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From physics research to human rights advocacy

Hadi Ghaemi is the cofounder and executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers would permanently change the course of Hadi Ghaemi's career. He had come by himself to the US from Iran in 1983 when he was 15 and become a physicist: He majored in physics and Middle East studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts; earned his PhD on superresolution microscopy and spectroscopy of nanostructures at Boston University; did postdoctoral work at NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey; and then in 1998 he joined the physics faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY). He left academia in late 2000 to work as a consultant for the Center for Economic and Social Rights, where he did research on human rights developments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hadi Ghaemi

Hadi Ghaemi

"Witnessing 9/11 and its aftermath firsthand in New York City made me, as an Iranian American, want to have an impact on foreign policy and play an informed and constructive role in policy and practice," he says. A few months later, in early 2002, he was in Afghanistan, working on a United Nations human rights investigation.

In 2004, after a couple of years working with nongovernmental organizations on issues relevant to the Middle East, Ghaemi joined Human Rights Watch as a researcher on Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Four years later he left to cofound the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, where he is executive director. "I felt like Iran needed a dedicated organization and more resources than just being one of the 90 countries [as at Human Rights Watch]," he says. His organization does research and documentation, advocacy, capacity building for Iranian civil society, and mass outreach.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran keeps tabs on political prisoners. "We don't let them be forgotten," says Ghaemi. One such prisoner is Omid Kokabee, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, who has been in prison for nearly four years since going home to visit his family (see Physics Today, December 2014, page 30).

Physics Today's Toni Feder spoke by phone with Ghaemi about his career trajectory.

PT: Why did you leave Iran?

GHAEMI: The most momentous experiences I had during my time in Iran had to do with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and its aftermath. Part of the reason I left was because the revolution resulted in the so-called Cultural Revolution, which shut down all the campuses for political purging and reorientation of academia. And the Iran–Iraq war of course was at its height at the time. So I left the country to pursue my education.

PT: What got you interested in human rights?

GHAEMI: I was a young teenager in 1979 when the revolution happened. I saw the overthrow of the monarchy in Iran, an institution that had been in place for 25 centuries. The motivation for people like me back then, who came to the streets to protest, was to achieve basic rights. I saw people killed by police and military men. Right after the revolution, I saw people being imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the new regime.

So, in a way, I feel like the revolution was an unfinished project, and my generation should try to restore those ideals and realize them. And it's not just me personally being devoted and believing it. It is a dominant discourse in Iranian society. It is a unifying factor. Many Iranians want to achieve basic human rights such as freedom of expression.

PT: When you left your tenure-track job at CUNY, did you plan a permanent break with research?

GHAEMI: I had been at CUNY for two years, and I left the position to take grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation to do research on Iran. Then the pace of events in Iran and Iraq accelerated, and the region became a focal point of major foreign policy issues.

I didn't think I would be leaving physics for good. I was hoping, I still hope, to have some involvement in the future—maybe not research after all these years. My passion for physics is quite alive.

PT: Describe your transition from physics to human rights work.

GHAEMI: After 9/11, I was approached by people who were conducting a UN mission to Afghanistan. I knew the people, and they knew I had the language skills that were needed—in northern Afghanistan people speak Farsi—and I had the scientific research skills needed for a statistical survey. I was interested in getting involved in international affairs. That was my first opening in that direction.

PT: When did you realize you were unlikely to return to research?

GHAEMI: By the time I joined Human Rights Watch and really started to have feedback about the significance of my contributions, I realized I have to do this for now. And Iran has been a country where there is no dull moment. Every day there is a new issue on the international stage or the domestic stage requiring attention.

PT: How does your physics training and background figure in your work?

GHAEMI: You know, this advocacy can go in all directions, and my physics background has helped a lot to address some of the technical issues. Like with regard to the internet. Right now we are putting the finishing touches on a report on internet in Iran; it's basically about digital rights. We are calling it Internet in Chains: The Front Line of State Repression in Iran. We are analyzing how the government of Iran is controlling the internet, and what technological plans they have for increasing that control. And we are making recommendations to the international community on how to hold them accountable on that front.

Another campaign we had was against censorship in Iran, particularly the jamming of electronic signals from international satellites. These are privately owned satellites that broadcast Persian-language TV into Iran. The Iranian government would target these international satellites and, by introducing noise to the broadcast signal, make reception impossible. We advocated with the international body in charge of regulating satellites in orbit—the International Telecommunication Union—and they indeed held Iran accountable, and the government stopped that practice.

