic, but the ideology of the regime has institutionalised a pattern of discrimination.

The government regularly creates exceptions to principles of equality enshrined in human rights. It has increasingly used the pretext of national security to detain innocent women, Baha'is and Kurds. A cursory look at many of these cases shows the lack of credibility of such charges. Recently, Hiwa Butimar (a Kurdish historian), Esha Momeni (a student from California and women's rights petitioner) and the entire Iranian Baha'i leadership were separately arrested under 'national security' charges. The authorities have been unable to present any credible evidence to back these claims.

Other charges used to prosecute women, Kurds and Baha'is are ambiguous, such as 'acting against the regime,' 'enmity with God,' or 'insulting the sacred institutions of Islam.' The application of the law by judges is often unpredictable and arbitrary.

Members of all three groups are regularly denied their due process and detainee rights under the law. Legal processes are outlined in the Iranian constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure, but many are not adhered to in practice. Detainees are often held incommunicado for long periods of time without any knowledge of the charges against them.

Hard-line clerics and government-sponsored media also promote a culture of prejudice against minorities and women. They frequently use the label 'anti-Iranian' to discredit marginal groups. Baha'i youth engaged in community service, women promoting women's rights education, or Kurds teaching in their own language have all been branded with this defamatory label.

The state places obstacles to education and employment that prevent social advancement by members of these groups. It is official state policy to deny Baha'is access to universities, far fewer Kurds than the national average get places, and women are restricted in their choice of courses (even if they dominate numerically overall). All three groups have difficulty gaining employment in the public sector (Baha'is are officially banned).

Women, Baha'is and Kurds are far from the only groups that are marginalised, but their experiences highlight an issue that is gaining ground among Iran's human rights activists. The struggle for equality is happening on the street corners and in the seminaries of Iran. National human rights organisations like the Campaign for Equality argue that Islam is fully compatible with human rights. Prominent clerics such as Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Yousof Sanei are challenging the rigid interpretations of the ruling clerics.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to acquire nuclear weapons, but it has misunderstood what it takes to be a leader in the international community. For 60 years, the Declaration of Human Rights has been the universal standard for what it means to be a respected state in the community of nations. If Iran wants to play its part in the international community, it needs to revisit the noble principles set into motion by Cyrus and protect human rights at home.

Stephen Twigg is Director of the Foreign Policy Centre and Chair of Progress


Obama and Iran: A Victory for an Enlightened Foreign Policy?

By Mariam Ghorbannejad.

November 4th 2008 was by all accounts an historic day for the United States of America. Not only had the nation elected their first African-American president but they had done so by a landslide in the popular vote unseen since Democratic nominee Lyndon Johnson's win in 1964.

A twist of fate just six weeks or so before had swung the electorate in Obama's favour. His popularity soared as the American economy worsened. Perhaps if the economy had not taken centre stage, attention would have shifted to healthcare, education and foreign policy where the margin separating Obama from McCain would have been much smaller. George W. Bush had made a point of his role as commander-in-chief and he may have been passing the baton onto John McCain had events panned out differently. But that is what a matter of weeks can do in politics.

It may not have been Barack Obama's foreign policy that got him elected by the US electorate. But in the international arena, it was his stance on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and openness to dialogue with Iran without pre-conditions that appealed to world leaders.

In particular, the letter of congratulations sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Obama seemed to garner much media attention. According to the Iranian President's spokesperson, Gholam-Hussein Elham who was quoted by the Tehran Times, a similar letter of congratulations had been sent to Bush back in 2006, proposing a return to religious principles as a means of restoring confidence.

But this time, the act of sending a congratulatory message was seized upon as representing a fundamental shift in foreign policy direction. It was touted as having the potential to resurrect some kind of diplomacy between Iran and America that had been abruptly halted in 1979 after the US hostage crisis.

Was it overly-optimistic to presume that the United States would reach out to Iran? After all, it was Republican President George W. Bush who had named the Islamic Republic part of the 'axis of evil' alongside Iraq and North Korea in February 2002.

Given one of the key themes of Barack Obama's foreign policy is to start a withdrawal of combat troops from neighbouring Iraq, trying to engage in 'aggressive personal diplomacy' with Iran and other regional powers looks to be a sensible move. In order to ensure Iraqi stability, he has pledged to develop a new relationship with Iran.

In exchange for cooperation on terrorism and nuclear issues and an end to Iran's involvement in Iraq, the American president-elect has said that he would meet the country's leaders (at a time and place of his choosing) and offer them economic inducements.

Should the Iranian government refuse to collaborate, stronger unilateral sanctions will be applied, alongside multilateral sanctions at the Security Council and 'sustained action outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime' will be taken.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has had sound economic growth hovering between about four and five percent since 2004, high consumer inflation and unemployment coupled with a forecast decline in oil revenues* suggest that economic inducements could prove tempting.

The incoming American president's carrot of membership of the World Trade Organisation and economic investment may encourage some conservatives in the Iranian government to soften their stance to US diplomatic engagement.

