25th Feb 2024


We call on EU leaders to work with Tehran to release Olivier Vandecasteele

  • Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, now held in an undisclosed Iranian prison, and facing 40 years and 74 lashes (Photo: Amnesty International)
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Olivier Vandecasteele, an experienced and respected Belgian humanitarian worker, is being arbitrarily detained in an unknown location in Iran.

He was sentenced to a cumulative total of 40 years of prison for "espionage against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the benefit of a foreign intelligence", "cooperation with a hostile government, the United States, against the Islamic Republic of Iran". He was also sentenced to 74 lashes.

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  • The Iranian embassy in Brussels (Photo: EUobserver)

At present, negotiations to secure his release in exchange for the return to Iran of a former Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, are on pause.

Given the charges against Assadi, who is accused of planning an attack on members of an Iranian political opposition group in France, the Belgian Constitutional Court has suspended the prisoner-exchange treaty. The negotiations will remain on pause pending the final legal decision on this treaty.

The judicial considerations related to internal Belgian policy and Iran's current isolation is making any negotiation between the two countries even more difficult.

Vandecasteele's imprisonment goes against everything he represents as a humanitarian worker. However, as recently stated by the UN Human Rights Council, his situation is first and foremost a denial of justice.

According to legal experts, the conditions of his imprisonment, his disappearance to unknown locations for various periods of time, the absence of a fair trial by an independent court, and ill-treatment, all constitute "violations of international law".

Given this context and Vandecasteele's profile, the European Union — the world's second largest donor of international humanitarian aid — has a decisive role to play in supporting a constructive dialogue and negotiations between both countries. The EU should engage and work towards overturning the status quo which is becoming increasingly detrimental to Vandecasteele's health.

In Afghanistan and more recently in Iran, Olivier has demonstrated his humanity and his ability to work in often very sensitive political and cultural environments. One key step that the EU could take is to press for an independent medical team to visit Vandecasteele.

Having just ended a hunger strike, a thorough medical check-up is critical to ensuring his health and safety.

Further action to ensure the protection and safety of this humanitarian actor, held against his will, would be in line with recent EU activities vis a vis Iran.

In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU sent €20m in emergency aid to the Iranian people — despite the potential risk of sanctions from the US. In 2022, the EU allocated €11m to humanitarian programmes targeting the poorest in Iran.

The EU is not indifferent to the situation facing the population in Iran. It cannot be indifferent to those who contribute to, and implement its international solidarity.

The point is not to put the threat of cutting EU humanitarian aid on the table, which would be highly debatable, but to demand that EU funded humanitarian projects are used to maintain a dialogue with Iran.

This dialogue is key to altering the Iranian authorities' current position which both undermines international law, and is jeopardising Vandecasteele's physical and mental health. A total of 37 international organisations have mobilised unequivocally — a rare occurrence — to collectively call for concrete and effective European diplomacy on this issue.

If Vandecasteele is not released by the time the next European Humanitarian Forum (EHF) takes place in Brussels, at the end of March 2023, international humanitarian organisations — with his family's approval — will use this opportunity to press the European Union for action to ensure his protection and safety.

Europe's civil society's voices can together contribute to making this call powerful.

A French-language version of this op-ed was also published today in Belgium's Le Soir and France's Liberation newspapers

Author bio

1. Accion Contra el Hambre, Spain — José Luis Maldonado, Chairman of the board

2. ActionAid International — Ana Alcalde, Programme and Global Engagement Director

3. Action Contre la Faim, France — Pierre Micheletti, Chairman of the board

4. ADRA Germany — Christian Molke, Chief Executive Officer

5. Aktion gegen den Hunger Deutschland — Cornelia Richter, Chairperson

6. Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Deutschland e.V. — Edith Wallmeier, Member of the Executive Board

7. Avocats Sans Frontières — Chantal van Cutsem, Executive Director

8. Bioforce — Bernard Sinou, Chairman

9. CARE Nederland — Reintje van Haeringen, Chief Executive Officer

10. Caritas Czech Republic — Jakub Licka, General Secretary

11. Christian Aid Ireland — Rev Dr Liz Hughes, Chair of the Board

12. Congodorpen — Jos Van Steenwinkel, President

13. COOPI, Cooperazione Internazionale — Claudio Ceravolo, President

14. Coordination Sud — France, Olivier Bruyeron, Chairman

15. EU-CORD — Ruth Faber, Chief Executive Officer

16. Finn Church Aid — Tomi Järvinen, Executive Director

17. Handicap International / Humanity & Inclusion — Manuel Patrouillard, Global Managing Director

18. Handicap International Belgique, Erwin Telemans, Director Benelux

19. Initiatives et changement — Marina Benedik, Chief Executive Officer

20. International Rescue Committee — Harlem Désir, Senior Vice President for Europe

21. La Chaîne de l'Espoir — Anouchka Finker, Chief Executive Officer

22. LM International — Isabella Olsson, Head of Global Advocacy

23. Médecins du Monde, Allemagne/ Ärzte der Welt e.V. / Doctors of the World Germany — François De Keersmaeker, Director

24. Médecins du Monde, Belgique — Claire Bourgeois, Chairwoman

25. Médecins du Monde, France — Florence Rigal, Chairwoman of the Board

26. Médecins du Monde, Grèce — Chara Tziouvara, Chairwoman

27 Médecins du Monde, Suisse- Dominik Schmid, Chairman

28. Oxfam België/Belgique — Eva Smets, Executive Director

29. People in Need (PIN) — Simon Panek, Chief Executive Officer

30. Première Urgence Internationale — Vincent Basquin, Chaiman of the Board

31. Solidarités internationale, France — Antoine Peigney, Chairman of the Board

32. SOS Méditerranée — François Thomas, Chairman

33. Terre des Hommes, International Federation — Valérie Ceccherini, General Secretary

34. Triangle Génération Humanitaire — Véronique Valty, Chairwoman

35. VOICE — Dominic Crowley, President

36. Welthungerhilfe — Mathias Mogge, Chief Executive Officer

37. ZOA, Nederland — Edwin Visser, Member of Executive Board


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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