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The Iran Human Rights Review is about Iran and human rights. My knowledge of Iran is very limited and comes largely from the small part I played in the Iran Tribunal that is the subject of the chapter of this review by Pardis Shafafi. My knowledge of human rights may also be modest, and more modest than some might generously assert on my behalf.  Let me explain, for it is relevant to my writing of this foreword.

I often find myself talking to students of law or those about to start in practice. They frequently say they want to work in human rights law. When I ask what that means or involves, they often cannot answer. Explored further – as often happens – the students will say that they think human rights are in some way absolute rights, different in kind from other state-given, law-defined rights. But further articulation of what is absolute (and why) is always a problem for the students and intending practitioners – and for me.

Should this be a problem? Should we all be embarrassed by any inability to use such a popular term as ‘human rights’ deftly and with certainty? Possibly, but I don’t think so. The students’ standard reaction may actually be seen as an encouraging combination of statements: first they believe there are essential – different – rights that exist regardless of nation. Second, they would like to support these rights in their coming work as lawyers rather than engage in the more mundane business of deciding how much money passes from whose pocket and into whose, the subject of much else that the law does.

If human rights – defined in international declarations but imperfectly understood – truly exist, they must surely transcend cultures and faiths? Here, I suspect, may lie the difficulty. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a document of immense influence and – it would impossible to deny – the influence has been for the good where it has guided nations, old and new, to provide certain protections for their peoples.

However, the drafting of the Declaration has been criticised – from the moment of drafting – as reflecting western interests and serving western values. It is a criticism easy enough to argue:

For example, Article 16: assumes the marriage of a man and woman to be the social norm, thereby discounting homosexual relationships, polygamous societies or societies which do not recognise the institution of marriage. It goes on to declare that ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society’, again, failing to embrace alternatives such as extended family or tribal structures. Article 23 in dealing with the right to earn assumes the male as primary bread-winner, worker and family head and is a reflection of a very specific style of social organisation and one that may be becoming increasingly outmoded, even in western societies. And there are plenty of other criticisms to be made, some of which will simply, but inevitably, be driven by the political and cultural environment into which the critic was born.[1]

And, of course, if it were thought desirable to bring the Declaration ‘up to date’ with the 193 present members of the UN as opposed to the 58 members of 1948, it would be inevitable that some ‘rights’ – not limited to those of homosexuals – could never feature or perhaps that no such second generation of the Declaration could ever be written. Societies around the world, and the belief systems they enjoy or suffer, are as varied as ever they were.

And it is no use every reader of this review– or of this foreword – saying, for example, ‘those anti-homosexual states are simply wrong’ or that ‘those states that fail to follow the economic principles underlying the 1948 Declaration are sadly misconceived’. We have to accept that ‘universal’ as applied to the 1948 Declaration (or to parts of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights) is really no more than one collection of states saying ‘my laws are better than your laws because my standards are better than your standards’. 

There are many cultures – better known now than in 1948 and some developing in support at high or, it will be said, alarming rates – that have sincere supporters who do not believe in the equality of women (Jehovah’s Witnesses), monogamy as the standard for family life (Muslims), as well as those holding beliefs that deny the right to life of those with whom they disagree (ISIS/Islamic State). Lines of thought that reflect on these realities are not negative and certainly not cynical. At most they are skeptical of the trust we so often want to place in simple solutions to immense problems. I hope they face our present reality, which may be that we can not really rely on essential – ‘universal’ – principles to guide what we do but must calculate day by day in a way that is responsive to changing circumstances how best to preserve the world and to minimise the unhappiness and suffering one human causes another – but even this formulation of a rule book presupposes some concept of a general utilitarian right or duty that many would not embrace.

Onto the uncertainty I feel about these things – I found the Iran Tribunal into the atrocities of the Iran Regime of the 1980s more than a little encouraging. Everyone involved, it is true, espoused rights to live, the right to freedom from torture, belief in due process and so on. So we were all ‘1948 types’. But what was impressive was how Iranians from around the world acted together – I had been told that if any nation has idiosyncratic characteristics then the Iranian nation is composed of individuals who find agreement on action less easy than they find the pleasure of disagreement and argument. I respectfully express no view on this but did find in the Tribunal a complete coming together of the hundreds and thousands (I suspect) of supporters behind a project that would lay out a history in as accurate a way as possible and identify the doers of wrong.

Was this cohesion merely reflective of a form of utilitarianism or of something more? More, I think. The spirit of the individuals working for the Tribunal, and the spirit of their collective work, suggested that there are underlying cohesive forces – however described – that for the duration of the Tribunal’s work brought a result that was positive, in different ways (perhaps), for all involved. Long may those forces continue for the good.

Some of the other specific human rights addressed in this review may be approached from positions that accept, without too much questioning, the values of human rights much as law students and I imperfectly understood them. What is written in this review of the future of those rights is of importance to Iran and its people, in Iran and around the globe. I hope that the reader who takes one step back and asks the difficult questions that do not assume an inevitable linear progress towards overly simplistic human rights goals will nevertheless find for the discussions within that there is a hidden glue that can bind us together for a common good, or maybe I mean for a common goodness of being.

[1] For a balanced approach see ‘The Universal Declaration’s bias towards Western democracies’ By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop ‘Liberty and Humanity’ January 2003

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