Here the Transcript of this Standing (OTTAWA, Thursday, February 9, 2017) is available from the Senate of Canada's Website:
Senators, during this morning's meeting we will continue our examination of Bill S-219, An Act to deter Iran-sponsored terrorism, incitement to hatred, and human rights violations.
Here with us are Mr. Bijan Ahmadi, President, Iranian Canadian Congress; and Mr. Pouyan Tabasinejad, Policy Chair, also from Iranian Canadian Congress.
Welcome. Thank you for being with us today. We will hear your presentation and then the members of the committee will ask questions.
Bijan Ahmadi, President, Iranian Canadian Congress: Honourable senators, we would like to thank you for inviting us today to discuss Bill S-219. Given that this bill will disproportionately affect Iranian-Canadians, it is important for our community to be part of the consultation process. This is why we appreciate being here with you today.
The Iranian Canadian Congress, or ICC, is a grassroots, non-partisan and non-profit community organization that seeks to safeguard and advance the interests of Canadians of Iranian heritage, a population estimated at 300,000 nationwide.
My colleague and I are here on behalf of the ICC to present to you our views and concerns regarding Bill S-219, the non-nuclear sanctions against Iran act, and explain why the Senate should reject this bill in its entirety.
The ICC is deeply concerned about this bill, which we see as not only contrary to the government's stated policy of re-engagement with Iran but also an obstacle to Canada meeting its international obligations. Make no mistake, if enacted into law this bill will kill any possibility of re-engagement with Iran.
The present government has repeatedly stated its intention to re-engage with Iran and to reopen the Canadian mission in Tehran in a step-by-step approach. To this end, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion repeatedly stated in the House of Commons that “we'll engage with Iran step by step with open eyes.”
After more than a year of delicate and difficult negotiations with Iran, our diplomats are beginning to make some headway in re-engagement with Iran. These are extremely challenging negotiations for our diplomats and both sides have concerns that need to be addressed. Canada requires assurances from Iran about the safety and security of our diplomats and Iranian officials have stated that they require assurances from Canada regarding the judicial immunity of their diplomats and common diplomatic assets.
Instead of aiding in these difficult negotiations, Bill S-219 is a step in the wrong direction. This bill not only leaves in place current obstacles in the path of re-engagement but also raises more barriers by introducing more legal and bureaucratic complexities to the process. This is not the time for our legislature to impose seemingly ideological and symbolic restrictions on these negotiations. We must allow our diplomats to negotiate freely instead of forcing parameters and restrictions on already delicate diplomatic talks.
The merits of diplomacy with Iran have been well proven. Another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East was averted when world powers concluded the nuclear deal, JCPOA, over a year ago. Canada must play its part and give diplomacy a real chance and its full support.
However, the deleterious effects that this bill has on our country's diplomatic processes are only one part of why this bill is not in Canadians' best interests. Bill S-219 endorses sanctions and a lack of diplomatic relations with Iran, the negative effects of which on both Canadian businesses and Iranian-Canadians have been well-documented. We will now go into some of these issues.
Iranian-Canadians have suffered disproportionately in the years after the former government broke diplomatic relations and instituted strict sanctions on Iran. When relations were broken in 2012, Iranian-Canadians suddenly found themselves unable to access consular services and were faced with considerable difficulty when attempting to acquire visitor visas for their relatives and family members still living in Iran. Ironically, Iranian-Canadians have had to travel to Washington D.C, where Iran maintains an Interests Section, to access consular services, an option which opens them up to President Trump's travel ban. Most importantly, the absence of a Canadian diplomatic mission in Iran has left Canadians visiting Iran vulnerable and without access to consular services in times of need.
The other policy endorsed by this bill, the sanctions imposed by SEMA, created often insurmountable barriers for honest and hard-working Iranian-Canadians. Many business owners who were dependent on the trade between Iran and Canada for their livelihood suddenly found their legitimate business activities rendered illegal. Additionally, banks refused to deal with those who had or were perceived to have any financial links to Iran, whether personal or business. This even resulted in the closure of the bank accounts of Iranian-Canadians, including Canadian citizens, for no other reason than because they hold Iranian citizenship as well.
For example, the bank account of an Iranian engineering student in Quebec was closed with only $700 in the bank account. When he approached the bank he was only told that his account was closed because he had an Iranian passport.
Even today, after the government eased some of it sanctions on Iran in February 2016, some financial institutions are still applying the same rules and we have received several reports from ordinary Iranian-Canadians who have been subjected to discrimination by banks.
Bill S-219 essentially endorses and seeks to perpetuate the policies that have caused so much suffering in the Iranian-Canadian community. Not only will it derail diplomatic negotiations between Canada and Iran, depriving the community of the benefits of consular services and diplomatic representation, but it will also increase uncertainty and risk for financial institutions, further complicating the problem of banking discrimination and increasing the numbers of Iranian-Canadians denied fundamental banking services.
It is because of the suffering caused by these policies that an official parliamentary e-petition initiated by our organization asking the government to re-establish relations and re-engage with Iran has gathered nearly 16,000 signatures from across Canada.
It is widely known that Canada has disagreements with Iran over its regional policies and has concerns over human rights conditions in Iran, and these concerns have been reaffirmed countless times by Canadian officials. Therefore, Bill S-219 does not add any value in terms of informing the government of human rights concerns they have not already committed themselves to discuss with their Iranian counterparts.
One major concern the Canadian government has in terms of human rights is the status of Canadian dual nationals arrested in Iran. In this respect, engagement allows Canadian diplomats to voice our concerns with Tehran and advocate for our citizens directly.
