This tribune, initiated by a group of 37 humanitarian organisations, was initially published in the newspaper Libération on Thursday 19 January 2023.
Olivier Vandecasteele, an experienced and respected humanitarian worker, is being arbitrarily detained in an unknown location in Iran. He was sentenced to a cumulative total of 40 years of prison for “espionage against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the benefit of a foreign intelligence”, “cooperation with a hostile government, the United States, against the Islamic Republic of Iran”. He was also sentenced to 74 lashes.
At present, negotiations to secure his release in exchange for the return to Iran of a former Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, are on pause. Given the charges against Mr Assadi, who is accused of planning an attack on members of an Iranian political opposition group in France, the Belgian Constitutional Court has suspended the prisoner exchange treaty. The negotiations will remain on pause pending the final legal decision on this treaty.
The judicial considerations related to internal Belgian policy and Iran’s current isolation is making any negotiation between the two countries even more difficult.
Olivier Vandecasteele’s imprisonment goes against the symbol he represents as a humanitarian worker. However, as recently stated by the UN Human Rights Council’s experts, his situation constitutes first and foremost a denial of justice. The conditions of his imprisonment, his disappearance to unknown locations for various periods of time, the absence of a fair trial by an independent court, ill-treatments, all constitute “violations of international law”, according to legal experts.
Given this context and Olivier Vandecasteele’s profile, the European Union – the world’s second-largest donor of international humanitarian aid – has a decisive role to play in supporting a constructive dialogue and negotiations between both countries. The EU should engage and work towards overturning the status quo which is becoming increasingly detrimental to Olivier’s health. In Afghanistan and more recently in Iran, Olivier has demonstrated his humanity and his ability to work in often very sensitive political and cultural environments. One key step that the EU could take is to press for an independent medical team to visit Olivier. Having just ended a hunger strike, a thorough medical check-up is critical to ensuring his health and safety.
Further action to ensure the protection and safety of this humanitarian actor, held against his will, would be in line with recent EU activities vis a vis Iran.
- In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU sent 20 million euros in emergency aid to the Iranian people – despite the potential risk of sanctions from the US.
- In 2022, the EU allocated 11 million euros to humanitarian programmes targeting the poorest in Iran.
The EU is not indifferent to the situation facing the population in Iran. It cannot be indifferent to those who contribute to, and implement its international solidarity.
The issue is not to have the EU bargain with humanitarian aid, which would be debatable, but to demand that the humanitarian projects deployed thanks to its funding reflect its ability to maintain a dialogue with Iran. This dialogue is key to alter the Iranian authorities’ current positioning that is endangering Olivier Vandecasteel’s physical and mental health. This is the meaning of the unequivocal mobilization of 37 international organizations which – a rare occurrence – have not hesitated to express collectively their desire to see European diplomacy act concretely and effectively.
If Olivier is not released by the time the next European Humanitarian Forum (EHF) takes place in Brussels, at the end of March 2023, international humanitarian organisations – with his family’s approval – will use this opportunity to press the European Union for action to ensure his protection and safety.
Europe’s civil society’s voices can together contribute to making this call powerful.
- Accion Contra el Hambre, Spain – José Luis Maldonado, Chairman of the board
- ActionAid International – Ana Alcalde, Programme and Global Engagement Director
- Action Contre la Faim, France – Pierre Micheletti, Chairman of the board
- ADRA Germany – Christian Molke, Chief Executive Officer
- Aktion gegen den Hunger Deutschland – Cornelia Richter, Chairperson
- Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Deutschland e.V. – Edith Wallmeier, Member of the Executive Board
- Avocats Sans Frontières – Chantal van Cutsem, Executive Director
- Bioforce – Bernard Sinou, Chairman
- CARE Nederland – Reintje van Haeringen, Chief Executive Officer
- Caritas Czech Republic – Jakub Licka, General Secretary
- Christian Aid Ireland – Rev Dr Liz Hughes, Chair of the Board
- Congodorpen – Jos Van Steenwinkel, President
- COOPI, Cooperazione Internazionale – Claudio Ceravolo, President
- Coordination Sud – France, Olivier Bruyeron, Chairman
- EU-CORD – Ruth Faber, Chief Executive Officer
- Finn Church Aid – Mr Tomi Järvinen, Executive Director
- Handicap International / Humanity & Inclusion – Manuel Patrouillard, Global Managing Director
- Handicap International Belgique, Erwin Telemans, Director Benelux
- Initiatives et changement – Marina Benedik, Chief Executive Officer
- International Rescue Committee – Harlem Désir, Senior Vice President for Europe
- La Chaîne de l’Espoir – Anouchka Finker, Chief Executive Officer
- LM International – Isabella Olsson, Head of Global Advocacy
- Médecins du Monde, Allemagne/ Ärzte der Welt e.V. / Doctors of the World Germany – François De Keersmaeker, Director
- Médecins du Monde, Belgique – Claire Bourgeois, Chairwoman
- Médecins du Monde, France – Florence Rigal, Chairwoman of the Board
- Médecins du Monde, Grèce – Chara Tziouvara, Chairwoman
- Médecins du Monde, Suisse- Dominik Schmid, Chairman
- Oxfam België/Belgique – Eva Smets, Executive Director
- People in Need (PIN) – Simon Panek, Chief Executive Officer
- Première Urgence Internationale – Vincent Basquin, Chaiman of the Board
- Solidarités internationale, France – Antoine Peigney, Chairman of the Board
- SOS Méditerranée – François Thomas, Chairman
- Terre des Hommes, International Federation – Valérie Ceccherini, General Secretary
- Triangle Génération Humanitaire – Véronique Valty, Chairwoman
- VOICE – Dominic Crowley, President
- Welthungerhilfe – Mathias Mogge, Chief Executive Officer
- ZOA, Nederland – Edwin Visser, Member of Executive Board
Sign the Amnesty International campaign for the immediate release of Olivier Vandecasteele.