Today's date:
  Summer 2004

America Is No Longer the Global Standard for Human Rights

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Her comments are adapted from a conversation with NPQ on May 15.

Tehran—Working to defend human rights in Iran is a bit like walking down the street with a bomb. You are treated by the authorities as subversive. And, indeed, 20 years ago when the powers that be wanted to insult me, they called me, in a perjorative way, “a feminist and defender of human rights” as if that was something bad.

Today, we have made progress. We have been able to establish a non-governmental human rights organization in Iran and our human rights cause has been recognized internationally by, among others, the Nobel committee.

So, it has been a long struggle.

During all those years, Eleanor Roosevelt was an always present inspiration to me because of the work she did in putting together the International Bill of Rights for the United Nations. Whenever I read that document, I could hear Mrs. Roosevelt speaking to us in Iran. For me, her name and the campaign for human rights have been inseparable.

Thanks to this legacy, I fully agree that America was recognized as the standard of human rights everywhere.

But now, when I see these pictures from Iraq, I ask myself, “What has happened to the American civilization?” Of all the apologies in order by America’s current political leaders, one of the most important is an apology to the spirit of Mrs. Roosevelt. My hope is that, in the future, America can once again be recognized as the standard bearer of human rights and not for what it has been doing recently in Iraq.

NOT FOR EXPORT | Democracy is not a gift that can be given on a golden tray. It is not some kind of merchandise that can be imported on a boat or established by tanks rumbling through cities. Democracy is an historical process that must develop from within each society in order to achieve legitimacy. History requires patience. Even in Iran, one day we will get there.

Of course, outside pressure from the international community can be an important factor. But if a country sincerely believes in the spread of democracy to others, it can only be through the UN. It is only through the UN that countries which lack democracy can be told to respect human rights and be accountable to their people.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we saw that, because of a response endorsed by the UN, Iraq pulled back. The invasion of Iraq this time did not have such an endorsement and is thus wrong, illegal and counterproductive. It lacks legitimacy.

After this invasion, many are asking “What is the use of the UN?” But our endeavor should be to strengthen the UN, not make it weaker. Among the most important acts in support of a strong UN would be for countries—including the United States and Iran—to support the International Criminal Court.

NO DEMOCRACY, NO AID | Non-democratic countries should not receive aid from the IMF or World Bank. Credits that flow to non-democratic regimes are normally misused and siphoned off into corruption or unnecessary projects since there is no accountability or transparency. And because a dictatorship will inevitably fall one day, the people will be left with all the debt once they come to power. Eighty percent of the developing world’s population is saddled with paying back debts, not one cent of the amount they owe having been used for their health or welfare.

Democratic governance should thus be a precondition of the World Bank for giving loans. They are only fooling themselves to believe that there can be economic development without political development.

HIJAB RULES | Without understanding and tolerating different cultures, there is no way we can achieve peace in the world. To insist on one’s own standards for everyone else in society is not the right way. Women should be free to live as they wish. As such, I oppose the ban on headscarves in French public schools just I oppose the forced imposition of wearing the headscarf in Iran.