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Silent Human Rights Diplomacy Fails

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Hamburg -- United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has decided to join representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at their meeting in Tehran on Aug. 29-31. He did so over strong objections that his presence would legitimate Iran's threats against Israel and its worrisome nuclear program, and boost the country's international prestige.

He has defended his decision, indicating the visit will afford him opportunities to express the international community's concerns. It is crucial that these concerns include Iran's egregious violations of human rights, and that they be expressed openly and loudly.

Any visit to Iran by a top UN diplomat is filled with hazard. While the Iranian authorities can indeed be counted upon to exploit Ban's presence as a show of support, pundits will -- and already have -- proclaim that it demonstrates the failure of efforts to isolate Iran by the United States and its allies. There is no rule as to whether a dignitary's visit to a repressive state and direct contact with its rulers helps or hurts its citizens. It depends on how the situation is handled.

"Silent diplomacy" is often touted as a strategy to help deviant governments comply with their human rights obligations without publicly embarrassing them and "backing them into a corner," and thus increasing their resistance. Most often, it has been a pretense to hide indifference, appeasement or lack of political will.

The purpose of human rights advocacy -- by governments, international organizations, and civil society -- is to encourage states to respect their citizens' rights, but more importantly, it should inspire people to struggle for their human rights themselves.

Silent diplomacy, on the other hand, does not and cannot inspire citizens or give them faith in international human rights standards and processes. To the victims of human rights abuse, there is simply silence. And in most cases, it is likely that where silent diplomacy was claimed, no earnest diplomacy took place at all.

There will be every effort to keep a muzzle on Mr. Ban, to keep any unwanted criticisms from reaching the people of Iran. His remarks will be edited, distorted, and censored. But in the Internet age, it is much harder to keep the truth under wraps. Mr. Ban won't meet a free press and he won't meet free and independent people. But he can speak his mind and he can tell the world what he said. Thanks to the Internet, the Iranian people will find out what happened.

They need to hear that Ban talked about Iran's gruesome execution binge; about its hundreds of political prisoners rotting in jail for exercising their human rights; about women and members of religious minorities kept out of universities; about the denial of free speech by which the regime tries -- unsuccessfully -- to suffocate civil society. They need to know that Ban and the organization he represents are aware of these things, and care.

The meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement is indeed an opportunity for Ban and the UN -- an opportunity to succeed, or to fail. Among NAM's members are numerous states that cripple the United Nations' human rights potential by obstructionism aimed at protecting obsolete, undemocratic regimes. It is likely that many people of those societies recognize the NAM for what it is -- a vestigial club running mainly on ressentiment, that provides a platform for statements usually having zero bearing on their interests.

There are precious few leaders in the world today who speak out for human rights. Ban should speak to and for the fundamental human rights and freedoms of Iranians and all whose leaders gather in Tehran. That would fully exonerate his decision, and prove his doubters wrong.


Aaron Rhodes helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in 2008. He is now a principle investigator of the Freedom Rights Project.