Both Barack Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden oppose the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, passed by Congress, which says that the US should use its military presence in Iraq to counter the threat from Iran. Obama made his opposition to the Iraq war clear from the outset and he believes that it would be reckless to extend it into Iran. As such, he has introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that no act of Congress gives the Bush administration authority to attack Iran.

Obama has even gone so far as to say that he may not seek 'regime change' in the Islamic Republic. This could possibly allay fears in Iran that the West is only willing to engage with an Iranian government they do not view as hostile.

Memories of the coup d'etat that deposed Iran's Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in the early 1950s, an operation funded by the Americans and the British, are still fresh in the minds of many Iranians.

However, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, called talks with Iran, North Korea and Syria with few pre-conditions a propaganda victory for America's international foes.

Her recent acceptance of the post of US Secretary of State could therefore prove significant in the future course of American foreign policy. Initial expressions of delight from Iranian quarters at a new era of Iranian-American relations may have been a little premature.

  • Figures obtained from the Economist Intelligence Unit

Obama faces the toughest challenges since Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Adam Hug. Source: Public Servant

As the celebrations die down, and the ticker tape is cleared away, the political reality of Barak Obama's transition is becoming clearer. Pundits argue with some accuracy that President-elect Obama will enter office with a daunting in-tray, perhaps as tough a set of problems as any new leader has faced since FDR. Two unresolved wars, a financial crisis, an economic slump, an unstable trade deficit and large portions of US debt owned by China and other countries, not exactly top of the US's Christmas list, are just some of the challenges the new administration has to look forward to. However, he faces these challenges with a level of goodwill internationally that has no recent comparison.

After years when even committed Atlanticists have nervously tried to keep their distance from a politically toxic Bush Administration, with British ministers such as Lord Malloch Brown announced that the incoming Brown Government would be 'no longer joined at the hip' to the Americans, politicians from around the world are now jostling to stand as close as possible to the President-elect.

One of Obama's first challenges is to translate his political capital into European troops on the ground in Afghanistan where he is committed to a 'surge'-like policy of increased troop deployment and political engagement of Pashtun groups previously sympathetic to the Taliban. This at a time when there are growing calls for the deployment of an EU force in the DRC and with the countries who have already made significant deployments such as Britain are facing overstretch.

Similarly, following the inconclusive G20 talks, there will be the need for the new US administration to take a leading role in coordinating the fiscal stimulus packages and overhaul the global financial architecture. This will involve swiftly building a strong working relationship with Gordon Brown who has taken unofficial leadership of the global response to the crisis as Bush fades away. Promisingly, Obama and Brown share favourite tools. Obama's pledge to cut taxes for 95% of Americans by reversing Bush's tax cuts, likely to form the major plank of any Obama fiscal stimulus, will in fact largely be driven by tax credits, the Clintonian mechanism heavily favoured by the Prime Minister.

The choices Obama makes on his economic team will be critical not only to the response to the economic and financial crises. The protectionist language used on the campaign trail by Obama and his fellow Democrats have given some cause for concern that the US may seek to pull up the drawbridge in an attempt to save US jobs. While there is likely to be a cooling of support for free trade, particularly in light of the current economic situation, the centrist track records of all names floating for senior roles at Treasury or on the Council of Economic Advisors such as Tim Geithner, Jamie Dimon, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin and Paul Volker would suggest that a radical retrenchment is unlikely.

Similarly the international community will hope that the Poznan Climate Change Conference in December marks the swan song of an obstructionist US position on climate change and that the incoming administration will join the race to a final deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol at next winter's Copenhagen Summit. It has yet to be seen if the economic crisis will limit some of Obama's ambitions for tackling climate change but there are encouraging signs in some of the strangest places. The proposed $25 billion bailout for the motor industry would be tied by Democrats to helping the US car giants to develop new fuel efficient vehicles, looks like an example of how Obama will try to use fiscal stimuli to support the development of green technology as well as kick start the economy.

Given the bailouts for the financial services sector and Detroit, commentators have been questioning the ability of the new administration to deliver the comprehensive package of healthcare reforms it campaigned for. Many of the proposed mechanisms in the Obama healthcare plan are familiar to British observers: an overhaul of IT systems including the transfer of medical records from paper to computer, publishing performance data and encouraging competition between providers. However the more radical element of the plan is to enable universal coverage through the creation on a National Health Insurance Exchange, offering a new state backed insurance scheme based on the Federal Employees Benefits Programme used by members of congress alongside existing insurance packages. This would be supported with a range of tax credits for families and small businesses and requirement on larger firms to provide insurance or contribute to the costs of the national plan. DC chatter sees campaign co-chair and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as the front runner for the position as the new administration's Secretary for Health and Human Services. It will need an experienced hand such as Daschle to manage the legislative obstacles likely to be thrown in the path of reform by the health insurance industry and manage expectations with the likely delays to elements of the package enforced by the economic crisis.

The challenges Obama faces are grave but the combination of international goodwill, a promising team of built from Obama's savvy campaign operatives and experienced Clinton hands and a sense of purpose borne from adversity gives hope that these challenges can be met.