COMMENTARY: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues his campaign to violently repress sexual minorities.
"They asked me [at Columbia University in 2007] why you crack down on homosexuals in Iran?" said Ahmadinejad, according to a report by the Islamic Republic's state-controlled ILNA news agency in January. "I answered, we don't have so many homosexuals in Iran because we believe this act is against the human spirit and humanity."
In other words, Ahmadinejad was saying, "We don't have so many homosexuals in Iran because we execute them."
According to an Amnesty International report, Iran led the Middle East in "credible reports" of executions, with more than 300 in 2010. The U.S. State Department said Iran imposed the death penalty on 312 people last year. Iran is a world champion in applying the death penalty to adolescents and sexual offenders, including those who commit adultery and homosexual acts.
In 2005, Iran hanged two teenagers, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, for what was likely consensual same-sex intercourse. As Human Rights Watch noted in its late 2010 report, "'We Are a Buried Generation': Discrimination and Violence Against Sexual Minorities in Iran," trials based on "moral charges in Iran are usually held in camera." Consequently, it is a Herculean task to assess if the defendants were killed because of homosexuality. The in camera trials are largely star-chamber proceedings that lack public transparency.
Iran's Sharia system codifies the death penalty for same-sex activities and prescribes medieval penalties for Iranians who engage in them. Tehran punishes male same-sex intercourse with death, and lesbian sex with 100 lashes for the first three offenses and execution thereafter.
The Iranian regime's drive to eradicate its LGBT community could be construed as a form of modern genocide. When I asked the human rights legal expert Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute who also teaches human rights at New York University's Global Affairs program, she said, "The Genocide Convention [of the United Nations] only covers religious, ethnic, national and racial minorities. So LGBT is not a category covered under the convention. What is happening to them could be interpreted as crimes against humanity, and it certainly violates other international human rights norms, but it's not genocide in the legal definition of the term."
But there are legislative remedies, for instance -- congressional human rights sanctions penalizing Iran -- that could fill the gap of missing protections for sexual minorities in the Genocide Convention. There is strong bipartisan support for human rights to become a cornerstone of a more robust U.S. foreign policy toward Iran's dangerous regime. We likely soon will see comprehensive Iran human rights sanctions and democracy promotion measures introduced in Congress.
If the Obama administration is serious about advancing democracy and human rights in Iran and the greater Middle East, the president should support these congressional initiatives and embrace comprehensive Iran human rights sanctions targeting officials involved in human rights abuses, including those engaged in lethal homophobia.
The European Union Tuesday slapped slapped 32 Iranian officials with human rights sanctions for their "appalling" transgressions. According to British foreign secretary William Hague, "Iran seems to have believed with all the change in the Mideast that they think they can get away with an even worse human rights situation in their country."
Hague said those 32 Iranians are "responsible and instrumental in the policies" of Iran, including extrajudicial executions and "imprisonment of opposition leaders." He added there has been an "excessive use of the death penalty on vague charges" in Iran, and the Islamic Republic has engaged in the "detention of more journalists than any other country in the world." The 32 figures are, however, a sliver of a repressive superstructure waging a bloody campaign against democracy dissidents, women, the Bahai religious minority, and LGBT Iranians. But, to the credit of the E.U., it is genuine progress.
Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the European Union has shown signs that it will issue human rights sanctions covering broad swaths of Iran's regime, including its judiciary apparatus. Germany's openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, expressed little desire to promote the acceptance of sexual minorities in the Muslim world. In an interview with the tabloid Bunte
last year, after declining to bring his gay partner with him on official travel to Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries, Westerwelle said, "We want to encourage the idea of tolerance around the world, but we don't want to achieve the opposite either by acting imprudently."
Westerwelle simply acquiesced to the persecution of gays in Iran and Arab states. Yet with democratic movements spreading across the Muslim world, the time is ripe to call the Iranian leaders to account for their treatment of minorities of all kinds.
Sadly, nongovernmental actors like Human Rights Watch have devoted inadequate resources to preventing Iranian and Arab leaders from persecuting their LGBT populations. After five years of neglect, while Ahmadinejad ramped up Iran's persecution of same-sex activity, HRW's LGBT division faced scathing criticism from the gay British human rights activist Peter Tatchell. In late 2010 it finally issued a report documenting LGBT violations in the Islamic Republic.
All of this helps to explain why Robert Bernstein, the founder of HRW, broke with his organization to launch Advancing Human Rights, a model of advocacy that aims to improve human rights in largely hermetically sealed societies. "My motivation to start a new organization is that I believe that human rights organizations are failing to report human rights abuses in a fair, accurate, nonpartisan manner. There was none of their outrage in the reporting of closed Arab societies that the world is now aware of as the people of these societies try to throw off their tyrannical governments," explained Bernstein.
President Obama has, to his credit, sanctioned 10 Iranian officials for their roles in torture, rape, violent beatings, and unlawful detentions. The sanctions law Obama signed in July 2010 is intended to penalize only the elites responsible for crushing Iran's pro-democracy protests after the fraudulent election results of June 2009.
But as my colleague Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Iran Human Rights Project, points out, "The Obama administration must be required to investigate all credible evidence of human rights abuses, and not merely to report on them. In particular, Congress needs to ask why top Iranian officials like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have not been sanctioned for human rights abuses and for the crime of incitement to commit genocide."
In June 2009 the brave Iranians who dared to defy their regime and protest the stolen presidential election often asked President Obama, "Are you with us or against us?"
Will Obama and others follow suit?