At least 29 children have been killed so far in a fierce crackdown by Iranian security forces on the nationwide protests that have rocked the country since the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. Many other children have been injured and arrested. It has also been reported that several children in Sanandaj, capital of Kurdistan province, have been abducted to punish the families.
IranWire’s efforts to contact UNICEF’s office in Iran and Mahtab Keramati, an Iranian actress who serves as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Iran, has been unsuccessful, and requests for information have remained unanswered.
IranWire spoke to a prominent Iranian human rights activist, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, about the brutal treatment of children in Iran. Ms. Ebadi, who now lives in London, is also a lawyer, university teacher, writer, former judge, and co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center and the Association for Support of Children's Rights in Iran.
According to her, UNICEF should shut down its office in Tehran since it has failed to do anything meaningful to protect and support children in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which she said “has always been a child-murderer.”
Ms. Ebadi, has Iran witnessed such a level of violence against children before?
“It depends how we define violence. Any action that harms children physically or psychologically is violence. And, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran is a party of, anybody under the age of 18 is considered a child. I cannot forget that during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war numerous children were abused as well. And I cannot forget how children were brainwashed. Children want a simple and ordinary life, but the government has refused to issue birth certificates and IDs for many of them, and they have been condemned to illiteracy and scavenging in the garbage all their lives. Also, because of the wrong laws that were passed after the [1979 Islamic Revolution], children were left at the mercy of their fathers and paternal grandfathers who could kill them without paying a price. This government has always been a child-murderer. During the [coronavirus] pandemic, children who live in deprived area and are being taught under makeshift sheds needed smartphones for remote learning, but a number of them committed suicide because they could not have one. Almost 20 of them killed themselves because they could not afford a smartphone.”
Deprivation and poverty can be assimilated to violence?
“For me, yes. In my view, this government has always treated children with violence, using different kinds of violence.”
You were involved in drafting the 2002 law aimed at protecting children. Don’t you think that this law leaves room for abuse?
“I will start with some explanation on how the Law to Protect Children and Adolescents came about. With the help of our friends in the [2000-2004] legislature, we founded the Association for Support of Children's Rights, and, for the first time in Iran, we set up a hotline to help children. We found out that children were abused by their stepparents or even their own parents. Sometimes the neighbors called and asked us to come to help a child. One of the many issues that prevented justice from being carried out under the law was that a father, as the ‘guardian’ of his children, could forgive crimes committed against them. This law has many shortcomings because parliament did not want to pass a law that would have been immediately rejected by the Guardian Council (eds” the Guardian Council reviews all parliamentary legislation before it becomes law).”
After so many years, there is still no law that really protects children in Iran. It seems that the Islamic Republic is an enemy of the children.
“Patriarchal culture is to blame. A patriarchal culture believes that it owns the children, so it can easily pass laws allowing a father to kill his child, regardless of his age, without being punished. A judge may sentence him from three to 10 years in prison only if the killing disrupted public order or was committed with this intent. The judge ‘may’ -- not ‘must’ -- because they believe that the child is the property of the father, who can do whatever he wants with it. It’s like if I throw a crystal glass I own to the ground, break it and say it is nobody’s business. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the unsound culture it has promoted with its laws, society, little by little, got used to the idea that the child belongs to the father.”
How can we push the international institutions to respond to and prevent violence against children, including during protests?
“The most important thing that citizens, including families, must do is to document everything. If their child is killed or detained, they must not let security agents fool or terrorize them.
They must not believe them when they say they are holding them just for a few days and would release them after questioning. Or they must not be intimidated when they are threatened. The families must give the information they have. The best way to help your loved one, both those who are in prison or those who have lost their lives, is to document what has happened and communicate the information.”
Who should they communicate with?
“With international institutions. Fortunately, the Iranian protesters’ voice has become so loud that even the deaf governments in the U.S. and Europe have heard it. For example, [U.S. President Joe] Biden is now saying that he does care about the JCPOA (eds: the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers] whereas he was previously willing to pay any price to appease the tyrannical Iranian government and revive the JCPOA. We are asking European governments to expel Iran’s ambassadors from their countries, recall their ambassadors from Iran and downgrade their diplomatic relations to the level of charge d’affaires. This is the least European countries could do. The voice of the brave Iranian people has raised so high that European governments have no choice but to hear it. Iranian supplies of drones and military equipment to Russia is another important issue. The drones are killing people of Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is very important for European governments and they are now much more likely to recall their ambassadors following this new blunder by the Iranian government.”
You say the voice of the Iranian people has been heard, but international organizations have not done much to help. The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, has issued a toothless statement. Do you really think the children’s voices are being heard?
UNICEF and other UN organizations don’t have much authority when it comes to helping people whose rights are being violated. In fact, they are unable to enforce laws. What did the UN Human Rights Council do to help Iranians during the massacres that followed the [Islamic] Revolution? Statements and condemnations did not free anybody from prison and did not reduce the number of those killed. So, the structure of the UN must change, and let’s not forget that we shouldn’t say ‘United Nations’ but ‘Un-United Nations.’ A low point was reached when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin brazenly attacked [Ukraine]. The issue was raised at the Security Council and Russia vetoed [a resolution that would have demanded that Russia stop its offensive in Ukraine].”
How do you explain the passivity of UNICEF and other UN bodies?
“The first reason is their faulty structure, the second is the UNICEF employees’ selfishness. I explicitly and without any fears accuse UNICEF employees in Iran of caring more about their jobs than the lives of our children. Each year, when I was in Iran, I wrote them at least 20 letters to protest against the execution of juveniles, and I personally went [to their office in Tehran]. Each time their answer was the same: ‘We can only talk about children’s health.’ I replied that ‘a child must be alive for you to talk about his health.” They didn’t do anything.”
Why? Were they threatened?
“They were afraid that the government of Iran would close their office. They always said: ‘It’s better that we are here than not.’”
Europe has heard the voice of the Iranian people but what did they do?
“It’s good that they have sanctioned a large number of individuals associated with the Islamic Republic. It would be better if Iranian ambassadors were expelled. It is not yet over. That’s why people are taking to the streets and that’s why, outside of Iran, we are all talking and making interviews. The fight continues. It’s not like the government is doing whatever it wants and we are silently sitting in a corner. It shall bear fruit.”