rose to call attention to the violations of human rights in Iran and to the policy of Her Majesty's Government towards Iran; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, on 27th March, in a debate in your Lordships' House, considerable dismay was expressed by noble Lords about the decision to place the Iranian resistance movement on the list of proscribed organisations. In moving the Motion on the Order Paper today, it is not my purpose to revisit those arguments, to which we shall doubtless return via the appeals procedure and the courts in due course.
Some months ago, and prior to the Home Secretary's order, I first sought to raise the abuse of human rights in Iran and Her Majesty's Government's policy towards that country. I am glad to have secured a place in the ballot, enabling me to do so today.
This is a timely debate, especially in the light of the decision last Friday by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to keep Iran under annual review for human rights violations and also in the light of the assessment by the Special Envoy, Professor Maurice Copithorne, that there are,
"continued executions . . . in particular public and especially cruel executions", and that the regime uses,
"torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment".
In his report to the 57th session of the commission, Professor Copithorne said:
"breaches of human rights are in large part as egregious today as they were five years ago".
"In some key areas, it seems hard to accept that there has been any substantive and quantifiable improvement since Khatami took office".
He also said:
"Torture in Iran is practised in its most primitive form".
Today's debate takes place just days after Iran fired 77 scud missiles at camps occupied by members of the Iranian resistance, some of which missed their target, killing civilians nearby. I place my remarks in the context of a statement made by the Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Wednesday 28th March, when he took as his theme human rights in foreign policy. He said:
"When I made our commitment to human rights"--four years ago--"I was criticised in some quarters for sacrificing the national interest for principle. There is something odd with a national interest that is in conflict with principle. I would robustly argue that the British national interest is promoted, not hindered, by a commitment to human rights".
Taken at its face value, I wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments, but measured against Her Majesty's Government's policy towards Iran--a country that intriguingly and perhaps oddly, to use the Foreign Secretary's word, is not referred to at all in Mr Cook's statement--I argue that we have been too concerned with normalising relations. Concern for commercial gain appears to be greater than concern for continuing violations of human rights.
Nor is it the case that we are impotent in the face of such abuses. Mr Cook rightly observed that the reality is that we cannot do everything, but that does not free us from our duty to do what we can. Even if we were to set aside questions of duty and principle, I do not believe that it would be in the long-term interest of the United Kingdom to hitch ourselves to the present religious dictatorship that, as in the time of the Shah, will ultimately be the losing side.
Contrary to what is frequently said, dialogue with the Iranian regime has not improved the human rights situation--quite the reverse. A few weeks ago Abbs-Ali Alizahdeh, a senior judicial official, was received at Geneva. On his return to Iran he was even more emboldened in defending the so-called retribution law, which involves punishments such as amputation and eye gouging.
Mr Khatami gave the lie to the notion that he favours deep-seated reform. Last year he said that,
"talk of changing the constitution amounts to changing the state. This is treachery".
On another occasion he said:
"Let me remind you that I did not come in the name of reform".
I want to place before your Lordships' House examples of past and present atrocities which throw considerable doubt on the claim that this is a regime that we should encourage or one with which we should conduct business. That there may be reformist elements within the Marjlis, the Iranian parliament, I do not dispute, but to confuse those elements with the regime itself and its declared policies and practices is self-deceiving.
Perhaps I can illustrate my argument with examples of persecution against political dissidents, religious minorities and women. I am indebted to the BBC World Service which states in a briefing note that,
"since the general elections of February 2000, hard line conservatives have reasserted their grip on all the levers of real power which they command".
The BBC has reported on the move by the judiciary to ban over 20 newspapers and journals. It says:
"It appears that his opponents have all but wiped out reforms introduced by him"-- that is Khatami--
"in the past three years, especially freedom of speech. For example, pressure on liberal clerics has increased and a special court to prosecute members of the clergy has been very active. The vice police have suddenly become active in the past few weeks by arresting women for improper clothing or raiding parties attended by young people".
The BBC also reported:
"An Iranian court has delivered harsh sentences against a newspaper editor and 6 other defendants, ranging from 4 to 10 years, for taking part in a controversial conference in Germany. For western policy-makers, this sends two negative signals. First, it shows the further erosion of human rights and basic freedoms in Iran. Secondly and even more worrying, is that ahead of a crucial general election in June, President Muhammad Khatami and the reformist camp are under attack by the conservatives, who have blocked reformist legislation, closed down dozens of reformist newspapers and magazines, and imprisoned reformist journalists and intellectuals".
The BBC's Iranian affairs analyst, Sadeq Saba, also recently reported on what was described as "horrifying stories" of political dissidents jailed in the notorious Evin prison, north of Tehran. One such account concerned the feminist lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar, who spent 53 days in Evin prison for taking part in the German conference, to which I have referred. Mrs Kar describes how filthy her solitary cell was:
"The floor of the cell was covered like a carpet by dirty pieces that carried the sign of the dried vomiting of the previous prisoners. The metallic toilet with its large opening and small base and a movable lid was infectious and dried dirt was stuck to its inner walls".
In Mrs Kar's experience, the most intolerable torture was sleep deprivation.
Another feminist campaigner and publisher, Shahla Lahiji, who spent about two months in Evin prison gives a macabre account of life inside the prison:
"The door is closed with a dry sound and I am standing in the middle of the cell. There is a feeble gray light illuminating the space. My feet are swollen. I lean against the wall . . . The water is warm and smells of white spirit . . . I force myself to drink the water . . . A black large cockroach is moving down the wall of the toilet bowl. I don't even bother to kill it. I follow it with my eyes as it crawls beneath the blanket and disappears. I can't think. I don't feel the passage of time. While still standing I lean against the wall and close my eyes".
The investigative journalist, Emaddin Baqi, who is serving a five-and-a-half year prison sentence on charges of endangering national security, describes Evin prison as a graveyard for the living. He says that prisoners are deprived of some of their basic human rights and complains about widespread corruption among the prison staff.
The dissident cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, has recently served an 18-month prison sentence for criticising the Iranian supreme leader. He says that prisoners are subjected to the cruellest types of treatment. He believes that the worst psychological torture for a political prisoner is when he is put in a cell with common criminals. But he is optimistic about the future. He says:
"Evin should not be feared. It should be welcomed. It seems that there is no other way for freedom and democracy in Iran than going through Evin. But we should hope that one day Evin will be turned into a recreational park or a playground for children. And that day is not very far away".
The suppression of free speech by alleged reformers has led to the closure of 23 publications and to the jamming of the satellite television programme "Simayeh Azadi". That censorship is totally contrary to international agreements, but it has occurred with barely a murmur of protest. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether we have made a demarche or raised these violations in any international forum? I hope in reply that she will spell out the specifics of any remonstration or protest that we have made.
Perhaps the journalists condemned to prison may in one respect be regarded as fortunate. Last month, on the eve of the Iranian new year, the Mullahs' regime publicly hanged five people, bringing to 75 the number of people executed or sentenced to death since January 2001. At least 13 of those victims were publicly stoned to death. That is double the number for the same period last year, so any argument that the situation is improving is clearly erroneous.
As many Peers know, in one year alone, in 1988, 30,000 political prisoners were butchered, an atrocity that has never once been condemned by Khatami. Indeed, as the Sunday Telegraph reported on 4th February, it is alleged that he was complicit in the massacre. It also begs a question, which I put to the Minister, as to whether we are pressing for those responsible to be tried for crimes against humanity. Amnesty International points out that under President Khatami, the reformer, there have been 800 executions. The question for us is whether such a regime is one in which we should be investing morally and politically.
Last week, I received a beautiful and moving card from Laila Jazayeri, the director of the Association of Iranian Women in the UK. The card was designed and painted by a political prisoner who spent 12 years in Iranian goals. He had been a talented university student studying physics. His time in prison has left him paralysed, able to use only his hands and parts of his upper body. The tragic personal story of Behrooz is the story of continued suffering and pain of countless numbers of Iranian people.
I said that I would refer also to the persecution of religious minorities. Since the Khomeni revolution seven Christian leaders have been martyred; churches have been closed down; bible printing and Christian bookshops are banned; evangelising is illegal; and the human rights group, the Jubilee Campaign, reports that Christians are watched and are often called in for questioning. In one case of apostasy, the convert was executed. I shall happily make available evidence from the Jubilee Campaign to any Member of your Lordships' House who would like to see it.
During the past decade, the execution of Mehdi Dibaj, the murder of the Reverend Tateos Michaelian who was the President of the Council of Protestant Churches in Iran, and the assassination of Bishop Haik Hovespision-Mehr have traumatised this very vulnerable minority. Human Rights Watch reported that,
"churches have been shut down, scores of young Christians have been imprisoned and tortured".
Others who have been killed include the Reverend Hossein Soodmand, who was hung, and Mohammed Bagher Yusefi. The Anglican priest in Shiraz, the Reverend Sayyah, had his throat cut and Bahram Deghani-Tafti, the son of the Anglican bishop, was shot dead.
Christians are not the only ones who have suffered. There have been reports of the persecution of Baha'is, of Suni Muslims and of Zoroastrians. Yesterday I received a letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It has drawn attention to the plight of Iranian Jews. A letter from Simon Plosker, Public Affairs Officer, concerns 10 Iranian Jews now in goal. Thirteen were originally held on charges of espionage on behalf of Israel and the United States; charges which both those countries have consistently refuted. However, the fact is that under Iranian law any contact whatever with Israel is defined as "espionage" and the maximum penalty is the death penalty.
The spurious nature of these charges and their possible anti-Semitic basis are borne out by the professions of the accused; Hebrew teachers, Jewish community leaders, circumcisers, ritual slaughterers, a Jewish cemetery attendant and a 16 year-old boy. Concern regarding the fate of these Jews was acute in the light of pervious experience. After all, two Jews were executed in 1997 on espionage charges and in 1998 a 60 year-old man was executed on vague charges of being a Zionist agent.
