2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi received an honorary degree from U of T at Convocation Hall on May 7th for her efforts to promote democracy and human rights. The Iranian lawyer and human rights activist spoke at length about the connections between mutual cultural influence and world peace.
“Cultural exchange plays a positive role and helps foster understanding among nations, forming a solid foundation for lasting peace,” Ebadi said in Farsi (Persian), her remarks interpreted in English by a translator. “Democracy and human rights respond to common needs among all societies and cultures. Respect for human life, property, and dignity is honoured in all cultures and religions. Violence, terrorism, torture and debasement of human beings are deplored in all traditions. Those who resort to cultural relativism to defy democracy and human rights are reactionary power-mongers. They mask dictatorship with culture and disguise the suppression of people’s rights under the cloak of national culture.”
Ebadi expanded on that theme the following evening at a sold-out panel discussion at Hart House Theatre hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Science and PEN Canada, an organization dedicated to freedom of expression issues. Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre, moderated the hour-long discussion with Ebadi and PEN president Haroon Siddiqui on the topic “Are Human Rights Universal?”
Ebadi kept her initial comments short so as to open up the floor to questions, submitted by eager audience members in writing. Stein read each question to Ebadi, who responded in Farsi. Her translator was reduced to laughter when the large contingent of local Iranians in the crowd started calling out corrections to her English explanation. The questions ranged from women’s rights in Iran (Ebadi was one of the country’s first female judges, later ousted during the revolution) to the place of democracy in Islam. A forceful and humorous speaker, the small, dark-haired Ebadi thoroughly charmed the room save for two hecklers who had to be repeatedly shushed by the crowd.
“Cultural relativism is an excuse in the hands of those who want to abrogate human rights,” Ebadi noted. “The erosion of human rights is the erosion of humanity.”
The event was followed by a reception at Massey College with members of the Iranian community (including exiled poet Reza Baraheni, who introduced Ebadi) and campus representatives, where Ebadi thanked U of T for recognizing her and updated the gathering on the case of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Ebadi is representing the Kazemi family at the Iranian trial of the intelligence officer accused of causing her death.