Vibrant Civil Society Essential for Sustainable Development in Iran

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran

By Sohrab Razzaghi and Masana Ndinga-Kanga
JOHANNESBURG / AMSTERDAM, Oct 15 2019 – 2019 has not been a good year for Iranian human rights activists. At a time where civic space had completely closed, many watched in disbelief as the regime mounted even more restrictions on civil society. Over recent months, many activists have been arrested, like Noushin Javari (a photographer), Marzieh Amiri (a journalist), and Javad Lal Mohammadi (teacher).

As the UN Third Committee prepares to meet in October 2019, it will be worth following whether the General Assembly will take proactive steps to respond to the crisis in Iran or continue to avert its eyes in the face of complicated global politics that have emboldened President Rouhani in his regressive anti-western crackdown on civil society.

During the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2019, Iranian President Rouhani’s called for the creation of a ‘coalition of hope’ in the Gulf region, that would focus on “peace, stability, progress and welfare” and working to “invest on hope towards a better future rather than in war and violence [sic],” with the aim of restoring justice and peace.

However, the civic space track record of Iran and many of its Gulf neighbours demonstrates that oftentimes the state is the perpetrator of violence and restrictions in-country, curtailing the very justice and peace it aims to implement.

It then begs the question, how can a regional coalition of hope be developed, when the state so frequently responds to human rights defenders with violence – excluding the language of human rights from even sustainable development goals.

Many civil society actors have been detained – deemed enemies of the state and foreign agents. As Iranian communities reel under the pressure of yet another bout of sanctions, it is worth begging the question ‘does the closure of civic space serve the interests of sustainable development in Iran?’

Contrary to what policymakers responsible for civic space closure might think, these restrictions ultimately hurt sustainable development. Human rights activists around the world, including in Iran, are oftentimes the critical purveyors of equitable ‘sustainability’ in the development process, campaigning for environmental justice, worker’s rights and the respect for the dignity and humanity of all.

In 2018, the Ayatollah Khamenei’s official website published a draft 50-year vision for “progress.” The document, entitled the Islamic-Iranian Pattern for Progress (IIPP), sets out a set of objectives to be met by 2065, covering a vast range of issues, among them the economy, justice and poverty – still to be approved by parliament.

The plan focuses on addressing poverty, the economy and the justice system. It seeks further alignment of religion and the sociopolitical system in the country, but also includes provisions for “prompting independence, accountability and specialization in the judiciary” and “enhancing women’s position and providing equal opportunities for them, with emphasis on their role as mothers.”

Critics of the regime would not be wrong to look at these policy objectives with concern, especially as the regime has a narrowed position on the role of women in society and has repeatedly failed to guarantee independence of the judiciary – where human rights defenders and political dissenters are subject to numerous violations of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (to which Iran is party).

According to a recent comparative report on Sustainable Development, Iran is in 82nd place among 156 countries. This lower-than-average score, however, is not surprising. Iran has not committed to the indexes of sustainable development, meaning people in Iran are not participating in a systematic and organized manner in the process of development. Instead, policymaking and development is a top-down process steered by the government.

In fact, most involvement of Iranians in this process is decorative. As a solution, Iranians have been organizing themselves in civil society to combine their voices and make sure they are heard. This, however, is counteracted by repression from the state, resulting in the country being rated as closed on the Civicus Monitor.

Countless activists who have been advocating for the true meaning of sustainable development have paid the price. Civil society activists, especially environmental activists, labor union and teacher union activists, as well as human rights defenders have been wrongfully persecuted.

Eight environmental activists are sitting in prison on charges of espionage, four of whom are additionally charged with “sowing corruption on earth”. If convicted, they will face death penalty. Another environmental expert, Dr. Kavous Seyed Emami, died in detention, and the circumstances of his death are unclear.

According to the Iranian Constitution, citizens are permitted to set up associations and assemblies; yet this clause is not implemented. Few, if any, groups have permission to freely form associations, including socio-political groups or ethnic/religious minorities. Last month for example, Omid Mehr foundation was closed by government authorities. When asked about the reason for closure, authorities said that Omid Mehr foundation was advocating Western values, which does not fit in Iran.

The false claim that campaigning for human rights is equal to advocating Western values is an adage used by repressive regimes to silence dissent and put forward a development agenda that excludes minorities and others on the margins. But development is not sustainable if they are excluded.

For example, the regime frequently equates the campaigns of women to determine their dress codes as acts against the state, threats to national security or prostitution. Despite the peaceful protest (handing out flowers in commemoration of International Women’s Day) against the hijab by Yasaman Aryani and Monireh Arabshahi, they were sentenced to 16 years imprisonment after being subject to enforced disappearance. Such lengthy sentences and gross human rights violations do not equate sustainability nor development.

The government not only fails to safeguard the freedom of associations and civil society organizations, but actively creates non-independent organizations (or Governmental NGOs, GONGOs) to put forward an inaccurate picture of civic engagement by the state.

Only CSOs that support the agenda of the state are accepted by the government, strengthening the top-down, government-centered way of working. The Organization for Defending Victims of Violence (ODVV), one of many GONGOs, attends international meetings, including UNHRC meetings.

Actively curating a counter-narrative of progress through GONGOs shows the vulnerability of the state to international pressure in an interconnected global political economy. The state recognizes its reliance on international partnerships for the advancement of its economic objectives.

But instead it fails to align its internal policy processes to international human rights conventions – channeling resources that could be spent on authentic engagement with civil society in country to its image. As a result, tensions in Iran are mounting at the dire state of socioeconomic affairs.

For instance, in January 2018, mass protests against poverty and economic difficulties erupted in the country. Rather than engage with citizens, the state responded through 4,967 arrests and any assembly was strictly and heavily repressed.

Among those arrested were activists, women, workers, students and teachers. Many of the arrestees have been sentenced to long imprisonment terms. Many more are critical to the realization of sustainable development in Iran.

Rather than supporting socioeconomic development, the state-imposed limitations on freedom of assembly and association in Iran, have weakened and decapacitated citizen engagement, and prevented their participation in the process of achieving sustainable development. It is short-term thinking that creates enemies of civil society and sustainable development.

In fact, a dynamic, vibrant, democratic and development-oriented association landscape is an important requirement for sustainable development. By releasing activists and opening the civic space, Iran can truly begin the process of social change for the upliftment of all.