On 21st September 2000, Jewish prisoners who had been imprisoned were taken to the Shiraz Court of Appeal and the verdict was given. The outcome was that they are to remain in prison for terms ranging from two to nine years. The Board of Deputies comments that despite claims by Iranian officials that Iran's judicial branch was "independent", in early September the judiciary announced a delay, reportedly to provide a reprieve to President Khatami during the trip to the United Nations where he was attempting to portray Iran's regime as one that respects the rights of its citizens.
The verdicts raise many questions as to the appropriate Western response. Western governments must surely give thought as to whether they can rightly carry on with business as usual, given the clear violations of the human rights of these Iranian Jews.
The Board of Deputies wants to know whether it is to be "business as usual" with the regime. That is the question at the heart of this debate. It is about Mr Cook's pledge that national interest and principle are two sides of the same coin.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, who has done so much to keep human rights to the fore, who recently voiced her frustrations about the international funding and commitment of national governments to human rights, has, because of her frustrations, alas, decided not to seek a second term. That decision should enliven and stimulate our determination to become a standard bearer in promoting and upholding the principle of human rights. In the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, we have a diligent, competent and articulate advocate and I would like to see her given greater authority and a wider ranging mandate to concentrate exclusively on highlighting these issues. Their importance is central to the pursuit of our foreign policy.
Mary Robinson has remarked that
"today's human rights abuses are the cause of tomorrow's conflicts".
That is most certainly the case in Iran. The Mullahs are facing a collapsing economy and have responded with intensified oppression. Focused aid as a quid pro quo for a national minorities policy and for fundamental democratic and judicial reform would at least be a more logical policy for Her Majesty's Government than the one we are pursuing today. Collaborating with a regime which last month publicly executed five people, one of them a woman, by hanging them from a crane in east Tehran, which has already hung or sentenced to death some 75 people, and which stones people to death, gouges out eyes, amputates limbs and publicly flogs is neither ethical nor principled. It will be, as Mrs Robinson observed, merely sowing the seeds of tomorrow's conflict.
To answer the Board of Deputies, we should have no business collaborating with such a regime, and no business interests can justify such involvement. I hope that today's debate will bring these issues to a wider audience and encourage the Government to reassess this policy. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for providing us with the opportunity to voice concern at the continuing abuse and denial of human rights in Iran.
Almost every day information becomes available that confirms that the regime in Tehran continues to rule by what can only be described as a policy of fear and terror. There is no scarcity of information about the human rights situation in Iran. The information comes from members of the Iranian community here in Britain and Iranian communities in other countries. The information comes from our own media, from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and, as recently as last week, from the UN Human Rights Commission following its meeting in Geneva just a few days ago, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
The meeting of that commission voted in favour of a resolution to continue its annual review of the human rights situation in Iran. At the meeting, the Iranian Ambassador, Ali Khorram, had requested that the mandate of the UN special envoy on Iran, Maurice Copithorne, should be ended. The reason the Ambassador gave to the commission was that he considered,
"that the 18-year long process had proved to be ineffective and fruitless".
The UN Human Rights Commission rejected the arguments put by Ambassador Ali Khorram and carried a resolution that called on the regime,
"to continue its efforts to consolidate respect for human rights and the rule of law".
I have no doubt that there are those who will draw comfort from other references in the resolution which acknowledge,
"some improvements in its record, particularly concerning women and children".
Such crumbs of comfort do little to relieve the fear of those both inside and outside Iran whose lives are affected by the brutal system. That brutal system is also recognised by the UN resolution. I refer specifically to the part of the resolution which,
"deplores the continued executions, in particular public and especially cruel executions", already mentioned.
Additionally, the United Nations has again called upon Tehran to,
"take all necessary steps to end the use of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, particularly amputations".
During the debate in your Lordships' House on the 2001 order relating to the Terrorism Act 2000 on 27th March, I drew attention to the report of the United Nations special envoy in Iran earlier this year (col. 162). The quotation from Professor Copithorne has already been mentioned but it is worth repeating. He said:
"Breaches of human rights are in large part as common today as they were five years ago".
Again, where is the progress towards a better system of justice in Iran?
Professor Copithorne reported that 200 people had been executed so far this year and that a further 75 people have been sentenced to death, including eight women. Some of the sentences included death by stoning.
No resolution, however diplomatically it is drafted, can deny the fact that the people of Iran live in fear. Recent punishments in Iran, some of which have been mentioned, serve only to underline and confirm the brutality of the regime. On 11th January of this year the French press agency reported that the official Iranian news agency had said that Iran's Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Sharrudi, had confirmed,
"that 800 drug traffickers were on death row and called for further harsh punishment. Eight hundred cases imposing the death penalty on drug traffickers have been looked at by the remission panel, but no sentences were commuted".
The report also quoted the head of Iran's judiciary as saying that it was,
"important to take firm action against drug traffickers. Harsh punishments must be considered and applied in public to strike fear amidst the groups of traffickers".
This is the same head of the judiciary who last November underscored the need to carry out "retribution verdicts in public", such as hangings, the amputation of limbs and the gouging out of eyes. We have heard about that.
It is also worth looking at the footnote to that report by the French news agency, which comes from a Marjlis Deputy, Ali Mir-Khalili--someone from inside the Iranian Parliament--who said:
"The State Security Forces are putting pressure on the people on various pretexts. They murder people and then justify the killings by just saying that the victim was a drug trafficker".
The rest of the world can draw its conclusions as to what is going on from that comment.
A further example of the brutal regime is the public lashings of three young men, all in their 20s, who had been accused of drinking alcohol and having illicit sexual relationships. In February this year the three young men, two brothers and their cousin--Ismail, Majid and Mahammad Rahimi--staggered away between their police escort, each having received 180 severe lashes. In the wonderful civilisation that we enjoy in this country it is difficult to understand how any civilised government can have dealings with a regime that publicly executes, lashes and stones its own people.
The list of acts of brutality since the beginning of this year includes 24 youngsters accused of dancing in a disturbing manner, whatever that may mean. The 17 boys who were arrested received 58 lashes and each of the girls was sentenced to 28 lashes. All of the youngsters were sent to Adelabad prison in Shiraz. In another case reported in the Kayhan Daily on 15th January, men received lashing sentences in Qom, the verdicts to be carried out in stages over three days. Six were given between 50 and 74 lashes in six districts. In February of this year a man charged with theft had four fingers amputated, plus two years in prison and 74 lashes.
These illustrations of justice in Iran indicate how right Amnesty International is to draw attention in its July report, under the heading "More Failures of Iranian Justice"--I obtained that document as recently as Monday of this week--to the failure of the regime in Iran to deliver the promised reform to its judiciary. It is worth mentioning that the promise was made in 1999 by the same head of the judiciary who in January of this year had advocated the carrying out of "retribution verdicts in public", such as hangings, the amputation of limbs and gouging out of eyes. The same man who made that promise said exactly the opposite two years later.
Last Wednesday the world recoiled at the news that Iran had fired scud missiles at camps inside Iraq belonging to an Iranian rebel group. The report said that the Iraqi Government were furious and reserved the right to respond with suitable means to the attack on their country. When I heard Channel 4 News I thought that somebody had gone completely mad, given the present situation in the Middle East. The Mojahedin said that one of its members was killed as a result of the attacks on its camps closest to the cities of Kut and Khalis in Iraq. Channel 4 News also said that, according to reports, some of the missiles missed their targets and landed on residential areas. Other reports put the number of surface-to-surface scud missiles launched at 77.
The missile attack lasted 10 hours. The Mojahedin camp at Habib to the north of Basra was hit in two series of attacks with 27 missiles. Twenty-four missiles hit the city of Jalawla, killing a 33 year-old mother and her daughter aged six and wounding dozens of other people. Two missiles landed near Jalawla's mosque and the rest landed on residential areas. Thirteen missiles hit Khalis about 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, while five hit Meqdadiah. In Kut, some of the craters left by the impact of these missiles measured up to 12 metres in diameter and up to 5 metres in depth. At about seven o'clock in the morning three more scud missiles landed near Kut, one of which hit the city's technical college.
As would be expected, there was a reaction. A Reuters report last Wednesday referred to a statement issued by Massoud Rajavi, the Iranian resistance leader, following the scud missile attacks. In his statement he urged the UN Security Council to condemn the attack and take a stance immediately against the Mullah's outlaw action in breach of international law. I ask my noble friend whether Her Majesty's Government will give support to that call by Massoud Rajavi.
The damage inflicted by the unprovoked attack on innocent civilians has been seen by reporters from western news agencies and television networks. Those reporters have visited the scenes of destruction in Jalawla, Kut and Khalis.
On the day following the attack, not unexpectedly, Iranian exiles, refugees and supporters of the resistance took part in rallies in 18 cities across the world, including Oslo, Melbourne, Washington, Ottawa, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin and in at least six other cities in Germany.
The dangers and the threat to stability in the region by the scud missile attacks that have caused civilian casualties and damage to property are obvious. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris summed up the reaction of many who can see where such unwarranted attacks could lead. In a statement it said:
"Whatever action which could jeopardise the region's stability must be avoided".
"In this spirit, we deplore the missile attack by the Iranian regime".
I should like to return to the question of the brutality of a regime that includes death by stoning. I quote an appeal by Amnesty International in January of this year. The appeal was for interested people and organisations to protest at that time against the imminent execution of a number of young people. I shall not quote all of the appeal, but by way of illustrating the brutality of the Mullah's regime I simply quote Amnesty's description of how the sentence on a 3l year-old woman (Maryam Ayoubi) was to be carried out:
"Maryam Ayoubi had reportedly been facing 15 years' imprisonment followed by stoning to death . . . However, new reports indicate that she will simply be stoned to death".
I quote this go give your Lordships a description of how the sentence is carried out:
"Stoning to death is prescribed for certain offences under the Iranian Penal Code. According to the Penal Code, men should be buried in a pit in the ground up to their waists, and women buried up to their chests. Individuals who manage to dig themselves out and escape from the pit while the stoning is being carried out have their lives spared. Article 104 of the Penal Code states that 'the stones should not be too large so that the person dies on being hit by one or two of them', so is designed to cause grievous pain leading to eventual death".
