Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Human Rights Situation in Iran
Mr. Wayne Marston (Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, NDP):  
    Madam Chair, I am pleased to join this important debate tonight. I want to thank the members who have presented so far.
    A number of speakers have talked about the subcommittee on human rights and its report. I have the report here. I will be commenting to some degree on it.
    The speakers have gone on at length regarding the threat of Iran against Israel, which is very real. I believe that people understand that very clearly.
    The Ahmadinejad regime, through its leader, has repeatedly made threats in different locations around the world, which have disturbed much of the world community. There are some people who revel in those threats, and there will always be such people. However, I want to take a few moments to talk about the regime’s threat against its own people. The previous member also spoke somewhat about that.
    As late as Tuesday of this week, the committee called back some of its previous witnesses to talk about the state of affairs in Iran today. It is very troubling, because we know that the uprisings that took place in Tunis and Egypt are not going to recur in that way in Iran. I can remember seeing on television the people in Egypt walking up to soldiers and shaking their hands. To a certain degree, people were even free to surround the tanks and climb up on them and mark them. It will not be that way in Iran. There is no doubt that the regime, since the elections in 2009, has put down the efforts at that time to drive the country more toward democracy. However, a stark part of the testimony that we heard, and something that stays with me, is the fact that in Iran today someone is hanged every eight hours.
    We need to pause for a second and think of the other countries that have had revolutions for democracy. Although these other countries may have had a war or had their militaries fighting against those who were also armed, in the case of Iran it is a civilian population that is being put down and young people’s lives taken. Therefore, it is very important to pause in our debate tonight to consider these young people.
    What is so troubling is that while we talk about the war on drugs, and the United States regularly talks about the war on drugs along the border with Mexico border and all that is happening there, in Iran its drug laws are being used to take out the leadership and the activists who are giving voice to the fight and struggle for democracy.
    I think that part of the context we need to look at is era of 1979. It was a different time and place and there was a different regime in power. There was a student uprising that was very effective, but the clerics took it over. Today, the current uprising will be very much at odds with the clerics, who are very much a part of the power structure.
    Thus we are now seeing a different kind of push for democracy than in the other countries we have just seen. They are facing a much different government. The risks are high and the level of courage required by these young people is great, particularly now, after the brutal way in which people were put down following the election, including the disappearance and torture of young people. One witness described how a woman went to pick up the body of her son at a makeshift mortuary in a meat plant, only to find hundreds of bodies there. Many of them were disfigured from various forms of torture.
    I know that part of this has already been put into the record, but I want to speak for a moment or two in regard to the subcommittee report. We held 16 meetings and concluded a report on the state of affairs in Iran. As I recall, it was put forward in December of 2010. I would like to read a bit from the executive summary of that report. It says:
    In the summer of 2009, Canadians and the rest of the international community looked on with concern as Iranian security forces cracked down on protesters in the wake of that country’s June 12 presidential election.
    If we can imagine for a moment, what we actually saw on our TV screens was probably to some degree a sanitized version and only the cellphone pictures that got out were showing the reality of what was happening on the streets.
    We all remember the young woman who was, to some extent, just standing by when she was shot by one of the security people. The video of that went viral on the Internet. I believe we can see it on YouTube. The sadness we felt when we saw that young woman’s life bleeding away on the ground was in knowing that it was the revolution or the push for democracy that was bleeding with her, because the security forces were being very successful at that point in putting this down and controlling it. Over a period of time we saw, with sadness, it fade.
    It did not mean that the people gave up on their need for democracy and to stop the tyranny that comes from this particular regime, but that election gave us a very rare glimpse inside a country that is very controlling.
    The dramatic protests in Iran last summer and the response of those Iranian forces and authorities, and then the reaction of the international community, gave our subcommittee a focus to revisit that report again. At the end of the summer, we thought we were finished and yet we had to go back and look at it some more in the context of the more recent events. Again, as I just indicated, we have done the same thing this week.
    This is an ongoing tragedy on the one hand, but the courage of the citizens of Iran is uplifting on the other hand, so it draws us back. It is somewhat like that line from The Godfather when they were talking about the man who was trying to get out but kept getting pulled back. The striving for democracy in this country does exactly that to anyone who takes the time to study it, or even to those engaged in casual discussions with friends. We cannot help but go back to the struggle of these people.
    Our committee was very concerned with the deteriorating rights in that country. We broadened our study to the mistreatment of the Iranian population itself, which I think, if we consider the number of executions, is putting Iran on the level of China. In the world we tend to point to China as the place with the most repression on the face of the earth, but we have to pull ourselves back to what is happening in Iran at this point in time and say that it is very similar.
    We heard from expert witnesses and human right activists representing non-governmental organizations, academics and lawyers, and in light of their testimony the subcommittee made a number of recommendations. In our assessment, we recognized that the regime has a long history of systemic and widespread violations of the human rights of its own people.
    The abuses violate the population’s right to life and freedom from discrimination based on religion. For example, the Baha’is, the Jews and the Christians in that country live a very quiet life, trying not to draw any attention to themselves at all, because there are huge penalties to be paid.
    There is discrimination according to sex, language, sexual orientation and political opinion. Normally we talk about political parties where there is dissent, but if someone is expressing a political opinion that is not in line with the regime’s, they are opening themselves to horrific torture. It should be noted that oftentimes the Iranian regime is violating its own country’s laws. That is how far it is prepared to take it.
    The recording and reporting of these violations has been problematic, because domestic human rights organizations are routinely shut down. Government officials, journalists and activists are regularly harassed. I think it goes beyond harassment in many cases.
    One of the people who spoke to our committee was Shirin Ebadi, who has been before our committee twice. We were struck by the courage of this woman.
    I am getting the signal to wrap up. I am just beginning. I had a ton of notes and got a little carried away.
