A weeklong series of events in Canadian parliament on Iran’s human rights record caused worry among some human rights advocates who fear that the activities could harm their efforts. The controversy centers around Iran Accountability Week, a program of hearings at the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights and other events organized by members of parliament from the three major parties, with Liberal MP Irwin Cotler taking the lead. The program runs through Thursday.
A human rights lawyer and pro-Israel figure, Cotler has organized three Iran Accountability Weeks. In the past, the events included testimonies highlighting Iranian political prisoners and other victims of Iranian human rights abuses. This year’s lineup, however, was different: Maryam Rajavi, the leader of a controversial exiled Iranian opposition group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), appeared in the program along with a UN rights official and pundits from a hawkish American think tank.
One human rights advocate working on Iran, who asked not to be named, raised the issue of other advocates’ sharing a platform with the head of the MEK, which the activist called “toxic and irrelevant”—a view widely held among Iranians of all political stripes, save members of the MEK itself.
The MEK, which until two years ago was listed as terrorist organization by the United States and Canada, has a tortuous history that carried it from its founding in the mid-1960s as an Islamo-Marxist anti-Shah group to its current position as a vocal opponent of the Islamic Republic. Many critics say the group exhibits cult-like behavior. In addition to its history of violence, the MEK has, notably, been accused of its own human rights abuses.
In a phone interview, Cotler, the Canadian MP whose office spearheaded the multiparty Iran Accountability Week, said the invitation to Rajavi was only to give “issue-specific testimony”—specifically the alleged killings of MEK members by Iraqi security forces.
The MEK moved its operations to Iraq in the 1980s, to fight alongside Saddam Hussein in the bloody Iran-Iraq war, taking up in a desert military base called Camp Ashraf. In September 2012, nine years after the fighters had been disarmed following the US invasion, Iraqi forces evacuated Ashraf. Those MEK members and fighters who remained in country moved into Camp Liberty—an erstwhile American military installation. At various points since Hussein’s overthrow, both Liberty and Ashraf had come under attack, mostly by Iraqi security forces, and disarmed MEK members have been killed.
When asked why a notice for the event sent around by his office, obtained by The Nation, said Rajavi would discuss more broad “violations of the rights of the Iranian people”—a category that expands beyond the Ashraf/Liberty incidents—Cotler repeated that the invitation was “issue-specific,” though he noted Rajavi may speak on or be asked about other matters. (In 2012, Colter reportedly joined a campaign to get the MEK removed from terror rolls in the United States and Canada.)