If you have never heard of Al-Ahwaz, an ancient place of great rivers and mountains, and rich farmlands and oil wells, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s just as unlikely that you’ve heard of the Ahwazi people. There are perhaps six million Ahwazis, and they are some of the most viciously oppressed among the various religious and ethnic minorities that make up roughly half of Iran’s population.
Al-Ahwaz is not celebrated in the histories the Khomeinist regime teaches to Iranian children. Once an autonomous emirate, Al-Ahwaz was a place of amity between Muslims, Christians and Jews. For the refuge he provided Chaldean Catholics following the Ottoman genocide of Assyrian Christians in the 1920s, Pope Benedict XV awarded a knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory the Great to the Ahwazi emir, Sheikh Khaz’al Ibn Jabir.
The Ahwazi emirate was annexed by Iran in 1925. Sheikh Khaz’al, a fervent opponent of religious extremism of the kind the Khomeinist regime typifies, was quietly murdered in Tehran while under house arrest in 1936. Following the Khomeinist takeover in 1979, the Ahwazi homeland, centred in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, has been routinely rocked by uprisings—most recently in 2005, 2011 and 2018—along with waves of repression and ethnic cleansing.
The centre of Iran’s oil wealth—about 80 per cent of the country’s proven oil reserves lie in Khuzestan—the Ahwazi homeland was also, until recently, the country’s breadbasket, producing wheat, corn, rice and sugar. But river diversions and climate change are turning Khuzestan into a dustbowl, and the security of the China-dominated oil industry is the Khomeinists’ overarching priority in the province.
What all this has meant for the Arabic-speaking Ahwazis is the bulldozing of their villages, the ongoing obliteration of their culture, and the regime’s strangulation of Ahwazi life in a savage policy of routine and arbitrary arrests, torture and executions.
If you’ve heard of the Ahwazi people at all, it could be because every few years their nightmare attracts the attention of Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch, or a United Nations committee. But what little the outside world knows about the slow death of the Ahwazi people is due largely to the Toronto-based Dur Untash Studies Centre, a refugee-funded archive and information clearing house, and to the efforts of the centre’s editor, Rahim Hamid.
And the only reason the 35-year-old Hamid has been able to undertake the work of keeping the world informed about the misery of the Ahwazis is that he escaped Iran in 2012. He’d been a student leader at Abadan Azad University in Khalafiya, and he’d been arrested in a roundup of Ahwazi activists in 2008. After enduring horrific torture in Khuzestan’s dreaded Sepidar prison, Hamid went underground, eventually crossing the mountains into Turkey and ending up in the United States as a refugee.
“Every day now we have Iranian security forces arresting Ahwazi people. Environmentalists, civil society people, or people making demands for the right to education in their mother language. But from even BBC Persian and the opposition groups, we see nothing,” Hamid told me. “Suppose it happens in Palestine. We have hundreds of human rights organizations condemning Israel. But when it is us, they are dumb and they are blind.”
In their own uniquely tragic way, the Ahwazis share something with the Palestinians, and with the Taiwanese, the Kurds, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, the Rohingya of Myanmar, the Baloch of Iran and Pakistan, the Tigrayans of Ethiopia, the Afghan Hazaras, the Tibetans, and the Hong Kongers. These are among dozens of distinct ethnic and national minorities and stateless nations around the world whose peoples are locked in intractable predicaments that the United Nations is proving increasingly incapable of even acknowledging, let alone resolving.
Taiwan is a thriving liberal-democratic republic, but the People’s Republic of China insists it is a breakaway province. Beijing has lately ramped up its precipitous aggression—even to the point of threatening invasion and war—even though the People’s Republic has never ruled Taiwan. Even so, Taiwan enjoys full diplomatic relations with only 15 of the UN’s 193 member states, owing mainly to the 1970 “Canadian formulation,” the sleight of hand devised by the government of Pierre Trudeau that allowed Beijing to take Taipei’s place at the UN Security Council, banishing Taiwan. As a result, the Taiwanese exist in a kind of UN limbo, with de facto or informal relations with most democracies, but still otherwise unprotected by the UN Charter.
