We are living through times of immense upheaval with nationalism and xenophobia on the rise in Europe, the US and around the world, conflicts raging, and authoritarian governments clawing away at democracy and human rights. In the midst of all of this mayhem, there are individual innocent human beings who are sadly caught up in the chaos through no fault of their own.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested and imprisoned more or less by chance, as far as we can tell, torn away from her baby daughter as they were about to return from a holiday in Iran, to visit family. Now apparently being used as a bargaining chip between the Iranian and British governments, Nazanin faces five years in prison, while the charges against her remain secret. The conditions of her captivity in the notorious Evin prison, which has included solitary confinement, are in breach of international human rights standards. After a hunger strike in November, the state of her health, according to Amnesty International, is “deeply alarming”. Nazanin’s three year old daughter Gabriella has had her passport confiscated and cannot leave Iran and Nazanin's British husband and the father of Gabriella, is still trying to get a visa from Iranian authorities to visit his wife and child.
When I decided to go into politics and run for elections as an MEP, I decided I would use my platform to speak up for those who do not have a voice, and to stand up for human rights and social justice. When faced with an individual tragedy like this one cannot help but feel compelled to act.
Nazanin’s case was brought to my attention by fellow Labour MEP Anneliese Dodds, who represents Nazanin’s constituency of the South East of England. I have been working to raise human rights issues in Iran ever since I was elected, and fought to highlight the dire situation in Iran, including Nazanin’s case, in the EU-Iran Strategy report adopted by the European Parliament in October 2016. Members of Nazanin’s family, including her husband Richard, got in touch with me, and I committed to focus on the case and do what I can to let the world know, and help bring Nazanin home. As part of Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign, Labour MEPs sent a joint letter to Nazanin this December, to let her know we stand with her. I hope it will reach her in Teheran, and also signal to both governments that innocent people must not be used to settle old scores.
In the meantime, we in the UK have been obsessing over Brexit, and doing so in very much the wrong way. We have been thinking only of zero-sum numbers: how much money do we pay, how much gets paid to us, how many jobs do we get, and how much trade can we do. These are all very important questions, but we have not seen the bigger picture. The European Union has been about common values across borders, holding up peace, human rights, and social solidarity as core values that bring human beings together.
As the EU is rocked by the rise of regressive nationalism and Brexit, we do not see that the ripple effect goes much further. Whereas the EU bloc can act as a brake, restraining human rights abuses by governments around us, now these oppressive regimes feel they have a licence to act, because the West is looking elsewhere.
We are seeing a deterioration of human rights in Iran, in Turkey, the Gulf region, in Israel and Palestine, and in Russia and Ukraine. It is not a coincidence. Now is not the time to look away or navel-gaze, now is the time for all those who want to protect human rights across borders to stand up together and speak out.
I will continue to follow and raise Nazanin’s case wherever I can, together with my colleagues, until she comes home. I would like to thank Amnesty International for their invaluable hard work. Without them and other NGOs like them, without activists, volunteers and researchers on the ground, none of us would be able to do our work on these cases.
My thoughts will be with Nazanin and her family during this holiday season, and I hope that together, one letter at a time, we will be able to bring her home.