Women, Life, Freedom: Have international lawyers run out of words?

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We have entered the fourth week into the Iranian protests (under the moto of “women, life, freedom” ) sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iranian Kurdistan, following her arrest by the Iranian morality police for allegedly breaching the veiling laws. Since then, Amnesty International has reported that the government’s ultra-violent response to demonstrations has led to the death of at least 52 people, with hundreds injured and an increasing number, as we speak, of journalists, artists, and students detained.

It should not be a surprise that international legal scholars with Iranian roots might be holding back from commenting on the government’s crackdown on the protests for fear for their personal integrity and that of their family. But why such a deafening silence from the rest of the international legal profession? Where have international lawyers’ words gone? Surely, they were vested in some good causes lately. And yet, why hasn’t the profession seriously vented its outrage at the treatment of protesters in Iran notwithstanding the dismaying images that trickle in every day on social media? Have they exhausted their voices in their endless discussion on whether women’s human rights should be conceptualized as a universalist project or rather reflect regional particularisms? Or have international lawyers grown tired or bored of the possible tensions between universalist and particularist arguments? 

In my view, there are at least two possible reasons for such resounding silence in the international law community vis-à-vis the current atrocities committed towards protesters in Iran.  A possible reason is that some international lawyers may feel they are simply witnessing blatant violations of human rights which deserve no commenting and which speak for themselves. As far as I am concerned, this is utterly unconvincing. Recent examples of self-evident norms violation resulting in human suffering elsewhere on the globe are commonly met with vocal and relentless criticisms. Another possible reason is that some may feel that they should refrain from putting words and language derived from a western-centric approach to human rights in the mouths of the protesters. Such argument is also deeply unpersuasive.

Images of the protests bespeak that there is no such a thing as an “Iranian conception of human rights” that holds in relation to the current situation. Protesters are under threat, not only of seeing their lives and bodily integrity harmed, but also their voices and images become respectively unheard and invisible. The visibility of images is not only conditioned upon the internet access of the protesters but also and above all, upon the discourses that accompany them. Images are visible only if accompanied by words and meet a capacity to listen, see, and narrate, one that is obviously lacking among international lawyers these days. Narrating, exposing, constructing images through words is the only way to empower such images with political strength and to ensure they are not evanescent but become remembered monuments.

International lawyers are a privileged crowd with a loud voice. Their lives and jobs are all about words. So even if they do not want to attach static captions to the pictures and videos of the protests, they ought to narrate these images by mobilizing their words – albeit flawed, fatigued and dysfunctional.

For Women, Life, Freedom.


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Farzad Fallah says

October 10, 2022

Well put. I had a little exchange recently with some European international lawyers on the same issue, and putting aside the insults and whataboutism that they resorted to, overall they suggested that due to their analysis of (for instance) the Ukrainian situation being fundamentally different than that of Iran, naturally they have responded differently. Completely and actively ignoring/obscuring underlying motives and incentives that blatantly suggest a discriminatory attitude, and not only regarding macro responses such as State support, but even deliberately avoiding discursive and symbolic solidarity with Iranians. Thanks a lot for the post!

mahtab Masror says

October 13, 2022

It is a new movement about human rights. Human rights Scholars shall respect and pay attention to this and break their silence.
Thanks a lot for your valuable post