Palestinians are in a strangely similar bind. Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom and most of the European Union countries do not recognize Palestine as a state, but 138 UN member countries do. The UN recognizes Palestine as a non-member observer state, but most Palestinian people exist in a kind of UN-registered netherworld.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) counts 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in its registry—descendants of an initial refugee population of about 700,000 from the 1948 Palestine War when Israel won its independence. UNRWA provides services to 1.5 million Palestinians in 68 “camps” in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan—where they have no citizenship rights—and also in the West Bank and Gaza, where there have been no elections for 15 years. Then there are nearly two million Palestinians, or Israeli Arabs, who live and vote in Israel, making up about a fifth of the Israeli population.
The membership of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organization (UNPO), founded in 1991 while the Soviet Union was collapsing, has waxed and waned over the years—former UNPO constituents Latvia and Estonia are now fully recognized UN members states, for instance. And it may be questionable whether the UNPO’s recent admission of the four provinces of Catalonia, in Spain, is a good fit for the organization’s mandate. But the UNPO still counts 300 million people around the world—the Ahwazis of Iran among them—who are “systematically excluded from the international system through colonization occupation, or discrimination and oppression.”
There are two places, however, where the world’s unrepresented peoples are dramatically overrepresented.
The first is the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endangered languages list. Ethnologue, the international linguistic research agency, counts about 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, and 23 of them are spoken by about half the world’s population. Roughly 40 per cent of the world’s languages are considered endangered—they’re spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Every two weeks, another language vanishes along with its last speakers, and linguists who study language loss say that, at the current pace, perhaps half the world’s languages will be gone by the end of this century.
The world’s unrepresented peoples are also overrepresented among the 80 million people worldwide the UN counts as displaced. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered about 10 million people a decade ago—people like Rahim Hamid—the number of UNHCR-designated refugees has since doubled to exceed 20 million.
“We’re into this kind of consistent pattern now where big, small and medium countries can get away with literal murder,” Lloyd Axworthy, formerly Canada’s foreign affairs minister and currently chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council, told me.
Democracy has been in global retreat for 16 years, and powerful UN member states, like Russia and China, are acting with impunity in their assault on long-standing international human rights norms, Axworthy said. Former champions of an international order built on basic human rights standards, like the United States and the United Kingdom, have been retreating into dysfunctional introspection, he said.
Axworthy was a pioneer of the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, doctrine, which might have been of some use to the small nations of the world. Adopted unanimously at the UN World Summit in 2005, the doctrine placed an onus on the international community to protect minority populations suffering severe human rights abuses, and arose largely in response to the UN’s paralysis in the face of the Rwandan genocide and genocidal atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.
Canada might well have secured enough votes for a seat on the UN Security Council two years ago, Axworthy said, if Ottawa had forcefully lobbied UN member states on the basis of Canadian leadership in a revival of the doctrine—many could have used R2P as a shield against the depredations of the Russia-China-Iran bloc. But the UN has been “in regression” in protecting minority and stateless populations, Axworthy told me.
The UN Security Council has failed to invoke R2P ever since China and Russia were taken aback by the outcome of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Authorized by the UN Security Council and nominally endorsed by Beijing and Moscow, the air-power intervention was intended to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from carrying through with his threat to slaughter everyone involved in a mass uprising against his regime.
But NATO’s air support ended up playing a decisive role in Gadhafi’s overthrow, and Russia and China protested that they’d been duped into voting for “regime change.” Axworthy said a consequence of the multinational effort in Libya, which ended after Barack Obama’s White House declined to provide peacekeeping troops in the aftermath, is that there is a widespread misapprehension that R2P is all about military intervention. In fact, R2P was a unanimous UN curtailment of member states’ sovereignty, offering a range of restraints—like coordinated, multilateral sanctions.