Amnesty International commented at the time that in the unlikely event that this poor, unfortunate woman was able to dig herself free before she was killed, she would then start her 15-year sentence.
The time for making excuses for dealing with these people is long passed. Constructive dialogue is acceptable if it has any promise of bringing about change. In the words of the head of the Iranian judiciary, who only last week sought to end the UN monitoring of human rights abuses,
"the 18-year long process had proved to be ineffective and fruitless".
Perhaps the time has come when we should recognise that constructive dialogue with the regime is not bearing fruit. It is not crumbs of comfort from diplomatic resolutions that the people of Iran need and deserve; they want the free world to speak out loudly and firmly against the barbaric methods of justice that the regime routinely uses in its endeavours to cling to power.
My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Clarke, have both referred to the resolution passed last week in the Human Rights Commission and to the report of the special rapporteur, Dr Maurice Copithorne, who, among other things, regrets that the Government of Iran have ceased to co-operate by allowing him to visit the country. Fortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, told us, there is enough evidence available to build up a detailed assessment, something which I suggest the thematic rapporteurs of the Human Rights Commission should bear in mind when they are refused invitations. Dr Copithorne says that freedom of expression is a matter of despair and many people feel that the president has lost his struggle to create a more tolerant society operating under the rule of law.
The rapporteur says that the legal system, particularly the judiciary, is in desperate need of repair. The status of minorities remains a neglected area of human rights. The murder and disappearance of intellectuals and political dissidents is a stain on Iran and will remain so until all the outstanding questions are answered and the perpetrators brought to justice. The trials of those who attended a conference in Berlin--mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton--have the strong appearance of farce, he says, except of course for those who are going through this unreal experience.
The rapporteur's report was completed in December. Since then, as Dr Copithorne told the commission, there has been no improvement in the state of freedom of expression and of the press. He said that the revolutionary courts and the special court for the clergy make frequent use of pre-trial detention, particularly of journalists, students, intellectuals and political dissidents. The detainees are often held incommunicado in secret places of detention, a practice which is conducive to torture, and, as might be expected, many cases of torture have indeed been reported to the rapporteur on torture, Sir Nigel Rodley, of which I give two examples.
First, Mr Abbas Amir-Entezam, deputy prime minister and spokesman of the 1979 interim government of Mehdi Bazargan, was arrested in 1998 at his home in Tehran. He is one of the unfortunates held in Evin prison. He is said to be in urgent need of appropriate medical attention for kidney failure and a ruptured eardrum and loss of hearing in one ear, allegedly as the result of his long detention and repeated subjection to torture. He is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
Secondly, Mr Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist, was hung upside down in a cell while four guards kicked him in the head and stomach. He was punished with 80 days of solitary confinement when he started a hunger strike to protest against his treatment. Ganji had written a series of articles implicating former President Rafsanjani in the murders of dissidents and intellectuals carried out by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.
At the end of 1999, as your Lordships may recall, four well-known opponents of the regime were savagely murdered and a number of people were arrested for those crimes. They all turned out to be agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. The principal accused, Sa'eed Emami, was a deputy Minister of the Ministry of Intelligence. He died later on in Evin prison after he was said to have drunk a bottle of hair- remover containing arsenic while he was in his bath and was momentarily not observed by the guards. Most people believe that he was eliminated by the regime because he knew too much and would have fingered several top people if he had appeared in court. Emami's boss was Ali Fallahian, the former Minister indicted in a German court for the murder of the Kurdish leader Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi and his three companions in a Berlin restaurant in 1992. But there were certainly other high-ups in the regime who knew and approved of the assassination of political opponents, some of whom are still there. Mr Fallahian is standing as a presidential candidate in the elections. But others named as part of the conspiracy have included--I have mentioned former President Rafsanjani--Fallahian's successor at the Ministry of Intelligence, Mr Qorhanali Dorri-Najafabadi, and Ayatollah Ahmas Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians, and many others.
Emami was said to have made a confession on videotape. But it was never made public in spite of assurances that it would be shown on television. The trial of the other 18 defendants linked to these four murder charges was finally held in camera at the end of last year. No attempt was then made to link these particular murders to earlier killings by Ministry of Intelligence agents, some of which I described in my book Iran: State of Terror published in 1996. I also analysed the available evidence on the more recent killings, which were known as the "chain murders", and the way that they fitted into the pattern of state-sponsored murder in my book Fatal Writ, published a year ago. In his current report, the rapporteur says that he reiterates his deep concern over this tragic abuse of the human rights of the victims, and his dissatisfaction with the way the government have handled the investigation over the prolonged period of two years.
Why should not the rapporteur undertake an inquiry into the regime's use of murder to silence its opponents? If he announced that he was going to collect and analyse evidence on the phenomenon, including assassinations committed abroad and attempts to kill the author Salman Rushdie and many other people associated with his book, a great deal of fresh material might become available. It would serve to underline the international community's abhorrence of the gang which master-minded the killings of the Christian priests mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and of a former prime minister, Kurdish leaders, political opponents, intellectuals, and all the people associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses.
The recent wave of arrests of members of the nationalist Iran Freedom Movement and others has been described as a "creeping coup" by Joe Stork of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch. Twenty people were arrested in March and another 40 earlier this month in what Mr Stork said looked like a coup designed to stifle free expression and activism for reform in the run-up to the forthcoming election. As has been mentioned, already 30 independent newspapers have been closed down and hardly a week goes by without news of further arrests of journalists. Among those detained in the latest sweep was Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of the newly formed Democratic Front of the Iranian People, and all the people who were attending his weekly lecture at that time. Mr Tabarzadi is editor-in-chief of the daily Hoviyat-e-Khich, and, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, his arrest brought the number of journalists in custody in Iran up to 21, the largest number for any country in the world. Last Saturday that rose to 22 with the arrest of Amid Na'ini, editor-in-chief of Payam-e Emrooz magazine, who was said to have confessed to publishing two sacrilegious articles, one of which said that the Angel Gabriel was an "imaginary creature".
On Monday, Mohammad Salamati, a close ally of President Khatami, went on trial, accused of spreading rumours of a conservative-led impeachment motion against the president. He is managing editor of the weekly Asr Ma, Our Age, and also secretary-general of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organisation, and an important member of the Second Chord Coalition which supports the president. Mr Salamati came before the notorious judge Sa'id Mortazavi, who has been responsible for the decimation of the press and journalists. He was accused of questioning the reliability of state-controlled TV reports about the conference held in Berlin, mentioned earlier, to discuss reform in Iran.
Yet another senior figure belonging to the president's faction, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior Minister who is supposed to be supervising the elections on 8th June, appeared in court in relation to his alleged role in the violent unrest which arose at a pro-reform student conference in Khoramabad last August.
Finally, another newspaperman, Gholamheidar Ebrahimbai-Salami, managing director of the daily Hambsategi, has been summoned to appear in the administrative court on charges which are not yet known.
I can understand the Government wishing to believe that President Khatami would be able to liberalise the regime, to end arbitrary detention, reduce the number of executions, extend freedom of expression and widen the political space to allow democratic pluralism. However, it has to be recognised that none of these have been achieved during the four years of his presidency, and there is no prospect that the forthcoming election will lead to any amelioration. It is not even certain, with just over a month to go, that Mr Khatami will stand as a candidate. But if he was genuinely committed to reform, he must be bitterly disappointed at having been able to achieve so little, and he will be reflecting that within the straitjacket of the velayat-e-faqih, the doctrine laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini of the supremacy of the spiritual leader, the elected president and Majlis have about as much say in national affairs as your Lordships do in this country in our affairs. Three years ago, the BBC hailed Mr Khatami as Iran's Gorbachev, and Foreign Office experts were convinced that somehow, miraculously, he would transform the regime into a participatory democracy. In fact, as the BBC now says in its evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee,
"since the general elections of February 2000 (convincingly won by the reformists), hard-line conservatives have reasserted their grip on all the levers of real power which they command, and have struck back in every way possible".
People may still support Mr Khatami, if he decides to stand, because he is perceived to want change, and not because he can actually deliver it. But I doubt whether it is possible to sustain indefinitely a political system which is incapable of producing what the electors demand. A theocratic dictatorship with a democratic veneer is unworkable and unstable, but for as long as it lasts, the governing mullahs have to trample on human rights, to counter the growing opposition to their rule.
Our policy should not be to rely on the process of reform gathering momentum but should take account of the possibility that the extremists will come out on top, whatever may happen on 8th June. If human rights are under greater threat than ever with a so-called reformist president and a would-be reformist Majlis, why should it be assumed that 8th June will make any difference? With the reactionaries in control of the judiciary and the Basij militia, which is to recruit another 2 million new members this year according to its commander, as well as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, they are in a position to stamp out unrest and dissent. Our policy for the period after 8th June has to take account of that; otherwise, we shall fail.
My Lords, I share with others in the House a concern about the violation of human rights in Iran. I do not doubt the figures and the stories quoted this evening and also in the debate in the House on 27th March on proscribed organisations in relation to the Terrorism Act. Concern is perhaps too weak a word; there is sadness, anger and sometimes a sense of horror. Nevertheless, I did not sign the letter on human rights in Iran circulated by some Members of your Lordships' House for a reason I should like to explain and why I am glad of the opportunity to take part in this debate.
Iran is an Islamic state and Islam is a fundamental part of its life and culture. If it is to move in the direction that we all want to see, with genuine democracy, greater respect for civil liberties and less abuse of power, then it will do so, I believe, in Islamic terms. The problem with the letter and some of the language of this debate is that they are couched in Western human rights language. Human rights are, I believe, of universal validity and are not simply an invention of post-World War II Europe. But we need to pay attention to the Islamic context in which that language has to become a reality. In short, my contention is that there needs to be a greater appeal to the fundamental principles of Islam and Islamic civilisation, which properly understood can underpin and reinforce the values which we share and support from a secular, Jewish or Christian perspective.