For example, following former Minister Dion's meeting last September with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, and through the involvement of Italy and Oman, countries that both have diplomatic relations with Iran, Dr. Homa Hoodfar was released and returned to Canada. This case shows how diplomacy and constructive engagement are the only ways in which Canada can effectively represent and protect its dual nationals. In fact, in a panel discussion in Toronto last week, Dr. Hoodfar herself stated that she supports the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran. Having an embassy in Iran, she said, “is an important factor for protecting dual nationals and also for having a channel of communication with Iran,” adding, “I want to add my voice to those who support having an embassy in Iran.” Dr. Hoodfar emphasized that if the Canadian embassy was open at the time of her arrest, it could have helped to resolve her case more quickly.
We still have a Canadian-linked prisoner in Iran, Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian permanent resident who has been in prison for the past eight years. Through re-engagement with Iran, Canadian diplomats will have the opportunity to directly advocate for Mr. Malekpour's release with the Iranian authorities.
Pouyan Tabasinejad, our policy chair, will now talk about the effect of sanctions and lack of diplomacy on Canada's businesses and its international standing.
Pouyan Tabasinejad, Policy Chair, Iranian Canadian Congress: Thank you for having us here. I'll just pick up where Bijan left off.
Sanctions and the lack of diplomacy have not only harmed Iranian-Canadians, as my colleague stated, but also Canadian businesses at large, which have not been able to access Iran's untapped market of 80 million people.
To give you a sense of the amount of opportunity the Canadian economy is losing as a result of this policy, a 2014 study found that Canada lost between $850 million and $2.7 billion a year in exports as a result of these sanctions on Iran. In the meantime, Canada's G7 and NATO allies have been re-engaging with Iran both politically and economically since the JCPOA was put into effect.
As sanctions have been eased on Iran, many international businesses, especially European companies, have entered the Iranian market, while Canadian companies have been lagging behind because of our lack of relations and the uncertainties surrounding our sanctions regime, otherwise known as SEMA.
For example, in the first nine months of 2016 alone, the European Union's trade with Iran has increased by 63 per cent. Several major contracts have been signed over the past 12 months, including major deals with Boeing and Airbus, worth billions.
After Canada eased sanctions on Iran in February 2016, Canadian business leaders and representatives, including the President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, have shown considerable optimism towards trade with Iran. There are opportunities for Canada in Iran in a variety of sectors, including aerospace, railroads, oil and gas, and technologies. These are all sectors where Canadian businesses excel and can benefit significantly from trade with Iran.
This fact has been corroborated by Canadian companies themselves. By way of example, in an interview with the Canadian press in October 2016, the CEO of Bombardier said that the Montreal-based plane and train maker sees opportunities to sell rail services and jets, including the C Series airliners, to Iran.
Canada must encourage its businesses to enter the Iranian market rather than legislating against these activities with Bill S-219, which only increases uncertainties and puts our companies at legal risk. Re-engagement with Iran will not only benefit Canadian businesses, but it will also increase Canada's influence in the world.
As we enter, perhaps, the most challenging international environment since the Cold War with the election of the new U.S. administration, our country has the unique opportunity to position itself as a global leader by playing a part in solving perhaps some of the most important challenges in international relations today; namely, nuclear non-proliferation and stability in the Middle East. By pursuing a path of diplomacy and engagement with Iran, Canada can position itself as an unbiased diplomatic broker in the world and gain influence beyond that accorded to it by its status as a middle power.
In sum, we repeat that this bill is nothing but an attempt to derail the process of re-engagement. It is endorsing the same failed policies which have harmed Iranian-Canadians, Canadian businesses and our international standing as an impartial promoter of dialogue.
We therefore ask honourable senators to reject this bill in it is entirety and safeguard the interests of Canadians and Canadian businesses, and build Canada's international standing and advance the cause of world peace.
The Acting Chair: Thank you, Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Tabasinejad, for your presentations.
Senator Housakos: Thank you to the witnesses for being with us today.
First and foremost, I want to highlight the tremendous contribution and success of the Iranian-Canadian community in Canada. We're very fortunate to have the few hundred thousand Canadians of Iranian descent who have made a great contribution in science, academia and business. They are Iran's loss and our gain.
I listened attentively to your comments. Before I get into my question, I want to highlight my point of view that, as far as I'm concerned, the biggest harm to the Iranian-Canadian community is an extremist Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran.
Canada has had a long history of engagement with nations and individuals that don't share the same values that we do, but in this particular instance, you're talking about a government that has systematically abused and disregarded fundamental human rights. The list is long. They have no respect for the fundamental rule of law. They have continuously been belligerent in a region that is already explosive in supporting state-run terrorism. They have called for the destruction of the democratic State of Israel on an ongoing basis.
When you take that into context, where is the silver lining you see of the potential between us engaging in a diplomatic relationship with a country that has shown no impetus to respect the rules and way of life that we respect, not to mention the fact that they don't believe in fundamental freedom of religion? We cherish fundamental freedoms in this country.
You talk about the economic risks, the economic losses to the Iranian-Canadian business community and our business community at large, but where do you draw the line? How far do we go in compromising the beliefs and fundamental principles of human rights and other fundamental rules of law that we respect as Canadians? Where do we trade in our principles for commercial gain?
We do it on a regular basis, I agree. There are a number of countries that don't share our values, yet we engage in trade. Where do you place that line with Iran and Canada?
Mr. Ahmadi: Thank you, honourable senator, for your question and also for your remarks recognizing the contributions of the Iranian-Canadian community to Canada's multicultural society.
That's a great question. Honestly, if we only talk to those people who agree with us, agree with our values, look at the world from our perspective and respect those values, we will end up talking to very few countries. Let's not forget that even during the Cold War we maintained our relations with the Soviet Union.
