Calculus: Deal Doggedness and Human Rights Diplomacy

As the issue of denuclearization in the interest of global peace and security continues to be of pressing concern to the world, there is a growing tendency to prioritize such matters of international import above concerns around the problematic human rights records in countries like Iran and North Korea. However, concerns regarding the human rights situation within a country’s borders should not be relegated to the backburner while negotiating deals regarding international peace and security owing to two broad, interconnected reasons.

First, egregious violations of human rights within national borders – by their very nature – cut across these national borders and thus merit international anxiety. In particular, repressive regimes foster instability, dissatisfaction, violent conflict, and frequently, radicalization. While it is tempting to call for an emphasis on America’s “softer” side in response to human rights concerns beyond American borders, it may be prudent to acknowledge instead that the way a country treats its people can be of consequence to polities the world over. Accordingly, if Azadeh Moaveni’s conclusion that any substantial improvement in Iran’s human rights situation demands larger, structural reforms from within is accurate, any gains consolidated by finalizing deals such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are necessarily of limited value for international peace and security. In fact, regimes that mete out systematic repression to their own people, such as Iran and North Korea, are “inherently destabilizing”; their volatile internal dynamics, posited against the background of nuclearization, present huge risks to international security, which merit due investigation, analysis and response. In such a scenario, allowing horrific internal conditions to play second fiddle while negotiating sweeping arrangements for global peace is to miss the forest for the trees.

Secondly and more specifically, acknowledging that both these concerns are relevant to the all-pervasive ‘international security’ problem could also be helpful in selling negotiations and engagement with an adversary state such as Iran to domestic constituencies. By emphasizing its potential to raise Iran’s profile in the world order and bring economic relief within Iranian borders, President Rouhani, for instance, garnered some measure of domestic support for a deal which – on the face of it – seemed like a massive concession of sovereignty. In an increasingly polarized international order, where domestic forces operating within one of the negotiating parties may view the very act of approaching the negotiating table as an admission of weakness, acknowledging that there are costs to peace and security on both sides of the coin may be a wiser move.

Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

Women's Day blog photo (00000002)

Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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It’s in the name: reading the nuclear agreement as a shift in power in favor of Europe

P5+1 or EU3+3?
Initially referred to as P5+1, especially by the US, the name used about the Iran nuclear negotiations signaled that this was an agreement with all the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany on the same side, trying to reach a deal with Iran. The British, however, have for a long time referred to the negotiations as EU3+3, signaling something significantly different- the European countries plus EU on one side, and the US, China and Russia on the other side. This is a detail, and an important one. It signals a divided interest, where Europe sees itself as one party, with its own interests against the other parties to the deal. In the end Europe got its will. The final text of the agreement consistently refers to E3/EU+3.
What does this imply? Setting aside the nuclear issue which is what the agreement explicitly deals with, the agreement is at the same time a deal between the great powers about the balance of power in the region and beyond. Consider the parties: China, Russia, the US, the UK, Germany, France and the EU. All powerful actors, and all historically and presently in tension with each other, not just in the Middle East but also in countries such as Ukraine, Syria, and Israel/Palestine. While the deal establishes a certain order between these actors, particularly between the US and Europe, it also establishes a power balance in Europe’s favor. Europe is not only more strongly represented in the deal – with three independent members (Germany, the UK and France), but the EU as a union has performed the important role as facilitator for the negotiations and for the final deal. It will particularly be interesting to see what this implies for the relationship between the US and Europe, considering that the Middle East has long been a source of transatlantic tension between them about both policy and influence. During the Cold War the common red enemy and the American hegemony in the region left little space for tensions to have significant consequences.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall Europe has made a comeback in the region. Not only did the end of the Cold War mark an end to the US’ hegemony in the region, it also created a void to be filled- and this void has for a while now been dominated by an anarchy-like tension between all powers who are also parties to this deal. Europe now seems to succeed in its aspirations as a superpower. This has partly to do with the EU itself, which has put more emphasis on the union’s geopolitical aspirations beyond Europe. The catastrophic failure in Iraq has also had the US acknowledge and invite European involvement in the region. It remains to be seen how this involvement will play out, and how the differences within the EU will influence its policy making in the region.

P5+1: The international agreement where all parties are happy

Sunday 24 November 2013, it was announced that the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China, facilitated by the European Union) had reached an agreement with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program. According to each country’s statements the agreement is a success and everyone is a winner. But when have we ever witnessed an agreement of such kind?

Although the agreement is not officially published in full, we get a glimpse of some of its important features from the points that have been released in media. The least interesting thing about the “Nuclear agreement” is the nuclear issue.

For a non-democratic regime that faces strong opposition from within and which has been severely crippled by economic sanctions, the agreement proves to be a life-saving last solution- at least for six months. Under the agreement, a few of the economic sanctions are lifted. In return the regime will stay a live and in power as a de facto protectorate with minimal economic sovereignty still intact. The agreement places the major income source- the oil trade- under the control of the P5+1, by providing that Iran’s crude oil sales cannot increase in a six-month period, resulting in what is estimated to be about $30 billion  in lost revenues to the country. Further restrictions are placed on Iran’s access to its oil sales; on its foreign exchange holdings and on a number of other financial services. A regime that preaches fight against imperialism and “the West”, now finds itself in the peculiar situation where its survival rests precisely on “the West” and a new kind of economic imperialism resulting from the country’s lack of acknowledgement of international law and the rules of the game.

On the bright side, the agreement might have prevented a more serious conflict. But here we can only guess. What we can be certain about, however, is that any agreement where the world’s major powers are involved and where all are smiling has wider geopolitical significance than the nuclear issue.