Country Report: Defending from the Outside – Iranian Human Rights Defenders in the Diaspora

Country Report: Defending from the Outside – Iranian Human Rights Defenders in the Diaspora - Protection

Today, 9 November, ARTICLE 19 is launching a new report on the Human Rights Defenders of the Iranian Diaspora. The new report is based on interviews with diasporic Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) across 5 different countries in order to outline the obstacles faced by Iranian HRDs in the diaspora.

For the very first time, this report assesses the immediate needs and hurdles faced by Iranian activists striving to continue their work outside Iran. 

Executive Summary

Much human rights work relating to Iran is done by Iranians and organisations outside Iran. These Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) are activists, academics, lawyers, scholars, artists and journalists who have left Iran due to pressures from the Government, often finding themselves unable to return.

Those HRDs who are forced to leave Iran often feel that they gradually lose their connections and support networks, and the authority and legitimacy which their activist status conferred upon them. This is a victory for the Iranian authorities who are using this method to successfully muzzle human rights activism relating to Iran, domestically and internationally.

Rights activists in the diaspora play a vital role, both in highlighting Iran’s human rights violations, and supporting their in-country colleagues. This report looks to highlight the plight of Iranian HRDs working in the diaspora, and to pinpoint the challenges they face in order to ensure that they are supported in their struggle to protect human rights in Iran. ARTICLE 19 interviewed 37 HRDs based in 5 different countries in order to outline the obstacles faced by Iranian HRDs in the diaspora.

Numerous successful (as well as a few unsuccessful) projects have been granted considerable funding in support of the cause of human rights in Iran, but these projects have rarely been the result of a thorough needs assessment. This report assesses the immediate needs and hurdles faced by Iranian activists striving to continue their work outside Iran. It outlines programmatic gaps, resource needs and priorities, as well as inefficiencies, redundancies and overlaps in funding. It also provides a brief assessment of security knowledge in order to verify whether these HRDs have access to the tools and knowledge required in order to securely maintain their in-country networks and continue supporting activists in Iran.

The report revealed that the most valuable resources available to the HRDs were felt to be: a good connection and unrestricted access to the internet, along with the plethora of uncensored information available outside Iran; open access to academic institutions, think-tanks and other NGOs; and the human rights community itself as a source of knowledge and support.

Those who have fled from persecution do, however, suffer from a number of gaps in resources which hamper their ability to work effectively: these include psychosocial support and language training; training on proposal writing and funding sources; constructive feedback on unsuccessful proposals.

Donors were deemed to be out of touch with grantees when it came to Iran’s human rights work, and certain myths and misunderstandings prevail, including the notion of an ‘expiry date’ on exiled HRDs. HRDs also spoke of a lack of communication and transparency regarding funding allocation, and funding fads: it was felt that work has become increasingly donor-driven, rather than based on the issues identified by Iran human rights experts in meaningful consultation.

Networking avenues were also widely seen as a fundamental issue, and making them stronger, more accessible, more interdisciplinary, and more inclusive was a priority. Activities such as mentorship, fellowships and paid internships were considered effective means to this. With so much expertise, and limited funds available, Iranian HRDs in the diaspora recognise the need to work together in order to address the gaps in their programmatic, research or funding needs.

The language barrier also prevents many human rights journalists working on underreported issues, blocking opportunities from highly skilled individuals who have appropriate knowledge but lack the necessary language skills or are unfamiliar with the systems of their new country of residence. Ensuring that a knowledge of English (or the native tongue of the country in question) does not become the main criterion in selecting spokespeople on Iranian issues could help ensure that the highest quality information is being distributed by providing a voice to those who do not speak those languages.

Work as effective HRDs can only continue if some level of contact with Iran can be maintained: assessing the
security of these communications is thus vital. It is clear that security knowledge is lacking for some HRDs, who are resistant to the increasing focus on digital security and the numerous training events and workshops dedicated to it.

Currently available training events are not perceived to be fruitful, lacking tailoring and research necessary for deciding who should be involved. There must be prior needs assessments identifying the different levels of need and appropriate trainers will ensure that training events become accessible and adaptable. Training events need to be reduced and spread over longer periods, to avoid a barrage of information which overwhelms and frightens them.

Digital security is not a significant issue for some of Iran’s ethnic rights activists: many of their contact groups do not even have access to the internet, while the internet is the main method used to contact LGBTI groups in Iran.

By fostering an environment where many HRDs fear for their safety, but one which is open enough for them to leave Iran for the foreseeable future, the Iranian regime has managed to partially disintegrate Iranian civic space by forcing a large number of HRDs into exile. This has left the remaining HRDs feeling insecure and isolated, and those who have left the country feeling disconnected for a significant amount of time. Therefore, Iranian human rights networks are weakened from within, and those thrown into exile in the unknown need patience and resources to find their feet, if they can.

More often than not, international civil society and the UN bodies interested in Iran have misconceptions about this exiled community, simply because they tend to form opinions based on assumptions rather than facts. This is true of states, donors and funders: their assumptions seldom reflect truth, and in many cases simply oblige other interests.

ARTICLE 19 has conducted this research with the aim of clarifying the misconceptions about the needs of HRDs in exile, and bridging the gap between these groups and potential funders. ARTICLE 19 believes the findings of this study will also help civil society make better plans for future human rights work in Iran.

خلاصه گزارش را اینجا بخوانید (FA).

Read the full report here (EN).