Having diplomatic relations, as former Minister Stéphane Dion had repeatedly mentioned before as well during his time, it does not mean that Canada and Iran agree with each other.
There are concerns, as you mentioned, regarding regional policies and human rights issues and by no means are we talking about compromising our values. What we're talking about is that engagement is a better way, is a better strategy to address these concerns. Whether it is about human rights issues or regional policies of Iran that we do not agree with, it is better to re-engage with Iran diplomatically to create a channel of communication with that government so that we can sit directly across the table from them and talk to them about these disagreements that we have.
Senator Housakos: I appreciate that. As I said, engagement is fundamental, but you have to have check marks along the way. So when you set those check marks from a Canadian perspective, and we're a Canadian parliamentary committee, where do you draw that line? We are going to show goodwill by engaging, but what are our expectations and what are the timelines of those expectations, when it comes to issues of democracy, human rights, of imprisoning prisoners in Iran without due process, not to mention just brutal physical abuse of people who oppose the regime?
Time and time again you see international figures and Iranians who stand up for fundamental human rights and freedom of speech in Iran being persecuted and tortured. It's hard to engage with a nation that is as brutal as that. So if we start the process of engagement, and the government has already taken that position, you as a Canadian, especially of Iranian descent, where do you draw the line? What are your expectations from Iran's point of view?
Mr. Ahmadi: Our expectation is first for our government to change the policy of the past, which was to isolate Iran and not to talk to them at all, and to re-engage with Iran. The alternative is to maintain the status quo. That approach, that strategy, it's now evident that it hasn't produced any positive results with respect to human rights, with respect to regional disagreements that we have with Iran.
So what we expect our government to do is to re-engage with Iran. The issue with this bill is this bill will block that opportunity of re-engagement with Iran. So instead of imposing, through parliamentary restrictions, these bureaucratic and legal complexities to a process that is already difficult with Iran, we better leave this with our diplomats in Global Affairs Canada to allow them to talk directly to Iran and actually put in place those benchmarks and conditions that you are talking about, and ask for those assurances and reassurances that we need about safety of our diplomats and our dual nationals, about all these issues.
These issues have to be addressed in these negotiations directly by our diplomats instead of specific restrictions imposed on these negotiations by Parliament. This bill will impose these restrictions and will only derail the negotiations that are already ongoing.
Senator Saint-Germain: I must join Senator Housakos in congratulating you for your vitality as a community, and I too want to welcome you here this morning. I heard what you have to say, and have been touched by the example of the young Iranian student’s meager savings of $700 being frozen due to the abusive over-application of the rules. This example, which, regrettably, is a real one, is not due to the sanctions imposed by Canada, but rather to the fact that Canadian institutions and organizations are ill-informed. I think the issues here are related to a need for better information regarding the presence of the Iranian community, and Iranian-Canadians. Could this problem not have been fixed by something other than legislation? In other words, the example you give is, in my opinion, not related to the legislation. That would be my comment on that.
As for the second case, regarding the diplomatic channels and resuming trade, practically speaking, the issue at this time is to find a solution that would ensure that Iranian-Canadians and Iranians in Canada do not have sanctions imposed on them. Do you not believe that diplomacy, in this respect, is very limited?
Mr. Tabasinejad: I will answer the banking question. Your question was, if I understand correctly, whether Canadian institutions are merely misinformed. That's the main issue here.
We have been in contact with Canadian banks about why exactly they're rejecting Iranians. It's happening on a daily basis. We're talking about Canadians who have been here almost all their lives and they're still having these issues and for very small sums of money.
There is obviously the issue of misinformation, and they don't know, unfortunately, exactly what the rules are. The problem is there is a lot of uncertainty. From the bank's point of view, it's about risk, legal and financial risk, which is tied together.
We believe that this bill introduces more uncertainty. As the banks might be reconsidering allowing Iranian-Canadians to be banked again, reversing the process of de-banking, this bill introduces more uncertainty and more risk from that perspective. It's not about human rights. It's about business and money, and it's all about a legal risk from them. So from our perspective this bill introduces more legal risk for Iranian-Canadians and opening them up to more discrimination by banks.
Mr. Ahmadi: I will try to answer your second question. I have to repeat what I mentioned about the previous question. There are two ways in front of us: One is to re-engage with Iran and through diplomatic means and channels we address the concerns about dual nationals, about the human rights conditions in Iran and about disagreements over Iran's regional policies. The second approach is the approach that we have been taking about in the previous years under a former government that was established to isolate Iran and not to talk to Iran and not to have any diplomatic dialogue.
Our European allies are following the first route. The United States, for the nuclear agreement, followed the first path and talked to Iran and that resulted in the nuclear agreement. There were the sanctions, but if there were no long-term negotiations between the P5+1 countries, it would not have resulted in the JCPOA, the international agreement. Therefore, what we are suggesting here is that the only path that will result — because we tested the other path, the path of trying to isolate and not talk. So we have to give the other path now a chance as well and see how that will help. We believe, based on what our EU partners are doing, that we will have better and more positive results.
If I may add one more thing, it's about Iran's human rights record. It is significant that we do not ignore completely any improvement, very slow but promising improvements and steps that have been taken by modern factions in Iran towards improving human rights conditions in the country. Unfortunately, many times these small steps are being ignored.
The proposal of a bill of citizens' right by President Rouhani and ongoing efforts in the Iranian Parliament to remove the death penalty for drug-related crimes are examples of attempts by moderate forces to improve respect for human rights in Iran. These improvements have been confirmed by Ahmed Shaheed, who was the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights at the United Nations. Therefore, if we allow the path of diplomatic engagement, if we give it a chance, it may result in better improvements. We will have a chance to sit across from Iranian authorities and address the differences and the concerns that we have on different issues.