Like other noble Lords taking part in the debate, I have received a wodge of papers from the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It is, as we know, particularly critical of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in the debate on 27th March. In response to that speech it asserts:
"Fact. If 'standards of Western European democracies' mean the principles stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right of life, freedom of speech . . . then according to which logic can one argue that the Iranian people are not entitled to them?".
They are entitled to them. But in speaking about them I suggest that it would be most helpful if we could appeal to those fundamental principles and values which are already enshrined in Islam as a religion and in Islamic culture and civilisation.
Take religious toleration, for example, which is of such crucial importance to the beleaguered Baha'i community in Iran. Sura 2:256 of the Qur'an says:
"There is no compulsion in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error".
Then there is human dignity, which is always violated when there is not due process of law, and cruel or degrading punishments, which have been referred to in the debate today. Sura 15:28-29 of the Qur'an says:
"And when thy Lord said to the angels 'See, I am creating a mortal of clay of mud moulded. When I have shaped him, fall you down, bowing before him!'".
The angels, according to the Qur'an are called to bow before human beings, the respect we owe our fellow sister and brother human beings cannot be less. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, is to take part in the debate. I hope that he will be able to elaborate on and reinforce these principles.
Within the Islamic world at the moment there is a great debate about the relationship between democracy and Islam. We have to recognise that some, both governments and extremist opposition parties, believe that they are incompatible. But others argue that Islamic values demand a democratic system. The concept of Shura or consultation is fundamental to Islam. There is also the tradition of independent reasoning, Ijtihad, and consensus, Ijma. On this basis some leading Muslim thinkers argue that democracy is not only compatible with Islam but is required by it. So as one prominent writer has said:
"The legislative assembly--majlis al Sura--must be truly representative of the entire community, both men and women. But a representative character can be achieved only through free and general election; therefore the members of the majlis must be elected by means of as wide as possible suffrage, including both men and women".
We all know that the basis of political power in Iran at the moment is complex and not always clear, but obviously the role of the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians is crucial. Nevertheless, there is an elected president and an elected majlis or parliament. Another leading Muslim writer on human rights in Islam has written:
"An integral part of this vision"-- the Islamic vision of human rights--
"is an insistence in freedom of expression, encompassing the right to criticise government at all levels, and especially to protest against tyrannical action, stemming from the Qur'anic injunction to 'enjoin good and prohibit evil' (Qur'an 9:71). Alongside freedom of expression, the Islamic system also upholds political pluralism; the Prophet observed, for example, that difference of opinion within the Muslim community was 'a sign of God's mercy'. Indeed, the jurisprudential doctrines of difference of opinion (iktilaf) and reasoned thinking aimed at arriving at a level of opinion (ujtihad) have long informed a pluralistic intellectual tradition in Islam. The general Qur'anic exhortation to justice has important implications in the affairs of state, as in the criminal justice system; the Islamic vision insists that all accused enjoy the right to due process of law in open court, and hence to freedom from arbitrary imprisonment".
That is a devout Muslim writing about the tradition of human rights in Islam.
We know that there is a democratic element in Iran at the moment and I should like to suggest that we should do all we can to encourage the development and growth of that democratic party within a culture which is and, so far as one can tell such things, will remain essentially Islamic. Despite the tensions and struggle between those who want to change in a more democratic direction and those do not, things have changed for the better.
Last year, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester led a Church delegation to Iran. He wrote of his trip:
"Change is certainly very visible . . . in some respects the position of women is better than before 1979 and they are socially very confident. Religious and ethnic minorities are also a little more relaxed and appear to be freer today than in the early years of the revolution".
He thought that there was a recognition that change would come more cautiously and gradually than originally had been imagined. I myself was recently in Iran on holiday and found people to be remarkably cheerful and open. In the papers we received from the National Council of Resistance in Iran, reference is made to many of the atrocities that have taken place over the past year and concludes from this that:
"This stems from a simple reality of the regime ruling Iran. The government in Iran is based on a theory of government called velayat-faqih, or the absolute rule of the religious jurist. By understanding this underlining concept, it becomes quite evident that any change to this principle is tantamount to the collapse of the whole theocracy rule in Iran. That is why this system is absolutely incapable of any reform and moderation".
I would suggest that that is an unduly pessimistic assessment. There are forces for change in Iran at the moment and I believe that there are principles and values in Islam itself which can reinforce and carry forward this process of change.
The non-Islamic religions in Iran have suffered very badly since the revolution, above all the Baha'is, whom I have already mentioned, but also the small Jewish community, some of whom were tried and imprisoned last year, and the Anglican Church. On the positive side, the Anglican Bishop in Iran has now been officially recognised by the state. On the negative side, the property that was seized after the revolution has not been returned and the resolution of the 1988 Lambeth Conference respectfully requesting the Islamic Republic of Iran to respond positively to the claims of the Anglican Church in Iran has not yet happened.
While in no way glossing over the abuses which continue in Iran and continuing to draw attention to these, as other noble Lords quite properly have done this evening, I believe that we should welcome and affirm the process of change which has taken place there. Above all, we should see that process and its future possibilities within its Islamic context and do all we can to bring to the fore those Islamic principles and values which resonate with our western human rights language.
My Lords, Iran is an extraordinary country with an extraordinary history and a no less remarkable present. In his report on the human rights situation in Iran to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on 16th January this year, Mr Maurice Copithorne, the Special Representative for the commission, put it this way:
"Iran is going through a period of critical turmoil. The struggle is for the soul of Iranian society, for certain values such as justice, one of the oldest political values going back, scholars say, to the Achaemenian period"-- that is over 1,000 years ago--
"and for the more modern ones of accountable governance and the welfare and dignity of all citizens".
Mr Copithorne went on to say that he,
"believes that change is clearly underway and that given certain foundational improvements that have taken place--
I emphasise those words--
"in areas such as women's education, democracy and health, the trend is now irreversible".
I draw special attention to that judgment on the part of Mr Copithorne.
However, in the same report the Special Representative quite rightly identified various serious failings, one of which is,
"the currently successful mass suppression of two fundamental human rights, the right to the freedom of expression itself and the right to be free from detention for seeking to exercise that right".
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that.
However, I would add that, despite the closure of over 30 reformist papers over the past year or so, invariably without any open process or clear legal justification, the Canutes of the reactionary Iranian clerical establishment cannot keep the genie of free expression in a bottle of their choosing. Just before we debated the Terrorism Bill in relation to MKO/MeK/NCRI in this House on 27th March, I asked the British Embassy in Iran to let me know how things then stood in terms of reformist newspapers. Although it was only six weeks ago, the embassy reckoned that at least 10 such national newspapers were in circulation, each with readerships in excess of 60,000.
As recently as this month, more than 150 of the 290 deputies in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, sent a formal letter to the head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, demanding an end to what they called the illegal and unwarranted arrest of liberal and reformist figures. This followed the recent banning of the liberal opposition group, which again has already been referred to, the Freedom Movement, and the detention of more than 40 of its activists. Yet in the very aftermath of that banning, a new reformist paper, Nowruz, went on sale, run by one of the reformist MPs, Mr Mirdamadi. I suggest to noble Lords that all this is not nearly as a black a picture as so far has been painted tonight.
Students continue to hold demonstrations and conferences which thousands enthusiastically attend to express their views. On the anniversary of the 1999 student riots--I was there with a parliamentary delegation the following week--the Tehran university students were back on the streets, publicly making their views felt. In August of last year a massive conference took place at Khorramabad, to which various speakers were invited and which the revolutionary guards did their best to prevent and upset. No fewer than three inquiries have taken place since the disturbances in Khorramabad. Two of those inquiries have come to the clear conclusion that the revolutionary guards were responsible and must not be allowed to undertake such disruptive activity.
Of course, producing reports and coming to conclusions is not the same as achieving results, but it is all part and parcel of a vigour of democratic expression and activity in Iran which, I venture to suggest, has not been fully or indeed fairly expressed so far in the debate.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for allowing me to intervene. Can he explain why, if the revolutionary guards were responsible for the injuries and destruction of property which took place in Khorramabad in August of last year, the deputy minister of the interior--who is supposed to be responsible for the arrangements for the elections due to be held on 8th June--has now been arrested in respect of those events?
My Lords, I shall be perfectly frank and say to my noble friend and colleague that I do not know the answer to that specific question. However, I shall find out and communicate with him further.
Student organisations are thriving and active, although both they and, of course, the Majlis, are under sustained pressure. There is no denying that and we have heard of that tonight. The battle for the soul of Iran is real and harsh. It is difficult for those who have not recently been to Iran to recognise, from this distance, the sheer buoyancy and indefatigability of life and debate in Iran. The right reverend Prelate referred to that when recounting the visit of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester.
Despite all the woeful and sometimes wicked attempts to suppress free debate, despite the continuing extensive human rights abuses--although the more brutal aspects of them seem significantly to be on the decline (I, too, have been in touch with Amnesty on this point) the Iranians will not be stopped from conducting public debate and from putting over their point of view.
I warrant that everything said in the House today will have been said and will be reflected endlessly by Iranians themselves in towns, cities, villages, squares and universities. They will not be prevented from pursuing the democratic debate that is now unstoppable.
I say this not because of any complacency--there is no room for that. The struggle for the soul of that remarkable country is still being fought out. To ensure the successful outcome of that struggle, it is essential that we here do not misconstrue what is happening there; do not fall prey to defeatism; do not simply concentrate on the failings; do not underestimate the courage, vigour and persistence of the Iranians themselves, particularly among the young. This is a real 21st-century Pilgrim's Progress.
At the end of November, President Khatami addressed a huge students' rally in which he, inter alia, criticised the press violations and stated that, as the constitution stands, he did not have enough power to intervene where and when he should. He also urged the students, none the less, not to become demoralised; not to give way to despair. That theme has been persistently taken up and pursued by the student leaders themselves because they know that giving way to despair and losing patience will play into the hands of the reactionary clique.