“Nobody’s going to go into China with guns blazing” to protect the Uighurs, Axworthy said, referring to the Muslims of Xinjiang, where Beijing has imprisoned at least a million people in “re-education centres” and work camps. Several international human rights organizations—among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—have obtain independent verification, including China’s own official documentation, of policies that are widely understood to meet the threshold of genocide. They include the sterilization of Uighur women, the bulldozing of mosques and ancient shrines, and experiments with advanced surveillance and population-control technologies.
Nevertheless, the establishment of R2P-type restraints on state sovereignty as an international norm could go a long way in putting in place a robust and coordinated regime of international sanctions, Axworthy said.
As things stand, Canada can’t even bring itself to co-operate with the U.S. in preventing goods produced by forced labour in Xinjiang from entering North American markets—even though the recently renegotiated NAFTA treaty, now known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, requires Canada to do so. And as things stand at the UN, the R2P doctrine is going nowhere.
“It still shows up at the United Nations in preludes and things of that kind, but the breakdown is at the Security Council,” Axworthy said. Even if the Security Council remains deadlocked, even in the face of genocide, the UN’s member states are not powerless. “The creative thing would be to see what you can get at the General Assembly, but the problem is there hasn’t been a champion. So right now, the UN is kind of a commedia dell’arte operation. They have an R2P coordinator, and they write a nice report, and then they go back and stay in a nice hotel for another nine months.”
The UN has proved useless even to the roughly 45 million Kurdish people, arguably the world’s most populous nation without a national government of its own. The Iranian Kurds, neighbours of the Arabic-speaking Ahwazis, are similarly subjected to Khomeinist repression and cruelty. The Kurds of Turkey have been systematically disenfranchised by the increasingly brutal and authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Iraqi Kurds have managed to carve out some autonomy from Baghdad, but they are also forced to make accommodations with Ankara and Tehran.
The embattled Syrian Kurds have kept Bashar al-Assad at bay in Damascus, but they were largely abandoned by the NATO powers after having shed more blood than anyone else in the ground war against the Islamic State.
Like the Kurds, everybody knows about the Tibetans, too. But as the years pass, the default position of the international community, and even in Canada, where the Dalai Lama is an honorary citizen, has become an acquiescence to Beijing’s standpoint: Tibetans are merely a “Chinese minority.”
Sherap Therchin, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee, said there are a couple of reasons for this backsliding. “The never-ending disinformation from the Chinese government” is one reason, he said. Another is that the leadership of the world’s 6.7 million Tibetans have resigned themselves to aspirations that fall short of full independence—genuine autonomy, under Chinese sovereignty. The Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamsala, India, is reluctantly pursuing diplomatic dialogue with Beijing. “It is not that we do not believe in independence,” said Therchin. “It’s just that we now believe that this is more practical.”
But it doesn’t help that Canada is among the countries that refuse to formally recognize the Tibetan government, Therchin said. “That is something that has a lot to do with the government’s fear of upsetting China. Or, you could use the words, appeasing China.”
Whether the “Sino-Tibetan dialogue” that Canada formally supports will produce any meaningful results is very much an open question, Therchin said, because Beijing insists that the Tibetans submit to the fiction that Tibet is historically part of China. “Tibetans cannot submit to this. History cannot be changed.”
Mao Zedong’s armies invaded and annexed Tibet in 1949, and the following year Lester Pearson, the foreign affairs secretary of state who would go on to become prime minister, noted that the prior sovereignty Beijing claimed over Tibet was a “mere fiction,” and that Tibet had been in control of its own affairs right up to the Chinese invasion. “I am of the opinion that Tibet is, from the point of view of international law, qualified for recognition as an independent state,” Pearson wrote.
Whatever Justin Trudeau’s view might be, he’s not saying. “We still haven’t had Canada issue a clear position on Tibet, and I am disappointed,” Therchin said. “It’s been now almost seven years since Prime Minister Trudeau was elected, and we have not heard him say anything about Tibet. Nothing from the Prime Minister himself.”
There does come a point when political persecution and oppression become so intolerable that basic demands for democracy and the rule of law can give way to aspirations for national liberation and independence. That is how Hong Kong’s democrats have changed over the past decade or so.
