Working for children used to be above the political divide

Oct 31 2016

Maggie Black
For Other News

Oxford, 29 October 2016

During the 40-year stand-off between the US and USSR superpowers, every outbreak of hostilities on the globe was sharpened by the Cold War division. Yet it still remained possible to uphold the principle that humanitarian effort on behalf of children occupied a status above the political divide.

During the 1980s, in conflicted countries from El Salvador to Afghanistan, Lebanon to Mozambique, this principle was reinforced by calls from UNICEF to declare ‘Children as a Zone of Peace’. Cease-fires were negotiated to pause fighting long enough to allow essential health programmes to be carried out.
What an irony it is, therefore, that one of the architects of this approach, Baquer Namazi, an 80-year-old US-Iranian citizen who served UNICEF in senior positions during those years, should now be detained in a Tehran prison for having participated in such initiatives. It appears that Namazi’s affiliation with UNICEF and similar international bodies engaged in programmes to spread education, health and social protection services among disadvantaged families in Africa and elsewhere, is being presented by certain Iranian authorities as evidence of sinister proclivity towards the US and hostility towards his country of birth. How can that possibly be the case? Whatever the differences between the US and Iran, both have always been strong supporters of UNICEF.
This grotesque misrepresentation of the humanitarian mission marks a new low in efforts to discredit the reputation of dedicated individuals – and the organizations for which they work – as conniving puppets of political interest groups. All governmental authorities have an interest in maintaining those reputations and the impartiality of individuals and organizations working for the relief of human distress. Not to do so is ultimately to jeopardise innocent lives everywhere, including those under a country’s own jurisdiction, who may desperately need those services at some time in the unpredictable future.
Sadly, in some contested environments to ignore or undermine a blue UN or Red Cross/Red Crescent insignia has become almost commonplace. For increasing numbers of professionals in humanitarian work, political and social disorder has increased their exposure to personal danger. Baquer Namazi, a UNICEF Representative who served in difficult duty stations such as Somalia, himself experienced this kind of incident. In Egypt, when leading an aid team that came under armed assault, he barely escaped with his life. Little can he have dreamt that his survival and continued pursuit of a caring career long into pensioned retirement would, years later, land him in prison.
On October 5 2016, Baquer Namazi underwent trial in Tehran. His son, Siamak, also in detention in the same prison, had already been tried a few weeks earlier. On October 18, both were sentenced to 10 years in jail. If the arrests were incomprehensible, the sentences are even more so. For Baquer, ten years amounts to a sentence of death, as his second son Babak Namazi has publically declared.
Originally, it was Siamak Namazi who was arrested and imprisoned, in October 2015 when visiting family in Tehran. Siamak, also a US-Iranian national, was known as a campaigner in the US against the harshness of US sanctions against Iran, promoting foreign investment and international cooperation as beneficial for his country of birth. He did not need to do this, he could have taken up an occupation without any association to Iran, so his actions laid him open to suspicion in certain minds. By some Iranian hardliners, he was accused of being an ‘American infiltrator’; by some diaspora oppositionists, he was accused of being ‘a regime sympathizer’. For a businessman, it is hard to stay above the political divide in highly charged circumstances even if the accusations are entirely without foundation.
Surely the issue is different when a person has no business interests, is elderly, retired, and whose career has been committed to social well-being and relief of human – especially child – distress. So when Baquer Namazi went to Tehran to try and see his imprisoned son in February 2016, no-one could have imagined that his impeccable humanitarian credentials, which should surely have identified him as politically non-aligned, would be used to justify his own incarceration. For the last nine months, there have been two Namazis sequestered in Evin prison for reasons that are inexplicable to most observers.
The outcry from both Siamak’s friends and associates, and from UNICEF friends and colleagues of Baquer, has been continuous and public. UNICEF itself has made three public statements, the most recent in response to the news of the ten-year sentence imposed on Baquer. The statement issued on 18 October concluded: “Baquer is 80 years old and the entire UNICEF family are deeply concerned for his health and well-being. Baquer has been a humanitarian all his life. We appeal for his release on humanitarian grounds.”
The US State Department echoed this appeal. “We join recent calls by international organizations and UN human rights experts for the immediate release of all US citizens unjustly detained in Iran, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, so that they can return to their families.”
In March 2016, a month after Baquer was arrested, an electronic book was published to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the death of James P Grant, the dynamic and visionary Executive Director of UNICEF under whom Baquer Namazi served at the time of the ‘Children as Zones of Peace’ initiative. Baquer was one of the contributors to this book, recalling his recollections of the period when these ideas were surfacing.
In 1986, he wrote, “I was given the task of writing up the UNICEF Board paper on children in situations of armed conflict. During a series of meetings in a number of European countries to consult with many champions of children, I was roped into a meeting of European NGOs promoting the cause of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).” The Convention, which was still in draft form at that time, later became in 1989, the most widely ratified UN Human Rights Convention in history – including by the Government of Iran.
With exceptional foresight, Baquer Namazi appreciated at that early stage that this Convention had the potential to act as an advocacy platform for children in situations of conflict and other difficult circumstances, and that UNICEF needed to become more closely involved. At his suggestion, a panel within UNICEF headquarters was set up to discuss the links between the various ‘Rights of the Child’ to UNICEF programmes. “We brought children from war zones to a consultative meeting and policy-makers were able to listen to these pained voices. Every leading expert on child-related issues, especially health and education, was consulted. As a result, UNICEF’s position on the Convention was formally outlined for the first time in the 1986 Board paper on Children in Armed Conflict.”
Is it really possible, 30 years on, that this kind of commitment to the cause of children can form the basis of accusations of criminal intent, and are used justify the imposition of a ten-year jail sentence on an elderly UNICEF retiree? Children of the world, you may well weep at the damage being done by such actions to today’s humanitarian order.

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