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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