Earlier this month Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi became the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. As she pointed out in her speech, she was the first Iranian and the first woman from a Muslim nation to win the prize. It was an extraordinary opportunity for Ebadi to speak of the turmoil in her country as Iranians are challenging the rule of the extremist theocracy. Instead she took her moment on the international stage not to criticize a brutal regime but to take aim at the West — specifically the United States.
In her speech Ebadi criticized the war against terrorism, a war she should be reminded the West wasn’t interested in until it was brought to its shores, as a global attack on human rights. During the past two years “some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext.”
She went on to say: “The concerns of human rights’ advocates increase when they observe that international human rights laws are breached not only by their recognized opponents under the pretext of cultural relativity, but that these principles are also violated in Western democracies … It is in this framework that, for months, hundreds of individuals who were arrested in the course of military conflicts have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, without the benefit of the rights stipulated” under international covenants and treaties.
Ebadi also criticized Israel and asked, “[W]hy is it that some decisions and resolutions of the UN Security Council are binding, while some other resolutions of the council have no binding force? Why is it that in the past 35 years, dozens of UN resolutions concerning the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel have not been implemented promptly, yet, in the past 12 years, the state and people of Iraq, once on the recommendation of the Security Council, and the second time, in spite of UN Security Council opposition, were subjected to attack, military assault, economic sanctions, and, ultimately, military occupation?”
In contrast, the victims of the 24-year-old Iranian theocracy barely rated a mention. Outside of vague remarks concerning human rights the plight of her fellow Iranians didn’t seem to be on Ebadi’s mind. At a moment in history when brave Iranian students stand up against a regime that has impoverished their nation, imprisoned and executed its intellectuals and dissidents and made Iran an international pariah, Ebadi chose to repeat the party line out of Tehran.
It’s another unfortunate example of the pattern that the elite of the Middle East are trapped. When given a chance to make a meaningful move to help their fellow citizens, in this case publicizing what’s going on in Iran, they instead choose to focus their attention on other issues. While Iranians chant “Let Palestine be, spare a thought for us first!” in the streets, Ebadi ignored the countless imprisoned in Iranian versions of Lubianka and indirectly compared their lot to the far more fortunate prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
Coincidentally, a historic exchange took place a few days after Ebadi’s speech. Israel Radio launched a Farsi language service and one of the first guests was Iranian-born Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz. One caller from a city in central Iran asked Mofaz when Israel and the Jews would repay their debt to Persian king Cyrus the Great and rescue the Iranian people from the ayatollahs, as the United States had helped the people of Iraq. Back in 583 BC, Cyrus fulfilled a prophecy by the Prophet Jeremiah and issued a proclamation allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon and rebuild their Temple.
It was a touching moment to hear a Muslim Iranian ask an Israeli Jew to help free his people from bondage. Unfortunately for the people of Iran the help they seek is more likely to come from outside of their nation than from their own elites. In her speech Ebadi described herself as “an Iranian. A descendent of Cyrus the Great.” If that’s the case, she should have used her speech to call for the end of exile from freedom of her own people.