In the same month, President Khatami made a similar critique to a special commission set up to monitor implementation of the Iranian constitution, the chairman of which also issued a hard-hitting report attacking the press laws and their implementation. The point, however, as the BBC reported at the end of last year, is that everyone on the reformist side--and it is much the biggest side, as the presidential, city council and Majlis elections made abundantly clear--realises that the clerical provocations and judicial assaults to which reformists have been subjected, particularly over the past year, must not be met by extremism or violence. It is in this context that President Khatami's cat-and-mouse tactic of holding up the announcement of his own candidature for the 8th June presidential elections must be assessed.
I now turn to the constitution of Iran. It is easy, with our centuries old constitutional evolution, to underestimate the turbulence which inevitably has gone with a switch from thousands of years of autocracy--often bloody autocracy--via a bloody civil war, to democracy in a mere 21 years. The constitution itself, in my view, is overburdened with checks and balances. Certainly it has far too many lacunas and ambiguities to avoid the uncertainties and the possibilities of reactionary interpretation which Iran is experiencing now.
There are unresolved conflicts as to the division of powers between the Supreme Religious Leader and the elected President, and between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians. There is a body of experts--rather aptly called the Expediency Council--which has the task of adjudicating on disputes between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians. There is a body of clergy--a clergy court--established in very uncertain constitutional circumstances in 1987, and there are various revolutionary entities in place, usually hostile to any laicisation of Iranian life.
Certain it is that, as Mr Copithorne correctly diagnosed, a dangerous amount of scope is given within the constitution to repressive action on the part of the state which we would consider contrary to normal freedoms by reason of its laws on dissemination of false news, insulting of religion, incitement of public opinion, propaganda against the state and actions likely to weaken the state, as well as blasphemy and defamation laws. Those areas of law are, to our view, unacceptably wide and unacceptably susceptible to reactionary interpretation.
Having said that, there has been some sign recently of an awareness on all sides, including the reactionary clerics, of the need to mollify frictions between the different power centres. Even the hardliners have to have regard to the messages at the polls and the pressing need for foreign investment.
One of the things that we must do our best to encourage--and I mean encourage rather than simply denounce--is the evolution of the judiciary in Iran so as to buttress the independence of judges and make for a better separation of powers than is presently the case. I also believe that the independence of lawyers is a crucial issue in Iran. The independence of its bar is also vital. At present, the head of the bar is appointed by the judiciary. That is plainly unacceptable.
Indeed, the question of vetting generally--ostensibly to ensure compliance with the constitution--is far too easily an instrument of subversion of true democracy and is used as an instrument of reactionary conformity. That aspect of the candidacy for the Majlis is well known.
I must say in passing that there are a number of Iranian lawyers who have shown heroic independence and courage in upholding the law and due process. Some of the grisly tales that we have heard today have attached to them brave lawyers, who do their duty at great risk to themselves.
We need--I am running swiftly out of time--to have regard, none the less, to our own status in Iran. We are viewed in a mixed way. Sometimes as lackeys of an incurably hostile USA; sometimes as the basest of hypocrites. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that the recent missile attack on the MKO/MeK bases in Baghdad are rather similar to the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah bases in the occupied territories.
The MKO/MeK/NCRI, which provides much of the information--although much of it is not true information--to Members of this and other Houses, is a Marxist/Leninist organisation paid for by Saddam Hussein, quartered outside Baghdad and used ruthlessly by him as an instrument of general nuisance making, particularly in the light of his grappling with Iran in that atrocious eight-year war which ended only the year before he occupied Kuwait. The difference was that whereas we got on a mighty high horse over Kuwait, when he attacked Iran we did nothing except supply him with his arms, including chemical weapons.
Despite all this, the Majlis has since last May, when it was elected, passed laws or resolutions to lower the voting age, to allow single women to study abroad, to instigate an independent inquiry into the national prison system, to protect newspapers, to limit vetting of parliamentary candidates, to prevent security forces entering university campuses and clerics' houses, to give MPs immunity from arrest and to reduce the funds available to the state-controlled media. Much of this, of course, remains blocked by the Council of Guardians, but the struggle continues. The presidential election on 8th June--Khatami or not--will deliver another resounding verdict for change. These are the real straws in the Iranian wind.
The ground is shifting irreversibly under the feet of the conservatives. The future is with the young and the young are the future. Whether that is within a theocratic state is for the Iranians to decide, just as it is for the Israelis in terms of their theocratic state.
Our problem in looking at Iran is to realise and accept, as the right reverend Prelate made clear, that it has a profoundly different history, different culture, different religion. It is a proud nation; it will not be patronised. Iran will, in the cliche, do it its way. Indeed, given the ineffectiveness of many constitutional transplants, vividly illustrated from virtually every continent in the world, we ought in this House to understand and support Iran's own gradualist, painful, agonising evolution of democracy and the rule of law.
Ultimately, what is at stake in this debate is not whether there are human rights abuses in Iran--there are; many of them are atrocious and there is no defending them--but whether this is the moment to bale out; whether this is the moment to abandon the vast majority in Iran who want reform and progress. I believe that it is precisely because, as Mr Copithorne said, the ground is irreversibly moving that we must remain firm in our support for the reformist forces; we must remain in contact; we must persevere along with the Iranian people themselves.
My Lords, we have listened to a number of highly expert speeches. As a newcomer to the subject, I admit to being befuddled. I am very clear in my mind that things are appalling in Iran--frightful things are happening--but are they going to get better? Having heard these experts, I am afraid that I cannot make up my mind. No doubt the Minister will straighten it out when she responds.
Leaving that aside, I wish to explain my excuse for speaking. It is partly, of course, because when the noble Lord opens a debate I feel bound to toe the line. The future of the House depends on people like him and on the gifted Minister who is to reply. That is a minor excuse. My main excuse for taking part in the debate is that I have recently acquired a new friend, a good Muslim who served with distinction for nine years in the Iranian navy. For a number of years he has run a very successful car agency which I use several times a week. Most of his drivers are also good Muslims. I have many talks with them about Iranian affairs as seen from a Muslim point of view.
My friend served under the Shah and has both good and bad things to say about him. The regime under the Shah was a great deal better than the present one. After serving under the present regime for a number of years, my friend came to this country. He could no longer bear what he calls the awful injustices--which in his view have not diminished. I am open to the argument that matters are slightly better, but I do not find it easy to believe. My friend tells me what the present regime is like from his point of view.
My Lords, I should be grateful if the noble Earl would give way. I simply want to ask whether he is in any way correct in relying on one person's statement that the human rights circumstances under the Shah were better than they are under the present regime. I travelled in Iran during the time of the Shah and was arrested three times by SAVAK, his brutal secret police. They had a reputation of which the noble Earl may not be aware. Is he sure of his ground in making that statement?
My Lords, I am pretty sure of my ground. I have a friend, a distinguished man who did good work under the Shah and under the present regime, and who found the present regime intolerable and decided to leave Iran. That is fact. There is no further argument. He is a successful and reliable man who is much admired in this country, and that is his testimony. If I may say so, it is even more reliable than the always reliable testimony of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Leaving aside the personal issue, I rely on what my friend says. The present Muslim regime in Iran is one of extreme religious fanaticism.
Fanaticism has its merits. We usually call the Reverend Ian Paisley a fanatic. Nevertheless, he called for a prayer in Parliament the other day. I wish that I had been there when he was last elected. I should have voted for him. But the Reverend Ian Paisley is not like one of the mullahs. He once gave me a little book on the Epistle to the Romans. No one could think that he would be a cruel man or that he would do anything harsh like the mullahs.
As I said, according to my friend, the present regime is one of extreme religious fanaticism. He is not my only Iranian friend; most of his drivers come from Iran and they say the same: that the present regime goes altogether too far. It is not based on sound Muslim teaching.
That brings me to the important speech made by the right reverend Prelate. It was far more important than anything I can say. He said so many things so well that I can do little more than say, "Ditto". I am sure that we must approach the question as though it were in large measure one of religious fanaticism. The situation is not the same as it is in Iraq, where there is a military dictator; it is not the same trouble as under the Communists; it is a religious question. The right reverend Prelate explained it very well.
I have little more to say save that we are dealing with a religious problem. I look to religious leaders, including the right reverend Prelate, to show us the way forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this important and timely debate. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for his generous words about Islam and for his reference to the Koran.
Your Lordships will be aware that I have spoken on human rights in Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya, the Balkans and in northern African and Middle Eastern countries. At the outset, I remind the House that human rights were first established in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad--peace be upon him--in his famous Mount Arafat sermon 1,400 years ago. Rights were given to men, women, children, prisoners and refugees, and even environmental rules were established.
One must never confuse that with the political situation in Islamic countries where things appear to be done in the name of Islam and yet have no relevance to Islam. Of course, Islamic rules are interpreted by different governments and institutions. However, in Iran we have seen considerable improvements in legislation, human rights and the education of women. Reference has been made to the resolution passed last week by the United Nations Human Rights Commission welcoming the report of the special representatives on human rights. In relation to the areas I mentioned earlier the report noted that,
"certain foundational improvements have taken place".
The report refers to the efforts of the Sixth Majlis to improve the status of women and girls, in particular the project of a Bill aiming to raise the marriage age and a Bill to remove the existing ban on unmarried women studying abroad. However, the report expresses concern at the delay on the part of the Council of Guardians.
While no one can defend the abuse of human rights, I should like to draw attention to the tremendous changes that have taken place in the Islamic republic of Iran in the past five years. Despite strong resistance from the hard-liners and the conservative element, President Khatami and the Majlis have opened up Iran to the outside world. I had the pleasure of visiting Tehran 18 months ago. I spoke with many young graduates, including young women students, who were staunch supporters of change and supporters of President Khatami.
