Downtown New Haven will soon play host to a new effort to preserve the memories and experiences of the Iranian people.
The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund recently allotted a $1 million, two-year grant to establish the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, which will be dedicated to recording human rights abuses by the Iranian government from 1979 to the present. The IHRDC was co-founded by former Yale Law School lecturer and senior fellow Payam Ahkhavan, professor of internal medicine Ramin Ahmadi and journalist and writer Roya Hakakain.
The current Islamic Republic of Iran was formed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the former Shah. Hundreds of the Shah’s supporters were executed, and the regime Khomeini established has since been accused of numerous human rights violations including torture, arbitrary execution and wrongful arrests.
Based on his experience as a U.N. prosecutor in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Akhavan said that honesty and justice are essential to effective democratic transformation in societies such as Iran that have suffered from systematic human rights violations.
“Eradicating a culture of impunity is an indispensable component of building civil society in Iran and providing non-violent alternatives for democratic change,” Akhavan said. “The rule of law must become a political habit, and this can only be achieved if public officials are held accountable for serious human rights abuses such as arbitrary executions and torture.”
As a former associate producer for 60 Minutes and author of the book “Journey from the Land of No,” a memoir of her experiences growing up as a Jewish teenager in Khomeini’s Iran, Hakakain said she feels it is her responsibility to ensure that the true story of Iran is remembered.
“I felt that a certain history I had witnessed had been misinterpreted or, in some ways, obliterated,” she said. “The project, IHRDC, is in some ways an extension of the same desire — to want to tell the story of history in our own voice, the way that we experienced it, not the way that it’s been written about so far.”
Ahmadi and Akhavan said they expect that the center will be closely involved with the Yale community.
“We plan to develop a close working relationship with the Law School, and also with other departments who are interested in having their students, whether graduates or undergrads, do research on human rights,” said Ahmadi.
Hakakain said she hopes that, in addition to increasing accountability for human rights violations, the center will also provide Iranians with what she terms “a body of history and memory.”
“So much of what happens in dictatorships, you know, [is] that all records get deleted and everything gets constantly erased,” she said. “No matter how courageous individual Iranians tend to be and no matter how hard they work, the memory of their heroism and their courage is constantly erased. I hope that the center can become an indelible body where things can stay, and in the future they can look to it and be heartened.”