Criminalizing Dissent

In recent years, those who promote democracy and human rights around the world have become somewhat defensive. The euphoria of 1989, when the captive nations of Eastern Europe emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, has worn off. For every Hungary, Poland or Czech Republic there is a Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine casting democratic transformation in a more sobering light. Paradoxically, advocates of human rights and democracy may have to thank the current rulers of Iran for encouraging some overdue reassessment of the virtues of promoting these universal values.

Serious human rights and democracy promoters never thought that removing an authoritarian government was a cure-all or that there was a short cut to improving human rights conditions, but politicians have often espoused this sound bite version of democracy and regime change as the answer to troublesome governments everywhere. When this did not work out so well, most notoriously in Iraq, the idea of democracy promotion fell into disrepute. Observing that democracy may well be the worst form of government, apart from all the rest, was liable to get one branded as a "neo-con" or an apologist for neo-imperialism.

The current show trial of more than 100 leaders of a supposed attempt to foment a revolution in Iran reminds us that repressive authoritarian governments were always amongst the most fervent critics of international efforts to promote human rights and democracy. The current situation in Iran underscores that cries of neo-imperialism from repressive governments lack credibility since they are so transparently self-interested.

While it was sickening to see men, including some of Iran's leading political intellectuals, reduced to reciting confessions that can only have been obtained through coercion, it was enlightening to hear the content of these confessions and of the charges that they were designed to substantiate. According to the authorities, the defendants are part of a massive conspiracy with western governments, the international media and human rights organizations to stage a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

There is no such crime in Iranian law as "staging a velvet revolution," and it is a mark of how far language has been corrupted by the authoritarian enemies of democracy and human rights that Iran's leaders should assume that its audience at home and abroad would agree with it in seeing a velvet revolution as a bad thing. The term "velvet revolution" was originally applied to the non-violent overthrow of the communist government of the former Czechoslovakia in 1989. This transformation was undoubtedly popular with the majority of the citizens of the country at that time. Human rights conditions in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are currently far better than they were under communism and most citizens of both countries prefer the democratic systems they currently live under. It's reasonable to suggest that a great many Iranians would very much like a velvet revolution of their own.

It is true that foreign governments and foreign non-governmental organizations have no business picking sides in electoral contests in other countries. However, that does not mean that the rest of the world should say and do nothing when it sees massive violations of basic rights and freedoms employed as a means of securing political power. The world is under no obligation to respect or reward such illegitimate power grabs. On the contrary, the international community is obliged by multiple international treaties to promote and protect human rights.

It is understandable that illegitimate rulers, like those in Iran, would prefer it if the international community paid no attention to the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters; to the beatings and killings; to the restrictions on local and international media; to the mass detentions without charge; to the forced confessions and the show trials and all the other repression that has marked the weeks since the disputed June 12 elections. It is understandable, but there is no reason in the world why anyone should grant the rulers of Iran their wish.

Those who dare to criticize their repressive rulers often face grave risks, and many have paid with their lives and liberty. People in Iran are paying this price today. Those in Iran who are protesting the denial of their universal human rights have a claim on our support since the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and freedoms is a collective responsibility on states and individuals alike. Not only does the international community have the right to offer such support in whatever ways it may find effective, Iranian dissidents have the right to receive and benefit from such support. If ultimately such support enables the opposition to prevail over the current repressive rulers, then many would agree that such an outcome would be just.

Those on trial in Iran, the hundreds more in detention and the thousands more who continue to speak out in the face of official threats and intimidation have been declared criminals by the authorities because they dare to dissent from government policy. They question the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's claimed election victory, and the violent repression the authorities have unleashed against them makes one think that the authorities do indeed have something to hide. They have the right to voice their dissent and the international community should support them.