It is absolutely imperative that we understand the complex nature of the struggle that is taking place within Iran between the moderates and the conservatives. In this debate we should not provide any reason for the hard-liners to criticise the reformers for not securing any support from the West. Here I should like to point out, as was mentioned earlier, that one organisation based in Iraq claims that it is fighting for a change inside Iran; however, I saw no evidence for supporting that organisation. It is most hated for its terrorist activities inside Iran. It is seen as an instrument of Saddam Hussein rather than as a legitimate opposition group. Even the British ambassador in Iran told me that the popular support in Iran was for the modernisers and for Mr Khatami, and that there is no support for any external organisation.
I am also deeply concerned about the banning of many newspapers and journals by the judiciary, as mentioned earlier. Your Lordships will understand that this is part of a power struggle and I am pleased to announce that two-thirds of all newspapers are still pro-democracy and pro-modernisation. Iran's intelligence services have also gone through some change. As your Lordships will no doubt be aware, two years ago the head of operations was arrested for ordering the killing of dissidents and later committed suicide in prison. Although reformers have the backing of the majority of the population, unfortunately since last year's elections hard-liners have reasserted their grip on the judiciary and on other institutions--a point made by almost every speaker.
I congratulate the BBC and the World Service on providing an excellent news service to the Iranian people, with balanced news and views. The BBC World Service radio (Persian language) has a regular following in Iran, including the president, politicians, decision makers, young people and intellectuals. The BBC has made an enormous contribution to the process of democracy in Iran. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Robin Cook, and our Government on the strong stance they have taken with the Government of Iran regarding women's rights, minority rights and human rights, including the resumption of diplomatic relations at ambassador level.
Therefore, I do not believe that condemnation from the House will help the democracy and change that is taking place in Iran today. We should follow the lead of the UN Human Rights Commission and acknowledge that a change is taking place in Iran. In the words of the executive summary of the United Nations Human Rights Commission report:
"Certainly every shade of opinion seems to make itself heard, despite the massive repression of the reformist press. Democracy in the form of popular elections continues to make progress. Some argue that the point of self-sustaining take off has been reached".
I am pleased to hear that positive steps have been taken regarding the situation of the Baha'is in Iran. I call upon all those in powerful positions inside Iran to ensure that minority rights, women's rights and children's rights are safeguarded in accordance with the UN declaration of human rights and other international human rights agreements.
Finally, as the oldest parliament in the world, we have an opportunity to help in the process of change that is taking place in Iran by having a serious dialogue with the elected Iranian representatives and exchanging visits rather than condemning and strengthening the hands of the conservatives. Iran has a strategic position in the region, with Afghanistan in the north-east, Iraq to the west, and the largest natural resources in the region. Iran is also an influential and active member of the OIC, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
When the presidential elections are only six weeks away, we cannot afford to isolate Iran at this crucial time by condemning the growing democratisation that is taking place. We should continue to encourage democracy and progress in Iran where over 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 20 and 52 per cent of university students are female. Such a country has a vast potential.
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this important debate from which I believe many of us have benefited a great deal. We have heard some extraordinarily interesting and perceptive speeches. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, I should like to associate myself with the condemnations made of human rights abuses in Iran. It is perhaps particularly difficult for a woman--or, for that matter, for a Baha'i or a Christian--to accept some of the dreadful things that have happened to women and to minorities in Iran. I defer to no one in agreeing that such matters must be condemned. We must persuade the regime in Iran that the road to a civilised modern world lies through respect for human rights. All of us, from whatever country or part of the world that we come, recognise that fact. It is interesting that the next topic for debate tonight is precisely the issue of human rights and discrimination on religious, racial and gender grounds.
I suppose that this debate has turned in many ways not on any question about the outrage of human rights abuses in Iran but on whether our view about the Khatami experiment is an optimistic or a pessimistic one. I believe that that division has run through the speeches made from all Benches in the debate tonight. The arguments for the pessimists are unquestionably strong. In 1997, when President Khatami was elected, there seemed to be a real opportunity for rapid development in Iran towards a democratic state. Although the election of the president was not completely clear of doubt, it was conducted in a pretty transparent and acceptable manner. The more recent election of the Majlis, which led to a clear majority of moderate reformers, appeared, again, to be a most encouraging step forward.
However, in the past few months, the closing of reformist newspapers and journals and, above all, the detention and imprisonment--indeed, in some cases, torture--of scores of dissident reformers has filled many of us with some discouragement. The essential question is: what line should we take? Despite the fact that the sky has clouded since that bright dawn of 1997, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the right reverend Prelate that there are some real signs of hope.
One of those signs of hope is the sheer courage of the reform element both within the Majlis and outside it in the universities, and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and my noble friend Lord Phillips both referred to the very courageous statement made by the 150 members of the Majlis only a few weeks ago about the detention of the members of the freedom movement. Since then--indeed, only today--there has, again, been an extraordinarily courageous manifestation with 109 university professors signing a letter to their president drawing his attention to the effect on universities and on the intellectual climate of the detention of dissidents who, at no point, have ever turned to violence as a way of expressing their opposition.
Therefore, the first hopeful point is one that I believe the whole House should express; namely, our profound respect for members of the reform movement in Iran, who, at huge risk to themselves--risks that most of us, thank God, have never had to contemplate--have continued to bear witness to the need for democratisation in Iran.
The second sign of hope was the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed: half of the population of Iran is aged under 20. The evidence, which is overwhelming, shows that the younger elements in the population of the country strongly support President Khatami and the movement towards a more democratic regime. In short, as time passes, the situation should inevitably improve not worsen. However, it is also important to point out that 40 per cent of those same people of Iran live in either abject or extreme relative poverty. Relative poverty is not the best seedbed into which to plant the seeds of democracy.
That brings me to my third point, which is one that needs to be most clearly made. The present condition of Iran has made possible the establishment of an illiberal and totalitarian theocracy. I should add that we, too, remember theocracies in our history that behaved little better in their own day and in their own time. However, that theocracy is, in part, a reaction to the intervention by Western powers who established a Shah, against what was clearly strong, popular feeling in Iran. Those powers supported him in what was a cruel policy; namely, of literally seizing and confiscating a large number of small peasant holdings in Iran in order to sell them to large agro-businesses, with no compensation whatever in many cases to those who had owned, admittedly, infertile and rocky land. However, it was land which belonged to them and which underpinned a powerful conservative view in Iran. The regime forbade the worship of Islam, and did so to such an extent that it actually detained people who had a copy of the Koran in their homes.
I saw evidence of this in 1970s when I travelled around Iran, during the time of the Shah. Those powers subsequently provided weapons and support to Iraq in the most cynical way for one of the most dreadful and painful civil wars that we have seen since our own Second World War, and which led to deaths on a scale equivalent to that experienced in the First World War in Europe. Perhaps we Europeans, Americans and other Western powers ought to make it plain that we accept some responsibility for a reaction back to medieval values, given how hypocritical and, in many ways, self-interested modern politics must have looked to many Iranian citizens.
The fourth point I want to make, which has not been touched upon so far, concerns the reasons why the West sometimes changes its attitude towards a particular Islamic state. Even now the Energy Committee under Vice-President Cheney in the United States is discussing the possibility of lifting the present economic sanctions on Iran. So far as we know President Bush has said that the time is not ripe. However, we should not pretend to ourselves that one of the major reasons for even considering the lifting of sanctions is directly connected to the huge recent oil discoveries in the Caspian Sea and to the possibility of pipelines passing through Iran or, alternatively, through Georgia and Turkey. We should not be too noble in not regarding our own economic involvement with Middle Eastern and Islamic states when we consider issues of human rights. Let me make it plain that that in no way forgives for a moment abuses of human rights, but it does at least recognise that we have been complicit in some of the abuses of human rights in other Middle Eastern countries.
My final point relates to what we might do now. We have heard some constructive suggestions. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, suggested--I am sure that he is right--that there should be closer interchanges and relations with the Iranian Majlis, which badly needs the support and encouragement of old democracies such as those of the United Kingdom, Germany and others. I believe that such exchanges could strengthen and increase respect for the Majlis. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right to suggest that there is room for a deeper and more profound interchange of religious views and values between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I defer to his knowledge which is infinitely greater than mine in that regard. I too have come across in Malaysia, Pakistan and elsewhere the profound divisions with regard to the interpretation of Islamic holy writ between the more modern members of the faith and those who are wedded to more ancient and traditional attitudes. As a Roman Catholic, who am I to suggest that there are not similar tensions and differences among Christian religions, as anyone who is familiar with Vatican Two and its aftermath is bound to accept?
We must try to meet the huge challenge of how we live with Islam not by reverting to the view that this is a clash of civilisations which will lead to a kind of new crusade, but rather by recognising that on every possible level we need to encourage the more liberal, modern minded, tolerant and, in the widest sense, religiously credible members of Islam, Judaism and Christianity to develop many dialogues between ourselves in which we all accept that the recognition of human rights is a fundamental element that binds us all together. We should hesitate just a little before condemning a whole people and rather recognise that there is a real opportunity that out of Iran may grow a regime with which we can live much more comfortably than with the theocracy of today.
My Lords, your Lordships' House clearly owes a singular debt to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for promoting the debate and raising issues at a very appropriate time given that the Iranian presidential elections will take place on 8th June. I assume that that will occur the day after our general election. He initiates the debate at a time when great changes are afoot in the whole Gulf area and in American foreign policy. However, we are obviously concerned centrally with the question of human rights.
I propose to confine my remarks to four subjects: first, whether reform is or is not going forward, which constitutes the central theme of the debate; secondly, our interests in relation to Iran in its present state; thirdly, the specific question of human rights abuse to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred and to what extent that remains an internal matter; and, fourthly, what, if anything, we can do about it all.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, rightly said, with her usual accuracy and eloquence, there has run through the whole discussion the central question of whether the Khatami regime is a reforming regime. Are things getting better or has nothing much changed at all? Are we talking about the same people who were previously involved in the most hideous atrocities and are still presiding over a country in which atrocities continue but who are using slightly different words?