Senator Saint-Germain: A small question: Will it be enough? Can we add other means? If it's not legislation, it might be something else. In the meantime, people will continue to have their human rights infringed. Isn't there more that can be done at the same time?
Mr. Ahmadi: First of all, let's not forget that we are already doing a major action with respect to human rights, which we have been doing for several years now, and that is through the UN path, basically addressing some of the human rights concerns with Iran through the UN resolution that Canada introduces.
However, if that is not completed or complemented with negotiations, with engagement and talks, it will not bring a positive result. It will just be an action in the UN, and then there is no talk by Canada with Iran to ask for improvements so that the issues raised in that UN resolution can be addressed. That, I believe, is the next action.
However, the bill in front of us is not about these actions. It's about legal complexities attaching more conditions to SEMA sanctions, which — and this is a very important point — may actually make us non-compliant with UN Resolution 2231, which was passed in the United Nations Security Council after the JCPOA was signed.
So it is only asking for conditions to be added to those SEMA sanctions, and this bill will essentially derail any path of re-engagement, and that's our main issue. We do not have disagreements about benchmarks or addressing human rights concerns, but these issues can be addressed through diplomatic means and through Global Affairs Canada instead of through restrictions from Parliament.
Another important issue I would like to address is that we believe our parliamentarians should be very concerned about the precedent or kind of double standard that this bill will create. The conditions or issues that are mentioned even in the name of this bill, or under the specific provisions, are actually issues and concerns that you can find in many other countries besides Iran.
In the region, let's bring up the example of Saudi Arabia. We actually closed, I believe, a $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, it's very dangerous and risky to put together a bill that other countries with which we have friendly relations — not only relations, but friendly relations — meet some of these violations and concerns that are in the bill. If we actually want to pursue this bill, I believe we have to rewrite it and include all those other countries besides Iran that meet the same issues. Otherwise it is a double standard; it will set a precedent that in the future we may actually be required to put forward the same kind of bill and impose the same kinds of restrictions on other countries as well.
I say again that we have friendly relations with many of these countries; it's not only that we have diplomatic relations with them. Here we are trying to establish relations, not just diplomatic relations, with Iran. Thank you.
Senator Woo: Thank you very much for your presentations. I'm from British Columbia, and Vancouver in particular. I live on the North Shore, where there's a very large community of Iranian-Canadians, so this bill is an issue that they will be watching very closely.
I want to make a clarification and see if you agree. Many of the problems that Iranian-Canadians face currently, of course, have to do with the current implementation of the SEMA regulations. This bill is an addition to those regulations; it increases the number of prohibitions and the number of identified organizations that would be affected. We can't solve all of the problems that you have identified, even if we reject this bill in its entirety. Just a point of clarification.
I want to get to the nub of the issue. I'm a big fan of engagement, and your central point is this: If we pass this bill, we will jeopardize — in fact, we will jettison, we will totally sink the ship of engagement with Iran. I want you to tell us in more detail and with more reasoning why you believe this is the case.
Can we not walk and chew gum at the same time? Is it not possible for us to poke the Iranians in the eye with this bill and still have them come to us and say, “Yeah, we'll open an embassy both ways and we'll continue to have this path of diplomatic re-engagement”?
Mr. Ahmadi: Thank you for your good question, Senator Woo. We actually received a couple of communications from your constituents from British Columbia as well. There's a large Iranian-Canadian population in British Columbia, and especially in Vancouver, and they were concerned about this bill specifically.
With regard to your question, I would like to mention a couple of points. Maybe some of them I'm repeating, but I will make some clarifications.
The ongoing negotiations are difficult and there are already barriers in front of these negotiations, based on public information that is available from both governments. On one side, Canada, we have concerns. Specifically, if we want to reopen our mission in Iran, we have concerns about the safety of our diplomats. On the side of Iran, this past week the spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that they are open to re-engage with Canada, but they have concerns about the judicial immunity of their diplomats and any diplomatic asset that they need to bring to Canada, for example, to reopen the embassy or a consular office.
This bill sends the wrong signal, and that's the main issue. It sends the wrong signal to these negotiations. Simply, the message to Iran is that instead of trying to resolve the barriers that already exist — these barriers already exist through some of the restrictions imposed by, I believe, a previous Parliament. Instead of that, we are imposing further and additional barriers. That is one issue.
The other issue, which I touched on briefly, is that attaching these additional sanctions that are suggested in Bill S-219 will make our SEMA sanctions non-compliant with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which is another problem that Iran will have with this bill. I can get into more detail about that if you would like.
The third point is that I wish we had more leverage in these negotiations with Iran, but we should not overestimate our leverage with Iran. If Canada had more leverage, we would be able to impose more restrictions or ask for more, but we don't have it here.
The international community is engaging with Iran, politically and economically. Iran is doing business with our European allies, so they are not dependent on business with Canada. Therefore, they can afford to continue with the status quo without relations. In fact, I warn that we should expect Iran to suspend negotiations if this bill is passed, because they can afford to actually play this a bit tough and basically make an example that if these restrictions happen, we do not want to engage with a country.
Senator Cordy: Thank you very much for being here. I think I quoted you yesterday at the meeting regarding a letter, when it was actually written by Maziar Sairafi, who at the end said, “For your information, here's the name of the president,” and I said the letter was from you. But basically, you've said the same things that he said.
Thank you very much for being here. It's helpful to hear from the Canadian-Iranian community and the ramifications that you feel would be brought on them if this bill is in fact passed.
Our witness yesterday made an excellent point in that there's a big difference between the Iranian people and the Iranian government, which supports terrorism and certainly commits human rights violations, but don't extend that to punish all the Iranian-Canadians or all the Iranian people. Thank you very much for what you've told us.