Around the time of the British handover to Beijing in 1997, Hong Kongers were inclined to believe that the former British colony could serve as a fulcrum for the spread of democratic values throughout China. Under the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration—itself an international treaty, registered at the United Nations—Hong Kong was to retain its liberties and way of life until at least 2047. Beijing had further promised that Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people could set their own course for universal suffrage—one person, one vote.
But Beijing reneged on its promises, abrogated the Sino-British “basic law” treaty, imposed an extradition law and, finally, the draconian “national security law,” in June 2020. Neither the UN as a whole, nor the UN’s liberal democracies, exacted any proportionate consequences. The mood among Hong Kong democrats, who were once merely determined to secure democratic reforms, has shifted to a desire for independence. Hong Kongers increasingly see their struggle as a kind of national liberation movement.
“From the bottom of their hearts, they support independence, but the only question is whether it is feasible. That is all,” the prominent Hong Kong activist Finn Lau, now in exile in London, told me. Lau is a fugitive, wanted on charges under the National Security Law. He managed to evade the authorities, who were unaware of his identity at the time of his arrest in January 2020.
The idea that democracy would grow and spread outward from Hong Kong no longer has any traction, he said. “It was just a dream, and the older generation, they were devastated to know it was just a dream, after 2019.”
Lau points to a massive public opinion survey undertaken by the activist group Citizens’ Press Conference in May of last year, involving 370,000 respondents. Among the survey results: opposition to the National Security Law came in at 98.6 per cent; 80.4 per cent supported the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act, which withdrew Hong Kong’s special trading status; and 64.2 per cent said Hong Kong independence should be the ultimate goal of the pro-democracy movement—even though the average score for optimism about reaching independence was only 4.5 out of 10.
Lau said that despite everything, he holds out some optimism for the UN, or a multinational initiative, to bring Hong Kong out of Beijing’s clutches: “Some kind of autonomy, under the protection of the international community. We see that as the only way out.” It might not seem reasonable to expect, he added, “but we could see a collapse of the system like the U.S.S.R.” Nobody expected that, either. And then, Hong Kongers could democratically decide whether they want independence or not.
As for the Ahwazis, nobody is expecting some kind of war of independence, Rahim Hamid of the Dur Untash Studies Centre told me. Over the years, several armed separatist groups have sprung up, only to fade away. Hamid said all he can hope to do is to focus international attention on the suffering Ahwazis are facing, every day. It’s a struggle for basic human rights, not independence.
“The only way that I see is just to raise awareness of the systematic ethnic discrimination, the ethnic cleansing that is taking place,” he said.
It hasn’t been easy. Hamid is still suffering from the effects of the torture he endured in Iran. He’s had several surgeries to repair damage to his sphincter and his bowels, and part of his large intestine had to be removed.
It was only after his family raised the equivalent of US$13,000 to bail him out of prison in Iran pending a trial, and only after finding help among Kurdish activists, that Hamid got away. He escaped into the Zagros mountains and after walking for two nights, turned himself into the police in a Kurdish district of Turkey.
From there he made his way to Ankara, to the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, where he eventually gained refugee status. He works as a translator with the International Rescue Committee and lives in Virginia, a couple of hours from Washington, with his Kurdish wife, Aran, and their two daughters, three-year-old Neel and 18-month-old Yara.
Like Lau, Hamid remains an optimist. The Khomeinist regime cannot last, he said. While he worries about the lifeline the Biden administration is holding out to the regime by reviving the Obama-era nuclear agreement—a key Democratic Party foreign-policy objective that overrides human rights concerns—sooner or later, like the U.S.S.R., the regime in Tehran will collapse, Hamid said.
When that happens, the international community should not make the same mistake the Americans made after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. “It will be important to understand the ethnic minorities of Iran, to understand what we are suffering, and to understand what the people want,” Hamid said. “Otherwise, the Ahwaz people, the Baloch, the Kurdish people—it will be a time bomb.”
This article appears in print in the August 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The unstated issues.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.