The Brief: Law School News and Events

Post-Detention, Human Rights Scholar Cautious About Middle East Democracy
Mehdi Zakerian, Iranian scholar and visiting professor at Penn Law, explaining the state of human rights in Iran to law students in December. Zakerian was originally scheduled to arrive at the Law School in 2008, but was detained by Iranian authorities after he applied for a passport to leave the country.

Iranian scholar Mehdi Zakerian is pulling for the blooming democracy movement in the Middle East. But, as the victim of human rights violations and detention in his homeland, who could blame him for being hesitant about the outcome.

While Zakerian supports attempts by foreign nations to bring democracy to the region, he said in a recent interview that a one-size-fits-all model cannot work in countries with different sociopolitical and religious values from the West.

U.S. to the Middle East," said Zakerian, an expert on international human rights who was a visiting professor at Penn Law School this year and is a faculty member at the School of Law and Political Sciences at Islamic Azad University in Tehran. "Democracy is a culture, so if you want to promote democracy in the Middle East, you should first understand the culture of the region. I think the U.S.' attempt to promote democracy in the Middle East is valuable work, but I'm not sure whether it will be successful."

Zakerian found himself on the wrong end of Iran's policy that prohibits journalists, academics, and human rights defenders from having contact with foreign nations. In 2008, he applied for a passport and visa for his visit to Penn Law School. The authorities detained Zakerian on the grounds that he posed a threat to national security and espionage. Penn Law joined forces with human rights groups to demand Zakerian's release. After more than two months in an Iranian detention center, Zakerian was released. The following year, he was found innocent and freed to travel abroad.

The policy, said Zakerian, violates the principles of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Iran signed onto in 1948. "It wasn't good for my family, it wasn't good for me, and it wasn't good for the Iranian government," Zakerian said. "In the detainment of professors, of researchers, of journalists, I ask that the governments hear them and think about their freedom of speech. We learned from the history of Middle Eastern countries that authoritarian regimes come and go, but the voice of democracy and liberty is alive forever."

Nonetheless, Zakerian is quick to explain that the situation of women's rights in Iran is far superior to many of its neighboring nations. Like the Arab press, he cried foul when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice called for the removal of Iran from UN Women, an entity that promotes gender equality. "Women in Saudi Arabia can't even drive," Zakerian said.

"It shows that the U.S. has a double standard and it shows that the U.S. unfortunately holds economic and political interests higher than human rights interests," Zakerian said.

Zakerian plans to continue to promote human rights through advocacy and education everywhere, in Iran and throughout the world, after he leaves Penn Law School.

"Human rights are not protections of a Western country, of a Muslim country, or an Eastern country…Human rights are universal and all human rights are for all," he said.