Our witness yesterday, who was personally tortured in Iran, also felt that closing of the embassies was very harmful to helping people in Iran, so she certainly made the same point that you've made.
Will this bill make it more difficult for Iranian-Canadians? You've already said it will block re-engagement. You've already said that Iran already has dealings with a lot of other countries, so if Canada is left out, then they will not get that concerned about it, but it will certainly hurt Iranian-Canadians. So how do we find a solution — and this is a follow-up to Senator Woo's question — to the human rights violations by the Government of Iran without causing difficulties for the people of Iran and for Iranian-Canadians?
I'll just ask another question. This committee dealt a few weeks ago with the Magnitsky bill, which was drawn up because of an incident in Russia, but the bill itself is not specific to Russia. It actually talks about human rights violations overall whereas this bill is specific only to Iran.
Do you feel that the Magnitsky bill would, in fact, cover any of the people in Iran who are committing violations?
Mr. Ahmadi: Unfortunately, I'm not aware of the details of the — I believe it's called the Corrupt Foreign Public Officials Bill. I'm not fully aware of all the details, but again the main concern we have with this bill, Bill S-219, regardless of each of the provisions — and there are actually concerns with each of the provisions, at least some of them — however, in entirety our issue is that this will block re-engagement.
If we cannot re-engage with Iran, we have to continue with the status quo, with the strategy that the former government implemented, and that strategy definitely did not address the concerns that, for example, the witness yesterday brought up and all the concerns about the human rights conditions in Iran and regional policy disagreements.
Another issue I would like to add is that a lot of times they say that the Iranian government and the Iranian people are different. Well, these re-engagements, these relations are between the governments. There are ways, through cultural exchanges, through university and research exchanges, for people to communicate, but even those, when there is no at least diplomatic relationship, at least diplomatic communication between those two countries, those areas are affected significantly as well.
So at least there has to be some level of engagement between these two governments so that then people can actually talk to each other more and engage with each other more.
We have many Iranian students here, not dual nationals, but Iranian national students here in Canada. Those are good ways to engage with people of Iran. Cultural exchanges are very good ways to engage with Iran, with the people of Iran, but there has to be some level of diplomatic engagement with Iran.
With respect to one issue that you mentioned about human rights, we believe that Prime Minister Trudeau, when he travelled to China, the approach that he was talking about — I don't remember the exact quote — in China about addressing the issues of human rights is the path forward, and not to address not only about Iran, but about all countries, Saudi Arabia, other countries, many countries that have human rights violation issues.
First of all, I believe that we need to address this double standard because it actually hurts our opportunity and our power in influencing change. So that's one thing.
Prime Minister Trudeau said it very well, that we have to recognize that there are human rights issues even in Canada and then communicate our human rights concerns with these countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other countries that have human rights violations.
So we believe in that approach. We believe that engagement and communicating these concerns are the best way moving forward.
Senator Cordy: I wonder if you could expand a little bit. You touched on that if this bill is passed it wouldn't be in compliance with a UN resolution. I don't remember the number of the UN resolution, but I wonder if you would expand on that a little bit.
Mr. Ahmadi: Sure. Remaining sanctions on Iran under SEMA, according to information from Global Affairs Canada, are aimed at restricting Iran's access to sensitive goods from Canada, especially with respect to nuclear technology and the development of ballistic missiles.
Based on information provided from Global Affairs, these restrictions are based on UN-Iran regulations. After UN Security Council Resolution 2231 approved the implementation of JCPOA, Canada followed its international obligations and modified its sanctions on Iran in February 2016.
This issue was actually brought up by some of the witnesses before as well. Canada was not involved in JCPOA negotiations between P5+1 countries; however, there is an issue, and that is the nuclear agreement was confirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 in July 2015. As it states in the resolution:
Member states are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations to accept and carry out the Security Council's decisions.
UNSC calls upon all member states, regional organizations to implement, basically, the provisions of JCPOA and refrain from actions that undermine implementation of commitments under the JCPOA.
Whether the remaining sanctions, even those that right now exist, even these remaining sanctions, whether or not they are fully in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is a matter that may actually require further investigation. I know there is a review of SEMA, I believe it was either completed recently or is still ongoing, and it may require legal experts to look at it. However, it's evident that based on information from the Government of Canada that each of the remaining sanctions under SEMA are based on requirements of the UN Security Council decision about nuclear or ballistic missile technology. Therefore, additional conditions that are proposed under Bill S-219 to be attached to SEMA sanctions are not compliant because they are not in UNSC 2231.
Senator Beyak: Thank you, gentlemen, for being here. I want to say that I share all of Senator Housakos's comments about the Iranian people. The people are completely different from the government, and I think every Canadian recognizes that.
A prominent Liberal, Warren Kinsella, wrote an amazing column two days ago about the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment that's sweeping the planet and how we have to have objective debates. I would encourage everyone to read his column. It says we need to talk; we need to not make it political. Let's be people.
He said there are three questions that we have to ask, and I would like to ask your organization, with full disclosure and no controversy, do you want sharia law in Canada, yes or no? Do you believe in the equality of men and women in Canada under the Charter, yes or no? And do you believe in the State of Israel? He says it's imperative that Canadians, two thirds of them, want us to be more vigilant in who we talk to, how we associate with nations who support terror and have human rights problems, and whether we want those values to come to Canada.
Please read the column. And those answers are a yes or no. I understand sharia law, I understand the Charter, and I support the State of Israel. So your answers are a yes or no. Thank you.
Mr. Ahmadi: Could you please repeat the three questions? I want to write them down.