    However, that is the important part of what we have to understand, the need for a passion in support of these people.
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Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):  
    Madam Chair, knowing my colleague’s wealth of knowledge on this and his participation in the meetings of the foreign affairs subcommittee, I would like to invite him to share more of his thoughts and perspectives if the time did not allow him to do so.
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Mr. Wayne Marston:  
    Madam Chair, I thank the member for introducing this in this way. Our own passion for this is below the surface. When we see Shirin Ebadi or we see the professors and the various people who come before us with tragic stories, it is not just the physical abuse that gets to us. It is the systemic repression of a people and what should be their democratic rights that at two levels we are pulled on this.
    On the international front we could talk about the threats to the world community. There is debate as to whether those threats are real or maybe not that real. However, the threats internally to the people on the ground in Iran are extremely real. As I said, the hangings are every eight hours. When we know that they hang juveniles in that country, we are further disgusted and further troubled.
    I could probably go on even further, but perhaps there are more questions.
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Mr. Jim Maloway (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP):  
    Madam Chair, I want to thank the member for his comments today on the take note debate on Iran. He has brought out several important points about the situation.
    We had a take note debate on the Egyptian situation just a week or two ago.
    What does the member think Canada can or should do about the situation at this point?
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Mr. Wayne Marston:  
    Madam Chair, what is critical from the witness testimony is the documentation, the collecting of the facts so that the people of the world, as well as the people of Iran, understand what that government is guilty of and that the Government of Canada can support the development of a centre which helps with that documentation, be it in Canada or elsewhere, because the one thing that will change governments is the information and the understanding by the people of that country the extent of the abuses. They know that their friends and neighbours disappear. But as to the extent of the physical abuse and deaths, I doubt very much if they really understand the depth of the damage being done to the population of that country. The report speaks to this. I would invite people to go online and look at the subcommittee report on Iran because it lays out 24 recommendations.
    The key is to get information out and educate the world on what is actually happening.
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Mr. Mario Silva (Davenport, Lib.):  
    Madam Chair, I want to alert my hon. colleague that I just received notice that two Iranian naval ships have just moved near the Egyptian territory. I presume that this is sort of–
    An hon. member: The Suez Canal.
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Mr. Mario Silva:  
     The Suez Canal.
     I presume this is sort of a hostile act by Iran and also a warning to the west probably, that it does not want a similar movement taking place in Iran that took place in Egypt.
    It is another sign of Iran creating instability in the whole region, from its support of Hezbollah, to Hamas. It is certainly a regime that sponsors terrorism and is quite frightening in terms of its action toward people and also toward the international community.
     I wonder, given what happened just a few minutes ago, whether the member has any comments or anything to add to that action by Iran.
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Mr. Wayne Marston:  
    Madam Chair, I am not overly surprised at the news but I am disappointed.
    Regimes such as this remind me of a magician who keeps someone occupied with one hand while picking his or her pocket with the other hand. Sometimes some of the rhetoric and over-the-top expressions or actions externally outside of the country is used to draw attention away from the very nature of what is being done to the people within a country.
    We need to keep our focus right now on the Iranian people and the suffering that is happening there and the courage that is being expressed as they take to the streets once more.
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Mr. Jim Maloway:  
    Madam Chair, comparisons have been made with the recent situation in Egypt. I am interested in knowing how the member feels about the role of technology, Facebook, the Internet in both of those movements. In Iran in 2009, the people involved in the protest were very well educated and tech savvy. Al Jazeera has a big effect on the instant reporting. It is almost the CNN of that area.
    I wonder if the member has any comments or thoughts about these points.
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Mr. Wayne Marston:  
    Madam Chair, I may be incorrect with the number I am about to give, but I believe that 65% of the population of Iran is under 40 years old.
    If we go back to the election of President Obama, the member may recall that a flash mob showed up outside the White House. This was not an announced event. Young people used Twitter and Facebook to tell people to go there. In a country of relative freedom like the United States, they were able to do that and express their joy at the change in their government.
    In Egypt and Tunis the use of technology showed dozens of cameras being held high in the air by people recording the events. Fortunately, there were enough western media there able to capture that as well, which we will not see coming out of Iran. The use of these tools is second nature to the generations there that has given life to this. People have been contained for so long by this regime, but they finally have a tool that allows them the connections they need.
    The problem with the technology now is that the regime itself will be able to tap into it and to some extent identify people, although it depends on the level of the sophistication of the security forces there. People are at extremely high risk, but they are rising to this occasion. They are expressing the courage needed to change their world. It is up to Canada and countries like Canada to support them.
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Mr. Jim Maloway:  
    Madam Chair, the leadership in Tunisia and Egypt was very corrupt. With respect to Egypt, perhaps $70 billion was at question.
     Is this the same situation in Iran? Are we talking about a leadership there that is financially corrupt and has amassed some money, or is there a different issue?
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Mr. Wayne Marston:  
    Madam Chair, I do not think the issue is to the same extent. We understand that the Mubarak family has something like $70 billion. When a leader has absolute power in any country that power is open to abuse. There are bribery systems and demands are made on people in the institutions of power.
     I went to Saudi Arabia in 1979 as a contractor with Bell Canada. Bell Canada had 1,500 Canadian managers in that country who were attempting to change the culture relative to the phone company’s management style. No offence to those managers, but it was too systemic. A technician would be paid to get someone a telephone number and that telephone number would be connected at the switch centre. If the technician were paid enough of a bribe, there would be no record of that number anywhere. Those young men were driving around in Cadillacs, and in 1979 a Cadillac was selling for $40,000 in that country. The undercurrent of corruption is tied to absolute power.
    In answer to my colleague’s question, I believe with investigation we would find massive amounts of money.