If you can’t beat them, ban them. That seems to be the watchword for Tehran, going by the official prohibition on the human rights group led by Iran’s 2003 Nobel Peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi. Tehran’s ostensible reason for outlawing the four-year-old Centre of Human Rights Defenders is that it didn’t have a valid operating permit, which made its activities ‘illegal’. Never mind, as Ms Ebadi herself points out, if non-governmental organisations and rights activists in Iran are legally exempt from applying for any permit to function freely. So, more than any legal infringement, it’s the group’s campaigning for human and minority rights in the country that has had Iranian Interior Ministry’s hackles up.
The centre has famously defended several activists and dissidents, including prominent journalist Akbar Ganji, who was freed last March after spending more than five years in jail, and the family of Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was murdered during interrogation at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Iran has a proud history and tradition, yet, if it wishes to be respected as a great nation today, it will not be on the basis of its independent nuclear programme or oil riches, but on how it treats its own people, more especially its minorities. This is not a standard that is applicable to Iran alone, but to any modern nation.
Yet going by its treatment of its Kurdish minorities, the Baha’i community and other minorities, Iran has a long way to go. Perhaps all this appears meaningless for Iran’s mullah-led system that ensures that a narrow group of hard-liners alone can run the governmental system, especially the police and judiciary. This system has a singular failing when it comes to human rights groups like that run by Ms Ebadi. But such groups are the conscience of the state, and if these are harassed and forced to close operation, the loser will be Iran.