Senator Beyak: Do you believe in sharia law in Canada? Do you believe in the equality of men and women in Canada under our Charter? And do you support the State of Israel? Thank you.
Mr. Ahmadi: Honourable senator, this is a very surprising question that has nothing to do with the proposed bill, but I will gladly answer that.
I believe this is not an issue even for our organization to respond. It's a very personal question. Our organization believes in the law that we have in Canada, so it's not sharia law. We believe in the Canadian legal system and Canadian law.
About equality of women and men, definitely, there is no question about that. It is actually in the constitution of our organization that we believe in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It's in the constitution of our organization, the Iranian-Canadian Congress. And your third question was supporting Israel?
Senator Beyak: Yes.
Mr. Ahmadi: In what respect do you mean that question? That's a very general question.
Senator Beyak: As a state, the State of Israel.
Mr. Ahmadi: The State of Israel is recognized by international organizations, United Nations. We do not have any agenda or mission to even question that. Do I as a person support all the policies of the current Government of Israel? I cannot even say that about the Government of Canada, my government, that I support all the policies of the current Government of Canada, while I agree with many of them, and definitely I will answer this as an individual, not as our organization.
I do not agree with some of the policies of the current Government of Israel, but your question is about the State of Israel. There is no question about that. Yes, the State of Israel is recognized under international law.
Senator Beyak: Thank you. It was relevant, chairman, to the bill that we're looking at today because of the feelings of Canadians in Mr. Kinsella's column, that two thirds of Canadians want us to be more vigilant about the organizations that we speak with, whether their values and beliefs are shared by Canadians and whether this kind of a bill helps or hurts the belief of the people that we are talking to.
Senator Marwah: Thank you again for coming to speak to us. You certainly provided a different perspective, particularly from the view of Iranian-Canadians.
I have two questions, so maybe I'll just go over one first. What percentage of Iranian-Canadians does your organization represent? Would there be another point of view amongst other Iranian-Canadians?
Second, in recent periods it's obvious at least to me that Iran has been moving on a continuum to re-engage with the world and re-engage with the West in particular, maybe not the world but certainly re-engage with the West. You are a lot closer to what's happening on the ground in Iran. As Iranian-Canadians, do you see a shift in human rights? You mentioned some very modest shifts in human rights, but do you see other shifts in their rhetoric, in their recognition of rule of law? Do you see any other changes in whichever direction or do you see no change?
Mr. Ahmadi: About your first question, same as all different communities, our community is not a monolithic community as well. There are different perspectives and different views. The Iranian Canadian Congress is the political advocacy organization in the Canadian-Iranian community that aims to advance the interests of the community. There is no way for us to say exactly by percentage point what is the percentage of people we represent, but we can say that we are one of the major organizations and the only organization that works with respect to advocacy for the rights of Canadian-Iranians in Canada.
There was a parliamentary petition that we prepared and submitted to the House of Commons. A copy of it is with, I believe, the clerk of the committee. The copy can be provided to you. That petition is about the specific issue of re-engaging with Iran, re-establishing relations, and it outlines these issues we talked about of how the policy of isolation has affected our community.
We received nearly 16,000 signatures, and that put us in the top 10 electronic petitions of the House of Commons, all of them that exist on the website of the Parliament of Canada today. Those signatures are from all across Canada, so that shows how this request, how this action has huge support in our community. A large number of Iranian-Canadians support this policy, and we have been able to reach out to them and ask them to take action regarding this issue.
There was a second question, I believe, as well.
Mr. Tabasinejad: We also undertook a series of open consultations with members or leaders of the community on non-profit organizations, academics, et cetera. What we found — and it spurred us on to make this petition — is that in every single consultation this issue was the first issue, as far as they were concerned.
We didn't make this petition willy-nilly. We wanted to make sure this was something that was supported by our community and by our constituents. What we found consistently when we talked to large numbers of Iranian-Canadians is that they supported this action. I think the number of signatures of this petition received in the end kind of speaks for itself, because this was a petition that was only sponsored through our own networks, Iranian networks, and it's more or less self-explanatory.
The Acting Chair: Thank you. I would like to let the members of the committee know that the petition to the government from the organizations represented by Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Tabasinejad is available to us here only in English. We are supposed to have bilingual copies so that we can distribute to all members. Members, if you want it, let us know and then the page will give you the petition.
Senator Ataullahjan: I want to get back to what Senator Housakos said and your response to him where you say that we should let the diplomats and the bureaucrats handle the talks that are going on.
As parliamentarians, there are things that we can say and we can do that the diplomats and the bureaucrats might not be able to. Is it my understanding that we should start talking to Iran without having any conditions attached? I agree with you that we should be raising those issues with countries that we're friends with who have similar issues, because we are Canada and known throughout the world for our stance on human rights. Is that the sense I'm getting from you?
Mr. Ahmadi: We believe that this bill will basically block any opportunity of re-engagement with Iran. That's what I have repeated a couple of times, and the reason is that is the main reason why we are against this bill and why we're requesting you to reject this bill. It will not allow us to move forward anymore and to re-engage with Iran.
With respect to the conditions, the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada, they have the powers and the authority needed under current law and regulations to address the issues, to bring up these concerns that we have with Iran in diplomatic conversations. They do not need any more restrictions. There is no special authority that this bill is providing to the Government of Canada that they are, for example, even asking for it or that they need to be able to re-engage with Iran.
So step one is to re-engage with Iran, to communicate these concerns that we have with them. We have very capable diplomats. They have the authority. They have the power they need under current regulations and laws, and they will be able to address these issues in these negotiations.
