IranWire speaks to Saleem Vaillancourt, coordinator for IranWire's sister project Not A Crime, about his recent travels in Africa.
IranWire has recently been to Africa. Where did you go, and what was the motivation behind this project?
We felt that the situation of human rights in Iran shouldn’t only be talked about by the usual players – western countries or human rights organizations – and that any country in the world can have a voice. This, of course, is reflected by the fact that every country does, in fact, have a voice when it comes to the time to vote on Iran’s human rights record every year at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.
We decided on nine countries, most of them in Africa [two are in the Americas], and I travelled to these countries for IranWire – starting with Kenya, moving to Rwanda, down to Malawi, South Africa, Lesotho, and then across to Senegal and Gambia.
Each one of these countries abstained from an annual vote at the UN General Assembly that calls on Iran to live up to its human rights obligations to all its citizens, including its religious minorities, women, and so on. Each of these countries abstained from that vote, and we wanted to encourage discussion around these issues in countries that had abstained.
Why would these countries want to engage in this discourse? These are human rights violations happening on the other side of the world and many of these countries are struggling with their own challenges. Why should a country in Africa be interested or concerned with something that is happening in Iran?
We are calling to attention the fact that these countries have abstained from voting in this annual resolution ... and we felt that there could be a worthwhile discussion within civil society in the country around this issue.
There are different reasons and ways of emphasizing this in any country. So the first point is a universal point; that every country in the world has a voice at the General Assembly – it’s one country, one vote – and so every country has a part to play in promoting universal values such as human rights. These are conventions to which nearly every country in the world is signed up to anyway. So one point is that every country has a role to play, and these are countries that have largely stayed out of the discussion – whether because they are traditionally sympathetic with a non-aligned framework, or they have stronger economic ties to Iran, or whether they want to be careful in not exposing themselves to criticism. We just wanted to encourage a re-think of that, and that there is a role for every country in the world to play.
In some countries there are very specific historical reasons why there is much stronger understanding of and sympathy for these issues. In Rwanda, for example, there is the recent experience of human rights violations on an epic and horrific scale. While this experience was worse than anything experienced in Iran, it means that civil society there is sensitized to the othering of a minority or of a majority, to the kinds of structures and oppression, and to the types of propaganda that are used to incite violence. So in Rwanda we were able to have very fruitful discussions, where there was a lot of understanding about the need to talk about these things.
So, yes, geographically Iran is a long way away from Rwanda, but there was also the understanding that human rights are human rights everywhere, and that if one part of the world is suffering or experiencing these issues, then it really affects all of humanity. And Rwanda itself experienced first hand the neglect of the rest of the world. So this issue was acutely understood.
South Africa, because of its history of Apartheid, also really understood the problem of structures of oppression and denial of access to rights such as education. In South Africa, we have actually been able to produce a film, The Cost of Discrimination, that has looked very closely at the parallels between the structures of Apartheid and the experience of persecution against the Baha’is in Iran. Of course, in South Africa it was affecting the majority, while in Iran the Islamic Republic’s policies are against the Baha’is – who are the largest religious minority. But scale doesn’t mean that we cannot look at the commonalities or that we can’t learn lessons and connect issues, and say, well if we believe never again in one part of the world, then surely we should say never again or no longer in another part of the world.
How were you received by civil society in the various countries? Was there interest in talking about these issues and engaging?
Yes, at the level of civil society, and in some cases the media, there was interest and openness. Sometimes it has to do with the fact that this is new, and certainly in some of the smaller countries and smaller contexts the newness of it was interesting and attracted some media attention. But, in other places, simply because of the universality of human rights as appreciated by civil society organizations, there was openness.
We also want to try to be collaborative in this process. For example, in Gambia, something that we were able to offer was some of the experiences and lessons we have learned that we have gathered over time in this project, and in our related project, Education is Not a Crime. These add up to a decent body of understanding of how to use the arts and media to raise awareness and to promote human rights, and to affect positive discussions towards social change.
Another thing we can offer is workshops. So it’s not just about Iran and its human rights issues, but also about what IranWire can offer from its experiences to these specific countries on the African continent. It becomes more than us wanting to just talk about certain issues, but rather, sharing what have we learned. And similarly, there were things that we saw across the continent that might be useful to the human rights work [IranWire is doing] related to Iran. There is the potential for these relationships to have a mutually beneficial quality.
Lesotho is a tiny mountain kingdom situated within South Africa. And yet, this was one of the countries IranWire chose to visit to start the conversation about human rights in Iran. Can you tell me a little about this specific experience and how you made connections in such a small country?
Lesotho was, in many ways, probably my favorite country to visit – probably because of the landscape – but, you know, an important part of the project was to work with the Baha’i community in each country, which were made up of almost entirely local Baha’is. So the Baha’is in Lesotho, and the Gambian Baha’is, the Kenyan Baha’is, and so on – because these people are Baha’is, they care about their co-religionists in Iran and then that connects them to a global discourse on the universality of human rights and the need for a universal effort to uphold them and defend them.
You’ve described these visits as “preparatory visits.” What is the long-term vision for IranWire in Africa and how do you intend to go forward?
Our hope is that over the next few weeks we will be able to show some of the films we have made about the situation of the Baha’is in Iran, and we – Maziar Bahari, the founder and editor of IranWire, myself, and some of my colleagues – will be able to travel to these places to have large showings of these films, together with panels or seminars on the issues, and to really help this discussion take place at a national level.