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Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Saturday, May 15, in Los Angeles, which hosts the largest Iranian community outside of Tehran.

Nathan Gardels: America has always been held up as the standard for human rights in the world. What do the recent revelations of torture of Iraqi prisoners by American forces mean for the global struggle for human rights?

Shirin Ebadi: 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 pejorative way, "a feminist and defender of human rights" as if it 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.

Gardels: The U.S. overthrow of Saddam and occupation of Iraq is part of a broader agenda to bring democracy to the Middle East. Can America export democracy in this way?

Ebadi: 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 United Nations. It is only through the U.N. 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 United Nations 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 United Nations?" But our endeavor should be to strengthen the United Nations, not make it weaker. Among the most important acts in support of a strong U.N. would be for countries ? including the United States and Iran ? to support the International Criminal Court.

Gardels: What role do the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, have in promoting democracy and human rights?

Ebadi: 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.

Gardels: What do you make of the recent decision in France to ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools?

Ebadi: 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.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 5/17/04)