Senator Ataullahjan: In regard to Senator Beyak's question about sharia law, don't you feel it's a dead issue? As a Muslim, I don't know anyone who wants sharia law, especially the women. We are very happy with the laws of the land. In the community, I don't think there's that conversation taking place anywhere. That's my sense. I don't know what your sense is. I just want to put that on the record.
Mr. Ahmadi: Did we say anything that was about sharia law that brought up this question?
Senator Ataullahjan: No, Senator Beyak had asked about sharia law. I want to put it on the record that, as a Muslim, it's a dead conversation. I don't hear anyone asking for sharia law in Canada. Is that your experience also?
Mr. Ahmadi: That is our experience. Our organization, we have to note, is a non-religious organization, so we do not get engaged in conversations and issues that are related to religion. Especially in the Iranian-Canadian community that we interact with, we do not see any sort of appetite for sharia law and for this issue.
Mr. Tabasinejad: I'm not saying that there was any ill intention behind the question, but it makes me uncomfortable when these types of questions are asked from people that come from Muslim communities. It comes from certain strains of Islamophobia, et cetera. It makes me uncomfortable when such questions are asked.
Senator Beyak: I would like to respond. I just wanted to respond to that, because I agree with you. I have three best friends who are Muslim, a woman and three men, four of them all together, who told me those three questions are absolutely pertinent to the discussions that we have to have in Canada, the objective discussion, because there is a huge commitment to sharia law still in Canada. It went to the Government of Ontario just a couple of years ago. They voted on it, and they say the reformed Muslims who want to come to Canada and be Canadians don't want sharia law in Canada. So it's a very important question. I'm very pleased that Senator Ataullahjan put it on the record. Thank you, senator.
Senator Bovey: I want to thank you very much for coming and for your presentation. I have to say I was pleased to hear you talk about cultural and university exchanges. It won't be a surprise to anybody in this room that I feel those are very beneficial and indeed Universities Canada has been here in Ottawa this week. Many of them I spoke to spoke of the importance of global exchanges like this.
That said, I want to take our question and flip it another way. You talked a bit about the human rights issues. If Bill S-219 was approved, what do you think the sanctions might really achieve? Would they serve to improve the situation for citizens in Iran? If you could address this, I think it would give the other side to today's conversation.
Mr. Ahmadi: If this bill is enacted, as we said, we believe that the path of re-engagement with Iran — that's the first achievement — will be blocked and most likely we will not be able to re-engage with Iran.
In terms of sanctions, we know that sanctions are only effective when there is international consensus on any issue that that sanction is addressing. Therefore, even if we implement these sanctions, there is no international consensus at this point to impose sanctions on Iran. Therefore, as one of the previous witnesses in favour of this bill even mentioned, these are symbolic sanctions being proposed.
I do not believe it's only symbolic. I believe there actually might be an intention to block the path of re-engagement by bringing up these bureaucratic complexities and legal complexities, and it will basically block the path of re-engagement.
The other issues that will be created are the problems that have been created for Iranian-Canadians. Pouyan, my colleague, talked about the banking issue, about the access to consular services, both here for Iranian-Canadian dual nationals and for Canadians who travel to Iran to have access to consular services at times of need. If that path of re-engagement is blocked, we will not be able to provide the services and these issues will remain for our community.
With respect to the issue of engagement between people, universities and cultural exchanges, I will relate a personal experience I had. I was talking to a charitable organization in Canada that does work with different countries. As sanctions are now eased, I was trying to convince them maybe there can be some cooperation with charitable organizations in Iran. Many charitable and non-profit organizations are active in Iran. Iran has a very strong civil society that is active, and it has been around for a very long time, probably 100 years or more. The civil society has been active; the civic society has been engaged.
The charitable organization simply told me that because of all these restrictions that exist right now, even though those sanctions might not be specifically on humanitarian issues, the cost, the complexity of engaging with Iran is too high at this point so maybe we have to revisit it at a later time. So these are the issues and problems.
Mr. Tabasinejad: To answer your question directly about the effect of sanctions on Iranians themselves, I think most observers would agree it has been nothing but disastrous for Iranian civilians. It might constitute a human rights violation, and I'm citing a 2013 report by the International Institute for Peace, Justice and Human Rights that said that sanctions have disastrous effects on Iranian citizens and violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Access to medicine was reduced; prices went up very high to the point that it was unaffordable for large segments of the population. Just disastrous, horrible implications for Iranians, so we shouldn't fool ourselves in any sense that this is good for Iranian people because it's not.
Senator Cools: I would thank the witnesses for appearing before us, especially for the clarity of mind as well as their remarkable objectivity and dispassionate dialogue in the face of a bill which could be described as offensive.
I hate to tell colleagues, but I have no intention to support it, none whatsoever, and I'm not open to persuasion on this point.
I would like you to know, gentlemen, that I was brought to the Senate by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Trudeau the elder. Like William Pitt the elder and William Pitt the younger, there is Trudeau the younger. I was brought here by the elder, and I had the opportunity of knowing this man and have deep respect for him.
Whatever his failings may have been and whatever his shortcomings were, it does not matter. The world viewed Mr. Trudeau as an agent of international dialogue, and Mr. Trudeau personally believed that unless you keep doors open and keep conversations going, you will not be able to influence anyone, any other country.
I'm a lot older than you, and I'm older than most of you here, but I remember very clearly when Mr. Trudeau broke the barriers and opened the doors with China, and that was a huge issue at the time. Many were afraid and shocked. Maybe the Red Communists were going to come and take over Canada or something, but it succeeded and China has taken a good place, I believe, in the world.
I want to be crystal clear that I disagree with the previous government's termination of diplomatic relationships with Iran. I thought it was short-sighted and ill-considered, and I wish it had never happened.
