Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Human Rights Situation in Iran
Hon. Larry Bagnell (Yukon, Lib.):  
    Mr. Chair, I want to emphasize one aspect that I talked about a couple of times earlier tonight and that is the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran. I have a Baha’i community in my riding that is a very peaceful, loving, open society with an open religion. The people in that community are shocked, troubled, sad and horrified at the treatment of their fellow Baha’is in Iran.
    This is a total violation of human rights, among many other things that have been talked about this evening. As we know, in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, one of the grounds upon which we are not allowed to discriminate is religion. Baha’i, being a well known religion, would be an obvious ground for discrimination.
    The Iranian government says that it does not discriminate and yet the UN representative has brought forward concrete documentation of a memorandum of policy from 1993 that is not only secretly discriminating but does so publicly, right in their papers on their policy. In that particular memorandum, it says that the progress and development of the Baha’i community shall be blocked. In it there are directives that deny the Baha’i people access to higher education and many types of employment. This is just one example of overt discrimination.
    About three years ago, some of the leaders of the Baha’i religion, which, as everyone knows, is a peaceful, open type of religion, were whisked away to jail and put into horrendous conditions. They remain there still today, for no good reason other than they practised a religion different from that of the president and the supreme leader.
    That particular memorandum that I was talking about was not something done by lower level officials. It was actually signed by the president of Iran at the time and the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
    It t has been a long-time persecution. It is not new. There is denial of this religion to organize as a peaceful religious community. The government and government officials make every effort they can to stop that. As I talked about previously, there are numerous arrests as a result of such types of activity. Many are denied the right to life, liberty and security of person. Their possessions are often just taken away or they are put into jail and lose everything they have for no good reason at all other than they are Baha’i. They are denied access to advanced education when that is found out. As is well known in Canada, how can one progress without an education.
    Community properties of the religion are confiscated and destroyed. Imagine how we would feel in Canada or how a Muslim community would feel if the government came in and destroyed all the mosques or decided we were not having these religions and tore down all the churches, mosques and synagogues and any of the holy places in our country. There would be an outrage. Quietly, passively and peacefully, the Baha’is are outraged as well, but, of course, in their position they are helpless.
    The great nature of Canada is to help the most vulnerable, whether that is at home or abroad. It is one of our greatest traits. Who could be more helpless than this tiny minority of this very peaceful religion?
    They are also denied their civil rights and liberties and there is much incitement to hatred, based on religion and belief. Even sometimes, through this hatred, the government does not have to take action because it incites other people to do that.
    There has been long-term persecution, but in recent years, since the 1980s, over 200 people have been executed, often without a fair trial, without good reason, without justifiable legal reasons, extra-judicial killings. Thousands are arrested and interrogated. Tens of thousands are deprived of their jobs, their pensions and their educational opportunities.
    The member for Mount Royal talked about the various processes that were available to us at the United Nations to take strong actions against this type of persecution. Some countries in the western world are not taking those actions. In fact, they are not even participating in the sanctions. They continue on with trade as normal.
     Because Canada has such a great influence in the world, we can certainly bring that to bear on those countries that do not do as much as they could through their economy, through sanctions, through the international community to make it difficult for the Iranian government in order to try to stop it from taking actions not only against the Baha’i community, but against people in our line of work. We are outraged when we see what it does it to people who does not agree with the government, including the parliamentarians. It wants want to execute the leader of the opposition and opposition members in Parliament. It is so outrageous it is almost inconceivable.
    Of all the groups of people who have the least power, the peaceful Baha’is are obviously one of those groups.
    Last night I had dinner with people who originally lived in another cruel dictatorship. We talked about they ways we helped out. We send money. We spend our volunteer time and some of our personal time to work for freedom in those cruel dictatorships. It seems so tiny and insignificant compared to the people who live there, putting their lives on the line every day, like the Baha’i leaders, like the people who stand up for a peaceful religion. They know the price could be execution, torture or incarceration. They know they could lose everything they have. Probably most painful of all is they could lose family members. When it seems so insignificant, it does not take much to think we should try to do more, as much as we possibly can from the privileged, wealthy, peaceful and free state in which we live.
    The great Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Aung San Suu Kyi once said, “Please use your freedom to fight for ours”. That is what we should do. That is what all members of Parliament were doing tonight in the House. As was said by the member for Mount Royal, who instigated the debate, now we have to translate this goodwill, the great tradition of protection that Canada has into actions by encouraging the international community and its allies to do what they can through international law and the United Nations.
    We appreciate the great outrage the government has shown, just like all the parties here tonight. We certainly look for great leadership from the government in following some of the steps that one of the most famous people in the world on human rights, the member for Mount Royal, has outlined as procedures for Canada. He provided a list of procedures that we can follow ourselves, as well as through the United Nations, so that we can say that we have done our best to help those innocent people like the Baha’i, who are so downtrodden and are in such horrifying situations, ones that we would never want our families to be in.
