Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Soft Power Meets Hard Reality

Inside the front cover of my old passport is embossed this florid declaration:

The Secretary of State for External Affairs of Canada requests in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

No doubt the same inscription was on Zahri Kazemi's passport. To the government of Iran, that passport was a meaningless scrap of paper, as evidenced by its response to the Canadian government's inquiries regarding her suspicious death in Iranian police custody two years ago:

Iran told Canada to back off yesterday over the case of Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in Iranian custody, criticizing the Canadian government's "immaturity" and warning it to stop interfering in the case.

Spokesmen for both Iran's foreign ministry and its judiciary took shots at Canada over the weekend, and indicated that Ms. Kazemi's Canadian citizenship was irrelevant to them.

"I am amazed by [Canada's] immaturity. This lady was an Iranian citizen and this case is a domestic affair," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said yesterday.

"Canada's current attitude towards Iran will not lead to anything. Pressuring Iran in these kinds of affairs will not bring about any solutions."


Ms. Kazemi died in July 2003 while in Iranian custody, after she was arrested for taking photos outside a Tehran prison where many dissidents are held.

Iranian officials initially said that she had suffered a stroke, and later that she had fallen and hit her head. An Iranian presidential commission found she died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage.

A doctor who treated her, who has since fled the country and was recently granted asylum in Canada, Shahram Azam, said she appeared to have been tortured and raped.

Another doctor who treated her, Hadi Sepherlou, was reportedly arrested last week by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Zahra Kazemi knew the risks she took and died as a result. No one expects the Canadian government to protect us from the consequences of all our actions when travelling abroad, especially in dictatorships such as Iran. But we can expect our government's inquiries to be met with proper respect, and not flippant insults from a despot's petty functionaries.

But what has Iran to fear from Canada? Canada's naive reliance on "soft power"--in reality, a blind faith in the United Nations, various international conventions and censorious scoldings for not respecting them--without the "hard power" of economic and yes, military force to back it up, lets the dictators of the world flip us off to our face, and laugh at us behind our backs.

Canada could have mobilized world opinion in Ms. Kazemi's case, and encouraged other governments to put pressure on Iran regarding its treatment of dual nationals accused of such crimes. That would have been in keeping with our strengths and abilities.

But Ms. Kazemi's case will pass unheralded, the truth unspoken, justice undone, because Iran knows how hollow our government's words are.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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