Thursday March 24 marked a historic day for the U.N. Human Rights Council. For the first time in its five-year existence, the UNHCR decided to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation in a particular nation—the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian authorities had been doing their utmost to stave off this appointment—well, doing everything except what would have been most effective: finally making a real effort to improve its human rights record.
Iran insists that it complies with international human rights law and cooperates with bodies like the UNHCR. However it is has not allowed access to Iran by human rights investigators since 2005. Instead of real reform, we have been treated to a non-stop spectacle of obfuscation and empty rhetoric, from the head of the Iranian Human Rights Headquarters Mohammad Javad Larijani’s appearances at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions in Geneva in 2010 (in June Dr. Larijani said, “…we are perhaps the only democracy, the greatest democracy in the Middle East”) to his interview with Charlie Rose to Iran’s latest effort in Geneva this month—where Iran attempted to deflect criticism of its record by pointing out the human rights failings of other countries while claiming that those countries were orchestrating the session for political purposes.
Allies of the government were brought along with the official Iranian delegation to Geneva, masquerading as bona fide representatives of Iranian civil society NGOs and incredulously insisting that they had never heard of the human rights violations that they were asked about. Meanwhile, real Iranian civil society activists face prison sentences if they appear at international conferences, that is if they are even allowed to leave Iran at all; many activists have been issued travel bans and have had their passports confiscated.
At the same time, the human rights situation in Iran only grows worse. There have been at least 116 executions in Iran so far in 2011—some organizations report figures as high as 150 or more—while human rights defenders and civil society activists receive outrageous prison sentences: Navid Khanjani, a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters and an adherent of the Baha’i faith was sentenced to twelve years in prison in January 2011 after an unfair trial in a Revolutionary Court in Tehran; he had been held in solitary confinement and tortured in detention. Iranian prisons are squalid and dangerous; fourteen people were recently killed in an uprising at Qezel Hesar prison, allegedly during a protest against the horrendous conditions there.
The decision to make this appointment is the culmination of a process that has been continuing for over a year. In 2010 Iran underwent its UPR at the UNHCR, which resulted in a set of recommendations in February and a report issued in June endorsed by 56 countries. The working group of the UNHCR issued recommendations urging Iran to end execution of juvenile offenders, torture of detainees and the arrest of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly—including peaceful protesters, journalists and women’s rights activists. The response of the Iranian delegation was essentially complete denial; Iran refused to invite the UN special rapporteur to investigate evidence of systematic torture, and to implement international standards that would end discrimination, claiming such reforms would contradict its own laws. Iran also rejected the recommendation to ensure the immediate release of illegally detained persons, to halt the execution of juvenile offenders and political prisoners and to prosecute officials involved in torture, rape and killing.
Since June the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has issued two reports—one in September 2010 and another in March 2011– raising serious concerns about the dire human rights situation in Iran. In the most recent report, the Secretary-General wrote, “the human rights situation in Iran has been marked by an intensified crackdown on human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, journalists and government opponents. Concerns about torture, arbitrary detentions and unfair trials continue to be raised by UN human rights mechanisms. There was a noticeable increase in application of the death penalty, including in cases of political prisoners, since the beginning of the year 2011.” The Secretary-General noted that whereas Iran had agreed in principle to accept the visits of the special rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution and on freedom of religion, the government had repeatedly failed to respond for requests to schedule visits.
Amnesty International, along with other human rights organizations, had long been urging the UNHCR to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor and report on human rights in Iran. It welcomed the March 24 vote, with 22 nations voting in favor, 7 against with 14 abstentions.
This decision, which represents a harsh and very public reproach, can only be seen as a setback for Iran’s efforts to portray itself in a favorable light in the international arena. Those that hold power in Iran now are reportedly divided; many “hard-liners” are willing to go to any lengths to brutally repress all forms of dissent. However, other more “moderate” elements are deeply concerned about world opinion and would be willing to initiate reforms—if only to improve Iran’s image and stature. It can only be hoped that the historic vote by the UNHCR will strengthen these more moderate elements and bolster attempts to initiate the difficult but necessary work it will take to reverse the seriously deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.