My physics background made it much easier to comprehend the issues, how the government was jamming electronic signals, and what needed to be done. And it was helpful for interacting with a lot of technical people and satellite companies.

My background from day one has been instrumental in the methodology I have in my research and documentation. I try to apply the same set of objectivity and fact checking and skepticism to my work as I did in my physics research. That has made our reporting and research very rigorous.

And in a more philosophical way, I would say that my experience in international science, and how best practices take place, has also been helpful. In international science, everyone's talents contribute regardless of nationality, gender, political beliefs, etc. Especially when I work on academic issues in Iran, that is a motivating factor and model for me.

PT: What are some other examples of your work?

GHAEMI: The work I did in the United Arab Emirates was groundbreaking, and I am very proud of it. When I was at Human Rights Watch, I did the very first report by an international organization documenting the plight of migrant workers in Dubai. The report was called Building Towers, Cheating Workers. It became the starting point for a whole new field in international human rights. For example, a major issue today is with Qatar. They are supposed to hold the soccer World Cup, and building the stadiums is a major issue—the stadiums are basically graveyards, workers are dying during construction.

The report gave Human Rights Watch a tool to go to institutions like NYU [New York University] and the Guggenheim Museum, which are opening branches in the region. They take the report to them and say, buildings there are going to be built with modern slavery. Try to change the situation in your contracts with the government.

PT: Describe the organization you founded.

GHAEMI: We have four mandates. First and foremost is research and documentation. Doing accurate, objective, fact-based research inside Iran, and producing professional reports for the international community and for inside Iran. The Internet in Chains report is an example. Another major report we did had to do with university students being banned for life from education in Iranian universities, either due to their political activism or due to their religious beliefs. The Baha’i community, the largest religious minority in Iran is completely excluded from higher education. With the advance of the internet, they started a clandestine online university. The entire university was uncovered and right now we have upward of 110 Baha’is imprisoned.

Another impactful report had to do with nuclear negotiations. We surveyed Iranian dissidents inside the country and put out a report in July showing that they very strongly support a nuclear deal and resumption of ties between Iran and the US.

PT: What are your organization's other activities?

GHAEMI: There's the research and documentation, which makes us really an authority on what is happening inside Iran. The second one is advocacy with governments and multinational institutions such as the United Nations, on how they fashion their foreign policy toward Iran.

The third area is capacity building for Iranian civil society. That means providing training as well as protecting activists. In 2009, we had the Green Movement in Iran, with humongous demonstration. The protest movement was violently repressed, and that resulted in tens of thousands of young people leaving the country. Our concern is to make sure the exiled activists can continue their higher education.

The fourth area is media outreach. We are producing a weekly radio show and broadcasting it into Iran. It's something in the genre of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, but all from a human rights angle. We look at weekly developments in Iran and provide analysis and reporting of those events in a half-hour radio show. It is done by a political satirist who is very well known in Iran. And the videos on our YouTube channel are being watched by upward of 150 000 in Iran. So we are using the ability to produce mass media, and mass communication, to build a culture of understanding and respect for human rights.

PT: Are the radio show and videos getting a good reception in Iran?

GHAEMI: Yes, because we are using people who are very prominent in art, culture, literature, and so on. They are well known in their field in Iran, so when they pick up human rights as a topic to propagate their message, it reaches a lot of people.

PT: How does the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran work? How do you get your information?

GHAEMI: The key is that our staff is comprised of top journalists, lawyers, and activists who until very recently lived in Iran. They have very extensive networks to gather information. We have access to a great number of people in different walks of life.

PT: Have you been back to Iran?

GHAEMI: Between 2000 and 2004 I was there for very short visits. Now I would go straight to prison, that I am sure of. In the summer of 2009, when they held mass trials for dissidents, accusing them of fomenting the protests, I was named as one of the provocateurs from abroad.

PT: Do you feel you have more impact working in human rights than if you were doing physics?

GHAEMI: I don't make a comparison. The impact is of a very different nature. I feel the work [in human rights] has important impact on the domestic and international affairs relating to Iran. The most tangible impacts are the individuals we help. Our staff is motivated by the fact that on any given day, we can at least be happy to have helped one individual. Whether it's someone that because of our publicity they escaped the death penalty, or whether a refugee needed help to survive in a third country, or whether a student needs financial or logistical help to enroll in college abroad. It's very satisfying.

That is the baseline of our motivation. And on policy aspects, the bigger picture of Iran, we believe our work has important short-term and long-term impacts.

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