As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, it is impossible for most of us to reach a judgment on the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, speaks on the matter with great authority. If one listens to him or to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, one hears an unqualifiedly grim tale of atrocities carried out in a sinister and sick country. However, if one listens to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, or to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, it appears that the situation, although difficult, is getting better. On listening to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, I had the familiar feeling that I wished to Heaven I was as certain of anything on these matters as he seems to be of everything. I cannot reach a judgment on whether his confidence is soundly based and how one weighs that against the evidence of the most hideous things that are still happening. The layman must have grave doubts about the matter.
A ministerial statement from the British Government to Iranian Ministers contained a phrase about respecting each other's cultural identities. One has to ask oneself what kind of culture is reflected in conducting mass hangings, stoning people to death, amputating limbs and imposing extrajudicial death sentences, let alone, on a lesser scale, in the suppression of the media or in other acts of cynicism and hatred and certain police action. Just as our views and the opinions expressed in the debate differ, so Iran itself is a country with deep divisions of view and with a completely dual power structure. There is the power structure of President Khatami, the police and the official state forces and that of the revolutionary courts, the Council of Guardians and its guards, who hold people under arrest without trial and conduct their separate system of law, hate and violence. Against that background, to reach a judgment as to whether the situation in the country is improving or going backwards is even more difficult.
My instinct is that some progress is being made if one looks very hard. However, there is also clear evidence that even in the past few months, and perhaps even while we speak, horrific things are happening which cannot be condoned by any stretch of the imagination in any context, Islamic or any other. To turn a blind eye to those events is not to serve the cause of democracy and stability, let alone to support the values that we do support and try to include in our relations with the rest of the world as we should. As I say, perhaps matters are improving a little, but it is hard to tell. There are certainly some evil and bad elements in Iran and among those who govern it at present.
I shall discuss human rights abuses in a moment. As regards our broad interests in this matter, as a responsible power we want to see stability and security in the Gulf region. We are uneasy about regimes which spend much money--however, all kinds of regimes do this--on the development of new missiles--we have to ask why they need those missiles--and which trade in the dark world of the arms markets and which perhaps dabble in weapons of mass destruction. We have an open fear about Iraq in that regard, but we are also fearful about Iran's intentions. Those countries appear to be unreliable. One is not sure whom they will bite next. However, we must have security in the Gulf. Some 65 per cent of the world's oil reserves are to be found in the Gulf region, whatever may be found in the Caspian Sea. But I say with respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that I understand that it is not nearly as plentiful as was thought. Vast reserves are to be found in the Gulf region which will dominate world oil markets for years to come.
It must be true, too, that it is in our interests to see a prosperous Near Asia and Middle East. If only Iraq could develop a democratic regime, and if only Iran could develop a democratic, prosperous regime, what wonderful prospects there would be for the entire Middle East. Here are two sets of people--the Iranians, in particular, are brilliant people, with a fantastic history, and full of talent: think what the possibilities would be if it could open out as a free, lively and vigorous society.
We are right to long for that and to want to use our policy leverage, such as it is, to break open this sad little world. As the Financial Times reminded us in an article yesterday, 40 per cent of those living in Iran are in absolute or relative poverty. That is a colossal percentage. It demonstrates what a miserable and sick society it is.
Then there is the question of the Middle East peace process and the role of the Hezbollah. If there are to be better relations with Iran, if there is to be business with Iran, it must be accompanied by efforts by Iran to play its part in the peace process far more than it has been prepared to do so far. If people say that the Israelis go over the top and attack when the existence of their country is threatened, the same criticism has to be applied to the Hezbollah, the so-called "army of god", and some of its atrocities and attacks. There must be give and take in that area; and there is little sign of any give whatsoever in condoning the actions of the Hezbollah terrorist groups.
Then we come to the real focus of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted us to consider the human rights issue. There used to be a time when the argument that these were internal issues was the end of the matter. One was told not to interfere. Just as the Chinese Government tell us that we must not comment on many of their affairs and self deceptions as they are internal matters, so we are constantly told by the mullahs that how they govern their country is an internal matter. But that is no longer the world in which we live. We now live in a world in which human rights issues are taken into the heart of nation states. The concern with human rights is linked directly with the stability of the globe. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, quoted Mary Robinson saying that,
"Today's human rights abuses are the cause of tomorrow's conflicts".
The Foreign Secretary reminded us of that in his speech on 28th March. It was in some ways a strange speech. It did not mention Iran or Iraq, which I found a little strange. It mentioned Burma and other countries. But that is the new order of things: that today we feel justified in carrying concern for human rights right inside nation states. In doing so, one must realise an even greater responsibility in commenting on these issues and a greater need for accuracy and transparency than has existed in the past.
The fourth matter involves what to do. Whatever we have heard about the horrors of Iran, the way it is governed today and has been governed in the past--there may have been unqualified horrors--it is, as always, a matter of light and shade. The Iranian nation has had to contend with an appalling refugee problem: 1.4 million Afghans have been driven out by the maniacal Taliban--in many ways it committed the same kind of atrocities, or worse; we do not really know--and have come into Iran. There are half a million refugees from Saddam and his hideous activities, and many other refugee problems. My impression from past experience with the Iranians is that they have been dealing with these refugee problems with great care and competence, and deserve some support, which in a substantial way the British Government and other governments have sought to give them. So one must understand that in making judgments from far away.
What do we do? Do we encourage closer links? Do we let businesses, which are always looking for ways to get into areas, become more closely involved? My judgment is that a general policy of isolation, having nothing to do with Iran, is probably wrong. I think that one has carefully and gingerly to see whether some contacts can be opened and maintained. If the Americans aim to remove their sanctions--I agree with those who suggest that they do--I think that that is probably the right way forward. They will have to keep a close watch on the armaments trade. But I do not think that the sanctions have been very effective. And the Bush administration is an energy administration. They are all energy men; they think entirely in terms of oil. They note that America now imports 60 per cent of its oil supplies. When I had some responsibility for these matters 20 years ago, it was 20 or 30 per cent. That makes America very vulnerable. They are concerned about all aspects of oil, and that will drive their policy in the Gulf and the Middle East, as it will drive their policy elsewhere.
I do not agree with a total cut-off: that no businessman, even if he knew the risks, could go in. When applied by this Government to Burma--they tried to pressurise Premier Oil to get out of Burma--that policy was totally wrong. It is pathetically misplaced and misunderstands the way in which openness and democracy are helped.
What do we do about the declared opponents of the theocratic tyranny--the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq--which has been made a proscribed organisation, to its great indignation? I appreciate that it is a difficult issue for the Government to decide. We cannot provide a nest for terrorist, violent organisations. But we can provide, and have often provided in our history, a home for exiled governments pleading for freedom to return to their land. So the judgment has to be made; and I appreciate that it is very difficult.
My heart does not go along with the broader proposition that somehow we can excuse the mass hangings, killing of children, murder of the Baha'is, and so on, because it is all part of understanding Islam and seeing issues in an Islamic context. I listened with as much sympathy as I could to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I note the point he makes: that we have to see things through Islamic eyes and that we must understand Islam. But let us understand the right kind of Islam. Let us think back to Islam and Christianity, which lived together in the early centuries after Christ, up to the 1500s and later. The gentle Islam is a wonderful thing. Christians, Islam and Mohameddans lived in peace and worshipped in each others' churches in syncretic symbiosis. That went on; it can go on again today. But not if we are dealing with this extreme, horror-filled, tyrannous theocracy which does things in the name of Islam and I think insults the name of Islam in doing so.
My plea would be that we should understand the right kind of Islam and not this sick mutation of it; that we should look hard for signs of opening up in Iran and work with and respond to them. But we should not let out of our minds for one moment some of the facts which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, and others have placed before us. They should be constantly in our minds in dealing with this once great country--as I hope that it will again be one day.
My Lords, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords who have participated in it. I thank the noble Lord for the far too generous, fine compliments he so graciously paid me; and for the compliments paid me by my noble friend Lord Longford.
Her Majesty's Government share many of the concerns which all noble Lords have rightly expressed about the human rights situation in Iran. As so often, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, put her finger on the issue with skill and elegance. The balance is between the optimists and those who are pessimistic about the future for Iran. The noble Baroness also reminded us of the risks faced by all those who are committed to democracy in Iran. I cannot but agree with her on that.
With the cautious acknowledgement of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that some progress is being made and that it would be wrong to withdraw, the balance of the debate has tipped slightly in favour of those who are cautiously optimistic about change, lodged as it is in the hopes and aspirations of the young people of Iran and the reformers.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we do not and will never put commerce before human rights. That is why only last week we and our EU partners put the resolution of the Commission on Human Rights to the vote--and won. We have consistently co-sponsored that resolution and the annual United Nations General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, the last of which was adopted on 4th December last year. Those resolutions underline the continuing international concern about certain Iranian human rights policies. A significant part of the process of improving UK-Iranian relations is to raise our concerns over such issues. Ongoing EU-Iran dialogue also contains a substantial human rights element.
We remain particularly concerned about the discrimination practised against some religious minorities, most notably the Baha'is, who are still unrecognised by the Iranian constitution. They were mentioned by a number of noble Lords. The harsh prison sentences handed down at the trial on espionage charges of a number of Iranians, including 13 members of the Iranian Jewish community, are also a cause of concern. We continue to urge the Iranian judiciary to show clemency in that case. The sentencing of 10 representatives of the academic and intellectual community in Iran for attending a conference in Berlin in April 2000 was another affront to human rights.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly referred to the conviction on 27th January of 15 intelligence officers for their involvement in the serial murders of liberal intellectuals in 1998. That represented a significant victory for President Khatami. It was the first time since the revolution that officials of the system had been tried and prosecuted for extra-judicial killings. However, as noted in the Commission on Human Rights resolution passed in Geneva on 20th April, we regret that all the circumstances surrounding the killings are not fully clarified. The resolution urges the Government of Iran to continue the process of investigation and to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice in accordance with the due process of law.
