28th Feb 2024


How EU must follow through on Iran womens' Sakharov prize

  • Measures such as Iran's new Hijab and Chastity Bill not only negate women's civil and political rights but intend to hush Iranian society by introducing draconian fines (Photo: Hasan Almasi)
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By honouring Jina Mahsa Amini, the Kurdish woman whose death in police custody in September 2022 sparked a nationwide revolt in the name of equality, dignity, and freedom in Iran, the European Parliament pays tribute to all those who have withstood the Iranian regime's brutal repression.

The world would not even know of Jina, had it not been for her killing at the hands of a misogynist regime, whose disregard for human life has been on ample display in the ensuing crackdown on the protest movement, aptly named Woman, Life, Freedom.

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Even the family of Jina was not allowed to mourn her, or commemorate her loss, without fearing for their lives themselves, and are now inhibited from traveling to Brussels to accept the prize on her behalf.

It is therefore only just for parliamentarians to express their solidarity with the Iranian people longing for freedom, effectively taking up one of the protesters' demands by "being their voice". Yet, with Jina having been more powerful in her passing than most humans will ever be in their lifetime, claiming her legacy comes with great responsibility.

Therefore, to avoid this ceremony becoming a purely symbolic and, ultimately, empty gesture, the EU should follow-up with tangible policy measures.

For sure, it has already passed several sanctions packages against the perpetrators of gross human rights violations in Iran, with asset freezes and travel bans issued against more than 200 individuals and nearly 40 entities.

Yet, there's a lot more the EU can do to support those seeking liberty and dignity in Iran. In fact, the consequences for European policymaking of handing the Sakharov Prize to the "woman, life, freedom" movement go far beyond relations with the Islamic Republic. They touch on how the EU aims to confront authoritarian tendencies worldwide, and in particular how it wants to put humans at the centre of its external action.

Concretely, three issues stand out if the EU is serious about placing a human and women's rights centred approach at the core of its foreign policy: emergency funding for immediate priorities, internet freedom in order to keep activists connected to the world, and addressing the issue of visa and relocating women and human rights defenders to safe spaces. That is the essence of the many recommendations that professional human rights activists have repeatedly made to European policymakers.

Three concrete next steps

First, the EU should urgently step up and expand its emergency funding to Iranian civil society. That's because the government in Tehran remains bent on repression, paving the way towards a complete collapse of the media, the legal profession, and civil society.

Regime forces continue to crackdown on activists, including by house raids, confiscating private devices, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests in the hundreds, especially in Kurdistan and Baluchistan, increased prison sentences, and outright killings.

Moreover, measures such as the new Hijab and Chastity Bill not only negate women's civil and political rights but intend to hush Iranian society by introducing draconian fines, including the closure of businesses and professional bans.

Such continued repression, in combination with the overall economic precarity, has exhausted most of the resources available to small and medium-sized organisations doing on-the-ground human rights work. Beyond making urgently needed funds available to those organisations through trusted intermediaries, the EU should consider how to sustain its support in the long run when the spotlight of attention will eventually fade.

Second, a key to supporting political movements and civil society in Iran is to uphold their access to the internet.

The digital sphere has become an integral to Iran's oppressive regime, being part of a strategic plan to control and further isolate the country's citizens from the world. However, for activists worldwide, access to the internet is the light in an otherwise pretty dark room. And authoritarian states like Russia or China are watching closely how Iran expands its 'national information network', cutting users off the worldwide web by controlling access points and by infringing on individual rights.

The EU should therefore increase digital security programming and expand digital safe spaces for Iranians in and outside the country, and incorporate these measures into a comprehensive, global strategy against digital repression.

Third, the EU should support and protect those women and human rights defenders who have — or had — to leave the country for their own safety, whether temporarily or for longer.

Some of them are already stranded in neighbouring countries, often under precarious conditions. However, there are myriad structural barriers to their passage to safety, from long waiting times and restrictions on visa applications from outside one's home country to criteria effectively excluding some activists from being eligible for asylum.

Therefore, at a moment when the EU is about to roll back the human rights standards of its own asylum system, awarding a prize to activists who it might not be ready to protect if needed, risks exposing European hypocrisy rather than solidarity.

The Sakharov Prize honours individuals and organisations as outstanding defenders of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is thus a very tangible representation of the EU's own foundational values, as enshrined in the Treaties.

Only by putting those principles in practice through effective and sustained policies can symbolic measures such as this award become a credible and meaningful instrument.

Author bio

Cornelia Ernst is a Left MEP and chair of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iran, as well as the committee for civil liberties. Cornelius Adebahr and Barbara Mittelhammer are Iran scholars at Carnegie Europe.


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

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