Diplomacy is a strange animal. They say money is a coward; it flees in the face of challenges, but not diplomacy. Diplomacy is supposed to be there like a steady hand ready to reach out to the moment when there is an opportunity to dialogue because dialogue, at the end of the day, will avoid disaster and even wars.
This bill is troubling. When we get into the details of studying, that will become a lot clearer, but the major point I want to make on the bill is that this bill is not properly the subject of a statute of Canada.
The Acting Chair: Question, please. We have two more senators.
Senator Cools: Senator, I must tell you, I don't have to ask questions. Committee meetings and these hearings are not question and answer periods. They are for commentary as well, so I encourage you to be generous. Thank you.
I wanted to make those points to you. The Parliament of Canada is the Parliament of Canada, not the Parliament of the world. And in our constitutional system, these decisions are the exclusive purview of what we call the Royal Prerogative powers. This means that the foreign minister — the King or the Queen's Minister of Foreign Affairs, never mind the change to Global Affairs, they're all called foreign ministers — trenched on that prerogative and was, quite frankly, out of order, in my view.
I hope I haven't spoken too strongly, and I hope I haven't shocked some of you, but we must make it our business to stay on the ground that is ours, and our business. Our jurisdiction as the Parliament of Canada, is purely domestic. The Parliament of Canada has no jurisdiction internationally, and these bills are coming before us seeking international jurisdiction. We can't give it to them because we don't have it to give to them.
Senator Dawson: I was a member of Parliament with Trudeau the elder, so I totally agree with his approach. I agree with the witness that there is a double standard with this bill. If we start naming Iran, if we were to name every country with which we have questions of conflict, we'd have a long list. That being said, that's more a question not to you but to the chair.
Basically, I have the electronic petition, because I asked for it. As far as I’m concerned, when a private organization appears before a committee, it does not show a lack of respect if its documents are distributed in one language only. However, when it’s a government organization, we must insist on bilingualism.
I do not want to speak on behalf of all of my francophone colleagues, but, for me, distributing a document can still be done even if the document is in one language only, when all committee members consent to it. I believe that you would have received consent in this case, especially since we are talking about an online petition which is already available on the parliamentary Website in French. I simply wanted to make this observation, because we often miss out on information. Honestly, we’re talking about a petition with 15,000 names, which is relevant to our discussion.
I also wanted to reiterate the fact that there is a double standard, and I find it worrisome that some people are going on about all of the countries for which we would think about adopting legislation. As Senator Cools said, that lies outside of Parliament’s mandate.
The Acting Chair: Thank you, Senator Dawson. We have taken your comments under advisement.
Mr. Ahmadi: I agree with you. We printed the electronic petitions. They're available on the website of the Parliament of Canada in both official languages. My assistant was printing it. She was under the belief that it would print both languages, however when I brought it here, I realized that it's only in English and not available in French. However, I fully agree with you that it has to be available and has to be provided in both official languages. Thank you.
The Acting Chair: Thank you, sir.
Senator Gold: This committee has heard evidence that individuals supported by the government or its institutions have engaged in serious human rights violations. We have had this evidence.
We've also heard that, as a government, we need to engage and talk. Indeed, one of the victims of human rights violations was of the same view before this committee. Should Canada have the tools to take action against individuals who may have perpetrated serious human rights abuses against their citizens, Iranian citizens, in areas like their ability to come to Canada or visas to come to Canada or how we might deal with their assets, whether real property or other in Canada?
You'll appreciate I'm asking a question that is not directly addressed by the legislation. I want to know whether your organization, which represents Iranian Canadians, believes that those individuals in Iran who may have committed gross human rights violations should be immune or free from any possibility that Canada would limit their access to the country or the use of their assets once here.
Mr. Ahmadi: Thank you for your question. First of all, there is already another bill in front of this committee which addresses this question specifically. We're not aware of the details. We didn't study the details of that bill and we do not have the legal expertise that is required to say, for example, that international law already has some authority with respect to bringing people who have committed serious human rights violations to justice. There are already international laws with respect to that. But we do not have the legal expertise to comment on this issue that much.
I believe that the issue should be with the details. Any bill that includes your suggestion, we must look at the details. Is what we’re asking for evidence-based? Or is it only based on reports from a couple of non-profit organizations? If it's evidence-based and fact-based and if those actions, sanctions or bans, et cetera, are not going to affect the people instead of those individuals, then the answer can be yes. As I said, it really needs to be studied with all the details before we can really comment and provide our opinion.
Senator Housakos: From the beginning, throughout the process, I think a couple of senators have tried to get an answer to this question. You have not given one.
Your argument about the importance of engagement is understood. Can you tell me what your benchmark is? At what point do you decide to disengage with a party or a state when things are not obviously heading towards the direction that you think, that happy medium? When you engage with someone, you want to meet at a certain point. Can you define that point? At what point do you disengage?
Mr. Ahmadi: I understood your question completely, but I believe we need to think about that double standard with respect to your question. If we really want to talk only to people we agree with and meet our benchmarks and our values, then we have to disengage and break our relations with many of the countries that have serious human rights violation issues. That will be the first step if we want to follow the strategy that you're suggesting or the strategy that the former government implemented.
The benchmarks have to be decided by our foreign affairs ministry and our diplomats. In the negotiations, they will be able to set these benchmarks. Our European allies are already talking to Iran about human rights. They are having these conversations. Canada will have an opportunity to join our allies in these conversations about human rights and raise our concerns with them. We believe that is a better path instead of the status quo of not being engaged with Iran.
The Acting Chair: Thank you for your presentations Mr. Ahmadi and Mr. Tabasinejad. You can see that the honourable senators are interested in this subject. I thank all senators. The meeting is adjourned.
(The committee adjourned.)