When using the phrase ‘human rights’ hinders human-rights initiatives

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A. Marie Ranjbar noticed a peculiar pattern in the conversations she was having as part of her dissertation research. A doctoral candidate in geography and women's studies at Penn State, Ranjbar was interviewing minority ethnic groups in northwest Iran for research into how certain ethnic groups view a shrinking lake in northwest Iran, Lake Urmia.

"I realized very quickly that people used the lake as an entry point to talk about other issues that were happening," said Ranjbar. "They'd start with the lake and say, 'The government hasn't saved the lake.' Five minutes later they would say, 'Ah, but we also can't speak our language in schools. It's a problem.' Or they would start by saying the government has failed to intervene to save the lake and they would say, 'Of course, it's because we're Azeris and the government doesn't care about us.'"

The reason for this pattern of conversations, Ranjbar argues in her research, is that human justice is so sensitive a topic in Iran that people often feel they cannot say those words. The phrase “human rights” has become politicized, says Ranjbar, and many residents with whom she spoke fear retribution from the Iranian government.

“What you see is that some groups use environmental justice as a way to make human-rights claims,” says Ranjbar, whose faculty adviser is Lorraine Dowler, associate professor of geography and women's studies. "As Americans, we tend to think about human rights in terms of political or civil rights based on our history. But what I argue in my research is that, in different places because of political, social or historical contexts, human-rights claims look different."

Consider the context of West Azerbaijan Province, Iran, the setting of Ranjbar's research. The majority of residents in the area are of Iranian ethnicity. There are two minority ethnic groups, the Azeris and the Kurds, who have been "historically marginalized by the Iranian government," Ranjbar says.

The area's major saltwater lake, Urmia, has been the source of concern for many residents over the years because today it has roughly 10 percent of the water it had in the 1970s. During the past decade, residents protested to raise awareness and spur government intervention, and some of these have resulted in arrests and detainment of participants.

But, Ranjbar argues, not all of that concern is for the lake.

"Historically, oppositional groups have used human rights as the oppositional language. When former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, the opposition was purged. Newspapers were shut down, and opposition candidates and university professors were detained," she says.

Those events have cast a shadow of fear around the language of human rights, Ranjbar argues. Human rights has come to symbolize opposition to the Iranian regime, Iran’s overarching political and religious body.

Opposing the regime puts citizens and non-governmental organizations at risk, Ranjbar says, so they shy away from that type of language. Even Ranjbar, prior to visiting Iran for six months to gather data, was warned that she shouldn't bring up the idea of human rights or justice.

"When you can't speak openly about something, you come up with alternatives," she says.

International support making the issue complex

An added layer of complexity Ranjbar notes in her research is the international conversation around human rights. Human rights is a common narrative used to spur governments to take action in foreign countries, especially in Iran.

The U.S. has imposed numerous sanctions on Iran in recent years, some of which directly reference human rights. For example, a Sept. 28, 2010, executive order signed by former President Barack Obama uses the phrase in its title: "Blocking Property of Certain Persons with Respect to Serious Human Rights Abuses by the Government of Iran and Taking Certain Other Actions," and title I of a 2013 bill related to Iranian sanctions, passed by U.S. legislation, reads "Human Rights and Terrorism Sanctions."

"If a language doesn't defend your rights but makes you more vulnerable to abuses, what use is that language?"

—A. Marie Ranjbar, doctoral student in geography

While “human rights” and “justice” may sound like they could be beneficial to relegated populations, Ranjbar's research suggests it's not that clear cut.

"If an Iranian activist talks about human rights in Iran, the government can imprison them quickly. On the other hand, if they used human rights in their narrative, they could be more likely to get international support," she says.

Because there's danger involved in using human-rights narratives, they aren’t used frequently. An alternative narrative, environmental justice, doesn't carry with it the same weight on an international scale. Fighting to preserve Lake Urmia — and by proxy the rights of ethnic minorities — just isn't as effective at garnering support, Ranjbar says.

A more universal definition of human rights

The U.N. General Assembly adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to document a baseline level of rights that all humans should have. The document covers broad areas of freedom but doesn't mention the environment.

That's problematic for some marginalized populations.

"There are groups around the world who connect with the environment in different ways. That's not upheld by international organizations and isn't seen as a right in many countries in the world," she says.

Ranjbar notes that this isn't an issue that's limited to Iran. Two recent examples — Flint, Michigan; and Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota and South Dakota — were environmental issues, the outcome of which would have implications on human rights.

So what's the solution? A more careful look at how we word our definitions of justice and human rights, according to Ranjbar — and perhaps a definition that encompasses more populations.

"I don't think we should throw out universal notions of human rights, but rather that we should expand them and realize that it might look differently from ways we once thought about them," Ranjbar says. "If a language doesn't defend your rights but makes you more vulnerable to abuses, what use is that language?"

Contacts: 
Last Updated May 15, 2017