The Iranian human-rights activist, Shirin Ebadi spoke today at The Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.  Her experiences at the notorious Evin Prison in Iran and her tireless efforts to improve conditions for the people of her country put her in a good position to talk about the importance of human rights in the development of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. One of her central arguments was that a more substantive implementation of a human rights discourse on the international stage will prevent new dictatorships replacing old ones in the region, because human rights law is an essential component of proper democracy. By refusing to have diplomatic relations with countries who refuse to comply with the ICC and imposing sanctions on more corrupt politicians, she argued that the UK and other powers can help to prevent the new governments from returning to dictatorship. She also called for a greater appreciation of reformist and progressive Islamic thinkers, voices which have been drowned out by state-run media and censorship. The translation and proliferation of their texts would provide different activists and political thinkers with a platform to express their aspirations for the future of their countries.

She expressed an uneasiness with the term ‘Arab Spring’ because she feels democracy, as she sees it, is yet to emerge in any of the countries which have experienced a revolution. Indeed, democracy is far from an immediate corollary to revolution. The case of Iran, as well as other revolutionary states, supports Ramin Jahanbegloo’s argument that ‘all revolutions are simple hiatuses between liberation and the constitution of liberty.’ This is partly because the interim period between the fall of a dictator and the emergence of new political system is often hijacked by those hungry for power and effective in utilising the temporal unity which generates revolution. So Shirin Ebadi is right to push for a more substantive human rights agenda in the foreign policy of Western governments as new polities emerge in the Middle East and North Africa and try to resist authoritarianism. The way in which this is done, however, is worth debating.

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