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Honoring fearless activism for human rights

Queen’s is granting an honorary degree to human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who has been imprisoned for activism in Iran.

Photograph of Nasrin Sotoudeh
The Iranian government has sentenced Nasrin Sotoudeh to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for her peaceful activism for human rights. (Photo supplied by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.)

Granting honorary degrees is one of the most meaningful ways Queen’s recognizes outstanding contributions to society. In a special virtual ceremony on Dec. 8, the university conferred an honorary degree on Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer who has defended the rights of women, children, journalists, and other targeted groups in her country.

The Iranian government imprisoned Sotoudeh in 2018, sentencing her to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for advocating against the compulsory hijab. Her health already compromised by a lengthy hunger strike, she also recently contracted COVID-19 while in prison.

“Nasrin Sotoudeh has fought bravely for human rights throughout her career and serves as an inspiration to many around the world. The Queen’s community has shown enormous enthusiasm for awarding this honorary degree to her, as hundreds of students, dozens of faculty members, and the Queen’s Senate expressed their support for the nomination. It was especially meaningful to confer this degree just before International Human Rights Day,” says Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane.

Inspired by her advocacy and sacrifice, three Queen’s students nominated Sotoudeh for the honorary degree in 2019, and the idea garnered wide support from the campus community. When the Senate approved the nomination in January, Queen’s planned to grant the honorary degree during the spring 2020 convocation ceremonies. But when all ceremonies were postponed due to COVID-19, honorary degrees were put on hold as well.

Recently, Queen’s has been in touch with Irwin Cotler, Sotoudeh’s international legal counsel and former Minister of Justice of Canada, who has notified the university about Sotoudeh’s ill health. Under the circumstances, the university decided to move the conferral up. Fittingly, the degree has been granted just before International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

“It is my hope that this conferral of an honorary doctorate – this most deserving recognition by a great university like Queen’s – will be yet another testament to a person who is not only a hero of human rights in Iran but a hero of human rights for all. And I hope that this will inspire her release from prison and her return to her family as a free woman, where she can continue to bring honour to the people of Iran and pursue the just cause of human rights for the betterment of the human condition for all,” says Cotler.

To officially grant the honorary degree, Principal Deane and Chancellor Jim Leech recorded a virtual conferral ceremony. In the video, Cotler accepts the degree on her behalf while providing remarks on her imprisonment by the Iranian government.

The students who nominated Sotoudeh originally say they are pleased to see her human rights work recognized by Queen’s.

“When we nominated her for an honorary degree, we wanted to bring the Queen’s community together to support someone who had dedicated their career and freedom to upholding the rights of those unjustly prosecuted and persecuted. It was a way for Queen’s to demonstrate to both the global and national community that we stand in solidarity for the protection of human rights and the protection of the vulnerable. I am proud that Queen’s has been granted her an honorary degree,” says Daniel Power, who graduated from the Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) in 2019.

“Few are more deserving of this honour. Ms. Sotoudeh’s courage and commitment to justice has touched the lives of all Iranian people, especially the women, children, journalists and religious minorities she has dedicated her life to defending,” says Jeremy Wiener, who also graduated from FAS in 2019.

Learn more about honorary degrees on the University Secretariat website, and watch the video of Sotoudeh’s conferral on the Registrar website.

In his role with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Cotler has recently been campaigning for Sotoudeh’s release from prison. Learn more about Sotoudeh’s situation and the campaign on the centre’s website.