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Mr. Deepak Obhrai (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC):  
    Mr. Chair, I want to thank the hon. member for highlighting the persecution the Baha’is face in Iran.
    As far as we are concerned, the Baha’i in Iran are Iranian citizens. Like any other Iranian citizens, it is deplorable that their human rights have been taken away by the regime.
    The cornerstone of our government’s policy is upholding human rights. In that respect, we have worked, as the hon. member has suggested, at the United Nations every year to sponsor and pass a resolution in the General Assembly condemning Iran for its human rights record. To get that resolution passed, we make tremendous diplomatic efforts to get the world on our side, as the member has rightly pointed out. That resolution has actually passed in the General Assembly and has angered the Government of Iran, which has mounted a diplomatic offensive against us as a result. That is fine; we do not mind that.
     We work very hard with the international community exactly as the member has recommended. We have been doing that for many years at the UN General Assembly in putting Iran’s human rights abuses on record, and these have been condemned.
    I would say it is one of our most successful diplomatic initiatives that we have had in condemning the human rights situation in Iran, including the discrimination against the Baha’i, which is one area of discrimination in Iran.
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Hon. Larry Bagnell:  
    Mr. Chair, I would like to thank the member for that. I certainly appreciate the government’s strong stance year after year at the United Nations, as just outlined by the member.
    In some of these situations, such as in Iran or other areas where we have uniquely horrible autocratic governments violating human rights, we have a nice set of very well worked out and careful policies in how we do things and how money can be spent. It is great to have good controls, but sometimes they are not liberal or open enough. We may need to have exceptions so that we can help democratic groups, for instance. They might not be part of those governments and may not even be within the borders of the states we are dealing with. They may need certain expenses met that are not covered under our present policy.
     I would encourage the government, the ministers, the secretaries of state and parliamentary secretaries and the policy-makers in the PMO and the minister’s offices to have the courage, when necessary, to make exceptions to the funding rules, when we know these are needed to be most effective in dealing with the problem. With the good will, courage and strength the government has just outlined on these issues, it could make those exemptions.
     To the bureaucrats in the department of foreign affairs, at CIDA, and at the Privy Council Office, they need the courage to say in memoranda when speaking truth to power that we need these exemptions if we are going to be effective in this particular unusual situation to help these oppressed people. Certainly the dictators of the autocratic governments in those countries are not following the rule of law and, certainly, we do not want our laws to be so inflexible that we cannot help.
    Thus I just encourage our people, where necessary, either to revise the regulations or to ask for exceptions where we could be most helpful with the resources we have to help fight these terrible violations of human rights.
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Mr. Jim Maloway (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP):  
    Mr. Chair, I was happy to hear the member talk about the Baha’is. I recall being in Israel in 1979 and visiting the Baha’i Temple in Haifa, which is the world headquarters for the Baha’is.
    There is some very disturbing information about how the Baha’is are treated in Iran. Two hundred and two Baha’is have been killed since the Islamic revolution. Many more were imprisoned, expelled from schools and workplaces, denied various benefits, and denied registration for marriage. Their homes have been ransacked. They have been banned from attending university or holding government jobs. Several hundred of them have received prison sentences for their religious beliefs.
    I saw some other statistics which indicated that when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power the number of imprisonments mushroomed. Under the Shah’s regime, fewer than 100 political prisoners had been executed between 1971 and 1979, but the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, and 7,900 were executed between 1981 and 1985 as the prison system was expanded.
    During the Shah’s era some prisoners who were interviewed talked about boredom and monotony, but prisoners typically used the words “fear”, “death”, “terror” and “horror” to describe the Islamic republic’s prisons. People revolted against the Shah of Iran but they received something worse. That is an interesting observation.
    I have run out of time to ask my question but I am sure the member will be able to provide a response.
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Hon. Larry Bagnell:  
    Mr. Chair, I thank the hon. member for his understanding of the Baha’i. I also thank the parliamentary secretary for his support for the Baha’i.
    I want to mention again the seven Baha’i leaders who were recently arrested, Mrs. Kamalabadi, Mr. Khanjani, Mr. Naeimi, Mr. Rezaie, Mrs. Sabet, Mr. Tavakkoli and Mr. Tizfahm. Months went by without any formal charges being laid against them, and when charges were laid, their lawyer said there was nothing to substantiate the charges. On August 8, 2010, 20-year prison sentences were announced for these seven people. Unfortunately, I do not have enough time to talk about their case.
    First and foremost in our mind is that unacceptable situation and we should fight it. Three hundred and fifty-four Baha’is have been arrested since 2004. Sixty-two are currently in prison and 137 have been arrested, released on bail and awaiting trial.
    Obviously, we need to be strong, as do all our allies. We need to take these cases to the United Nations. We cannot allow this medieval type of activity to continue in the modern day, the violation of the human rights of not only the Baha’i but, as the parliamentary secretary said, all the other citizens of Iran who do not agree with the government.