The violations of the legal rights of prisoners and the high number of executions remain important issues. There is also continuing discrimination against women in the courts and in society generally. We regularly raise a broad range of human rights concerns, including those on specific cases. Only last week, the permanent under-secretary raised such issues vigorously with the Iranian Foreign Minister and his officials. We and our EU partners have also demarched the Iranian authorities on a number of specific cases, including the trial of the Shiraz Jews and the sentencing of those who attended a conference in Berlin. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we continue to be vigorous on such issues.
The use of capital punishment has been referred to several times. As I am sure your Lordships are aware, we are implacably opposed to the use of the death penalty and we shall continue to lobby with vigour in all forums with all our partners to have that form of punishment expunged from the systems and statute books of the world. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that the Government wholeheartedly share the distaste that he so graphically demonstrated.
However, it is important to recognise that since the election of President Khatami in May 1997 there have been a number of significant improvements in Iran's human rights record, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and, most potently, my noble friend Lord Ahmed said. We welcome the Iranian Government's commitment to developing an Islamic civil society based on respect for the rule of law. Engagement with the outside world will help to speed up the process of change and democratisation. In February 1999, local elections were held for the first time in Iran's history. They put local power in the hands of the people. The mass participation in those elections reaffirmed the Iranian people's support for the reform process.
The subsequent Majlis parliamentary elections in February and May 2000, in which 190 of the 290 seats were won by reformers, were further evidence of a more open and vigorous electoral system, as a number of noble Lords have said.
There have also been some modest improvements in the situation of women, notably with the appointment of Iran's first four women judges and its first woman vice-president. The efforts of the Iranian president and other senior figures in the executive to press for a change in attitude towards women and women's issues are particularly welcome and have been recognised by the UN special representative on human rights, Maurice Copithorne.
An increasing number of Iranian women now take part in politics and go on to higher education. More than 50 per cent of the university intake in Tehran is now female. That is a positive development that has been commented on tonight. One of the changes brought about by the Islamic revolution in 1979 was better education for women. Many of the women who have received that education now work and expect to do so as a right.
None the less, there is still strong evidence of continuing discrimination against women in the courts and in society generally in Iran. Recent UN resolutions on human rights in Iran sponsored by the EU have called on Iran to take further measures to eliminate discrimination against women.
We also welcome President Khatami's affirmation last year that Iran's constitution forbids any pressure on any person for their ideological convictions and grants all citizens their rights. We also welcome his comments that, as a president elected by the people, he is committed to defending the rights of all citizens as nationals of Iran. We hope that that will extend to all groups in Iran, including minority religious groups such as the Baha'is, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I greatly welcomed his sensitive and balanced approach and wholeheartedly agree that such sensitivity is needed.
Of course, Iran could do more. We continue to urge the Iranians to allow the special representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Maurice Copithorne, to visit Iran soon. In his latest report, published in January 2001, he welcomed some progress, but regretted that it had been overshadowed by regression in other areas, notably freedom of expression. It is right that noble Lords have noted the range of negative developments that he noted in his latest report. We share those concerns. That is why we have supported his work in its entirety.
Maurice Copithorne gave a clear welcome to the progress made in other areas, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. He has assured us that he believes that we should remain engaged with the Iranian authorities. I agree with the exhortation and caution of my noble friend Lord Ahmed and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, among others, about the need not to give negative indications to those who wish to diminish the importance of the reformers in Iran. We believe that those issues can best be addressed within a policy of constructive critical engagement and dialogue. Face-to-face discussion of those difficult issues has real value. We would be loath to abandon them at the first sign of difficulty.
The recent arrests of religious nationalists provoked passionate debate in the Iranian parliament. The security and foreign policy committee summoned the intelligence Minister to answer questions about the arrests. He stated that his ministry had not been involved. Nevertheless, clearly there remain in Iran forces which are resisting democratisation and the development of an Islamic civil society.
However, we should also recognise that there exists in Iran a strong movement for change and democracy. We agree with noble Lords who, during the debate, have made that plain. President Khatami has spoken of the importance of that. He said:
"There is no threat more serious to our popular system than a situation in which the rulers of the country cannot justify their conduct to the people".
Of course, the arrests show the limitations on the freedom of speech. But the extent of the debate and controversy which the arrests provoked demonstrate that legitimate opposition is possible in Iran. We know that the MeK claims that the resort to arms is the only option. It issued the following statement:
"First, the viper never gives birth to a dove and the Mullahs' regime lacks the capacity for reform. Second, the only language the criminal Mullahs understand is the language of armed resistance".
That is clearly not true.
While perhaps not yet as far reaching as we might hope, change for the better is taking place in Iran through debate and discussion led by people who have chosen to stay in their own country rather than by those who have based themselves abroad and resorted to armed attacks and terrorism.
That process has met with many difficulties and setbacks. The proliferation of the press and the relative freedom of expression in recent years were seen as major developments in Iran's efforts to reintegrate itself into the international community. Therefore, it is all the more regrettable that over 30 newspapers and other publications have been closed in recent months and that a number of journalists and editors have been arrested. However, there is still a wide range of newspapers and critical commentary, and new publications still appear on the streets.
As did my noble friend Lord Ahmed, I pay tribute to the sterling work carried out by the BBC World Service. It not only has journalists posted in Iran but also has expert analyst teams based in Bush House, some of whom have played an incredibly important part in the wider debate. Some of them were also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the jamming of the TV station. We understand that SIMA TV is currently under investigation by the Independent Television Commission for broadcasting incitement to violence and for biased reporting of the situation in Iran. Therefore, it is not quite as straightforward as it might appear at first blush. I cannot but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that the overall picture in relation to such journalistic activity is not entirely bleak.
The result of the presidential elections in June will be important in determining the direction of progress in Iran, including that in relation to human rights. Many challenges still lie ahead. Some people claim that the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran--also known as the MeK--is fighting for freedom in Iran. Although the MeK claims to be seeking to advance a legitimate struggle for democracy, such a claim is difficult to reconcile with its history of violence and authoritarian nature.
The group alienated the Iranian people and lost any popular support it may have had in Iran when it sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. It maintains a standing army of several thousand fighters in Iraq, supported and armed by the Iraqi regime, from where it launches cross-border attacks into Iran, including terrorist attacks.
Despite claims that it attacks only "legitimate targets", the indiscriminate nature of some attacks means that civilians have been killed or put at risk. In February last year, a mortar attack on government offices in Tehran killed one person and injured five others. The MeK has assassinated senior Iranian officials and launched mortar attacks against government buildings in Tehran and elsewhere. Over the past year, the group has claimed responsibility for a series of mortar bomb attacks in central Tehran and other Iranian towns, such as Karaj and Ilam, resulting in death and injury to both civilians and servicemen.
We understand that the Iranians have launched attacks against MeK camps inside Iraq, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Clarke and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. We note, too, that Iran describes those attacks as limited and defensive operations aimed at halting MeK terrorist activity inside Iran. Iran claims that they are in accordance with Clause 51 of the UN Charter. I believe that that leads us to another debate as to where the rights and wrongs of that situation lie. However, those are the claims that have been made by the respective parties.
The MeK and the National Council of Resistance in Iran, of which the MeK is the dominant group, have a very effective publicity machine. They are also aware of the bad image of Iran created in the West by the country's poor human rights record. However, that does not mean that the MeK or NCRI would improve the situation in Iran. The MeK has called for new elections to be held under the auspices of the UN. That ignores the fact that the majority of Iranians voted for the present government. We may question some aspects of the process, but the Iranian people elected President Khatami, who was not the favoured candidate, and later elected a parliament in which the majority of the members are reformists who are willing to challenge what is going on in Iran.
The MeK had their roots in times of repression. At that time, its campaigns of violence may have seemed the only solution. But the political situation in Iran has moved on. The election in 1997 of President Khatami marked the beginning of this change in direction. We should respect the wishes of the Iranian people.
The situation is fluid. It is right that we should keep it constantly under review. However, there is hope that out of Iran may emerge a well-run, diversified and dynamic market economy, fully integrated into the global economy, which will be capable of contributing to a healthy bilateral economic relationship. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was right to refer to the noble and good history that Iran had in the past and to say that this is a joint aspiration for Iran's future.
I know that all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate wish there to be a peaceful transition and the emergence of a full democracy in Iran with a civil society based on the rule of law. At present, it appears that those aspirations are shared by President Khatami and--much more importantly--by the vast majority of the Iranian people who elected him. Iranians have hope. Their courage has already been commended, and I join those who commend the courage of the reformers.
At present, it appears that the aspirations are also shared by others outside who might strengthen them. The evidence thus far suggests that the president and his government remain genuinely committed to this course. President Khatami has stated his commitment to an Islamic republic. We hope that he will honour that commitment and the commitment to a civil society based on the rule of law. If he does so, he will satisfy the wishes of the vast majority of the Iranian people.
My Lords, this has been a well informed debate in which every speaker who has contributed has done so from the basis of knowledge and conviction. I am extremely indebted to everyone who has participated.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, described the fault line that has run through the debate as a difference between optimists and pessimists. That remark was echoed by the Minister. It was once suggested to me that a pessimist is an optimist with a sense of history. Those of us who put perhaps too much faith in people who caricature themselves as reformists are sometimes bitterly disappointed in the end. One figure that should cause us at least some concern is that last year there was a 300 per cent increase in the number of refugees from Iran seeking asylum in this country. There was a similar trend throughout the rest of Europe. That is an interesting insight into the way in which Iranians perceive the situation in their country.
We in this place are extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to speak freely about human rights questions and our liberties and freedoms. It is right that we discussed the questions that we raised today. We should remember that those who have been suffering acutely--whether in prisons, by being stoned to death or being subjected to the most terrible privations--will be grateful to us for having done so.
I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that those who have been suffering are Muslims, too. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who sensitively drew out an understanding of Islam. That must not cloud, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, our over-riding concern for the universality of human rights. Those rights must be applied to all, whatever their state or denomination. We in this place have a duty to work towards that objective. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.