NGOs Sidelined From Tehran Talks, Rights Group Claims

Wed, Feb 21, 2001


U.N. Wire / By Angela Stephens

Nongovernmental organizations attending the last of four regional preparatory meetings for the World Conference against Racism were severely restricted in their participation in the session, a Human Rights Watch representative attending the meeting in Tehran told UN Wire yesterday.

The three-day Asia-Pacific regional meeting, which ended today, followed a two-day NGO forum which began Saturday.

NGO involvement in the meeting was “severely limited by the Asian governments, to the great frustration and disappointment of the many NGOs who traveled great distances and overcame many bureaucratic and other hassles to get here,” Smita Narula, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for South Asia said. “There’s a lot of political manipulation of the system … this despite many pronouncements in the opening of the meeting that the role of civil society and NGOs should be sought and is appreciated and that the voices of the victims should be heard.”

Narula said NGOs were told Monday, the first day of government deliberations on a document advocating the region’s position on issues to be addressed by the world conference, that NGOs addressing the document drafting committee would be limited to 10 minutes of input on the final day. The time was allotted for all the NGO participants as a group, which Narula estimated numbered more than 200.

“Not only does it severely limit the time to cover the full scope of issues facing the region and the voices of the people who came here to be heard by their governments, but because it came at the very end of the session, it effectively ensured that it would have no effect whatsoever upon the deliberations on the draft declaration and the plan of action process,” she said.

In addition, the NGOs were not granted their request to speak during the deliberations about each agenda item discussed by the governments, but were instead limited to comment during a time designated for “general debate,” a move Narula called “a convenient trick to limit the number of NGO speakers.”

The NGOs sought assistance from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who attended the meeting. Narula said Robinson “really went to bat for the NGOs and has been very receptive to our concerns … but the governments have been very recalcitrant about their position on NGO intervention and effectively limited our participation to sort of the token gesture of allowing us to say something but not really allowing it to affect the process.”

The NGOs also had to self-censor their comments, Narula said. “We were told that we could not name any countries and that if we did, the [microphone] would be shut off and we wouldn’t be able to move on.” Narula added, “I don’t think anybody was shocked that this would happen at this particular meeting, but I think people were still surprised at the extent to which the governments were maneuvering to keep the NGOs completely out.”

NGOs attending the meeting included Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Commission and the International Human Rights Law Group.

Controversy Over Caste-Based Discrimination

One issue Human Rights Watch and other NGOs were pushing to include on the agenda was caste-based discrimination. “Over 240 million people in Asia alone are still treated as untouchables, segregated by housing, discriminated in employment and facing extreme levels of exploitation, abuse and violence at the hands of … the upper castes that enjoy the state’s protection,” Narula said. According to Narula, some 160 million people in India face caste-based discrimination, but “there’s still a lot of resistance from the Indian government to have it included on the agenda,” she said. “The Indian government has gone to extreme lengths to ensure that it does not enter at least the intergovernmental part of this process, even though it has been very much part of the parallel NGO initiatives all along.”

Satish Mehta, spokesperson for the Indian mission to the UN in New York, said, “We don’t have any caste-based discrimination in India. To the contrary, our constitution protects some of the castes which are considered to be underprivileged. So there’s affirmative action by the constitution on this.” He concedes that India has a history of caste-based discrimination, but says the constitution has protected against such discrimination for half a century.

Yet Narula countered, “Even though untouchability was abolished by the constitution and so much legislation has come up since then, all of them remain virtually unenforced.” She added that excluding caste-based discrimination from the agenda of the World Conference is “a betrayal to the rest of the nations in which caste abuse is prevalent, including South Asia, Japan and parts of West Africa.”

Narula noted one positive movement of the meeting — both NGOs and governments spent time addressing the problem of “Islamophobia.”

Focus On Iran’s Human Rights Situation

Some observers questioned the appropriateness of the UN holding a regional meeting in Iran, which has stifled freedom of expression in recent months by shutting down reform newspapers and jailing reformists, journalists and human rights activists. Others said Iran was the only country in the Asia-Pacific region that volunteered to host the meeting.

Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women’s Learning Partnership and a former Iranian minister of state for women’s affairs prior to Iran’s revolution in 1979, sent an appeal to NGOs a couple of weeks before the meeting in Tehran urging them to write letters to Robinson and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan regarding Iranians given prison sentences after attending a democracy conference in Berlin last April.

“It’s an important conference, it’s an important prep com. It’s unfortunate that it’s taking place under these conditions in Tehran,” Afkhami said. “I would have liked very much to be able to participate,” she added. “My life would be in danger if I went,” she explained, “because I am a feminist activist.”

“In terms of the outside world, I assume that it doesn’t leave the best impression that this kind of dialogue on this topic is taking place in a country which is treating its own citizens the way it’s been treating them,” Afkhami said. “It smacks of hypocrisy and lack of connectedness to reality.”

Azar Nafisi, a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies who is originally from Iran, said hosting the meeting was important for Iran. “It’s very important for its image that legitimate, respected international organizations have events because it is sort of tacitly an approval of the government, and it needs that,” she said. “Every action becomes very symbolic and when you have a conference there, it is not just having a conference, like having a conference in France. It means that you’re approving something.” Considering recent anti-democracy actions in Iran, Nafisi said, “This would be the worst time to give a signal that would be construed as approval.”

Robinson met Monday with Iranian leaders and expressed concerns about freedom of expression, executions and the situation of women in the country. She noted a “lack of transparency” in trials of reformists and journalists. She also expressed dissatisfaction about what she called “procedural and technical” difficulties that prevented the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Bahai International Community — both NGOs accredited with the UN Economic and Social Council — from attending the Tehran meeting. The Wiesenthal Center was granted an entry visa only hours before the meeting, and the Bahai application was not considered, Robinson’s office said.

Mallika Dutt, the only member of the 18-member US NGO coordinating committee for the world conference attending the Tehran meeting, was one of several NGO delegates who complained that Iran issued visas only two days before the NGO forum began.

“I think the UN needs to ensure that whatever host country it is that we’re all going to, that there’s an agreement between them and the UN that they’ll let people in and that this is not the time for them to exercise their own political objectives in the granting of visas and for attendance,” Dutt said. “That should be a criteria for accepting any country’s offer to host a meeting. … In the end of the day, who are they doing all of this for, if just the very beginning access issues can’t be sorted out?”

Previous regional preparatory meetings for the World Conference were held in Strasbourg, France; Santiago, Chile; and Dakar, Senegal. The world conference is scheduled for 31 August to 7 September in Durban, South Africa (Angela Stephens, UN Wire, 21 Feb).

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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