A decision to extend the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran has ruffled the feathers of authorities in Tehran who say the country is being unfairly singled out.
Experts, however, argue that Iran’s human rights profile needs impartial, thorough scrutiny.
Twenty-one out of 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Council voted on March 23 to extend the mandate for another year, telling the representative to submit his findings on the country’s human rights challenges in time for the UN General Assembly in September.
Only 12 countries voted against the resolution, which included Iran’s stalwart allies Russia, China, Venezuela and Cuba, while 14 other states, mostly African nations, as well as Brazil and Uruguay, abstained.
The nays and abstentions are most likely driven by these countries’ preference to preclude Iran from being rebuked at an international forum, while pledging their allegiance to a partner with whom they do regular trade.
Pakistani professor of Islamic law and legal scholar Javaid Rehman has been special rapporteur on Iran since July 2018, and has consistently sounded alarm over rights abuses.
Previous holders of the job have done the same in recent decades, often being met with non-cooperation in Tehran.
Officials in the Islamic Republic say the country is being singled out for undue inquiry, while nations in its neighborhood, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are less frequently called out for their similarly grave human rights infringements, including the suppression of their Shia populations or their frequent use of capital punishment.
From the Iranian perspective, international silence on Saudi Arabia’s deadly military campaign in Yemen, unfair trials and ironclad sentences for Shia citizens, and exploitation of foreign labor force and migrant workers testify to the double standards of the international community in championing human rights.
Iran also cites clampdowns on political activists and journalists, the subjugation of women as second-rate citizens and similar abuses in Bahrain.
The official Iranian narrative is that these countries, and many others in the world, enjoy ostensible impunity for their human rights violations on account of retaining cordial, harmonious relationships with major powers, including the United States.
Their human rights problems are thus rarely dredged up and interrogated, and thus concern for human rights is universally influenced by politicking and lobbying between powerful governments.
Critics, however, say human rights abuses must be addressed and probed objectively regardless of where they happen, and Iran should not attempt to deflect public attention from its own human rights footprint by assigning guilt to its regional rivals.
Of the nine seminal international human rights instruments, Iran is party to only five, and most notably has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
From time to time, disturbing reports emerge about the maltreatment of inmates in Iran’s jails, including dual nationals who have in the recent past been accused of espionage or collusion with “hostile states” to overthrow the government, to which the authorities only respond with freewheeling denials.
According to Amnesty International, Iran was the second country in the world with most executions in 2019, most often as a penalty for offences such as drug smuggling, murder, rape and occasionally political “crimes” such as acting against national security.
A total of 251 people were put on death row in Iran in this year, only following China with 657 officially reported executions. Iran Prison Atlas has reported that at least 625 political prisoners are being held in 220 prisons across Iran.
Nazila Ghanea, an associate director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, told Asia Times that past UN special rapporteurs’ reports on Iran show that the pattern of violation has been consistent.
If Iran believed no grave violations were happening it would have greenlighted the rapporteurs to travel to the country and attest to the absence of such abuses, resulting in the termination of the UN mandate.
The UN’s first Special Representative to Iran on human rights, Venezuelan diplomat and former minister of justice Andrés Aguilar, was appointed in 1984 and stepped down from his position two years later, citing the refusal of the government in Tehran to allow him to travel to the country to dissipate concerns over its alleged rights violations.
His successors similarly received little cooperation from Iran and were only sparingly allowed to travel there, leading to a nine-year hiatus in which the UN rights commission didn’t renew the Iran mandate. Maldivian politician and former foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed took the job in 2011.
Shaheed published ten reports during his four-year tenure that were trenchant and damning, painting a bleak picture of Iran’s performance in the realms of the death penalty, treatment of political and civil rights activists, torture, women rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Iranian officials accused the Maldivian expert of being an underling of the US and even alleged he had been bribed by Washington to sling mud at Iran by exaggerating the abuses.
That reaction was despite Shaheed acknowledging in his various reports that Iran had made headway in a number of areas, including fewer executions related to drug offences by virtue of a parliamentary initiative and efforts to address domestic violence.
Shaheed found fault with amputations and floggings being continuously practiced as a form of criminal punishment; with journalists and bloggers being arbitrarily arrested for the exercise of their legitimate rights, and with newspapers and social media being shuttered in contravention of Iran’s international obligations to facilitate the free flow of information for its people.
Himself a Muslim, Shaheed also inculpated Iran for cracking down on the freedoms of religious minorities and curbing the ability of the adherents of constitutionally recognized and unrecognized faiths to practice their religious traditions or create new houses of worship, as well as scrubbing their job and educational opportunities.
Asma Jahangir, who was a distinguished Pakistani human rights lawyer the co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, succeeded Shaheed and found more success in engaging Tehran even while singing from the same hymn sheet as her predecessor.
Jahangir capitalized on her reports to censure Iran for imposing restrictions on religious and ethnic minorities, its high rate of executions, its large number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, its stern measures on the media, endorsement of vigilante agents to enforce compulsory hijab on the streets and public spaces, and other transgressions. She passed away in February 2018.
Oxford’s Ghanea, who is an associate professor of international human rights law, maintains that although the question of equal treatment of nations is important, every country’s human rights trespassing should be audited. “The question of whether it is calling out violations equally is an important one, but not a reason for holding back on any violations,” she said.
“The objective of the international community should be to assist all states to uphold their international human rights legal commitments fully, and to always be exerting efforts to advance them. When assistance, reminders and time have been afforded to no avail, then the international community has few options other than to call out violations,” Ghanea added.
The human rights expert also doesn’t see Iran as being on the right path to implementing the judicial reforms needed to improve its human rights record.
“These reforms will include ensuring the independence of the judiciary, a review of the many discriminatory provisions in the laws, a close scrutiny of criminal laws and punishments, a full commitment to upholding the rights of each and all in that jurisdiction, and the full enjoyment of fair trial rights. These are sadly under severe pressure on multiple fronts,” she told Asia Times.
Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the violation of civil and political rights in the form of prosecuting activists and peaceful dissidents, a lack of domestic accountability for human rights violations, and the high rate of executions are the most immediate concerns when it comes to the Islamic Republic’s human rights performance.
“It is undeniable that the Rouhani administration did not prioritize addressing the human rights situation domestically,” she told Asia Times, making a reference to President Hassan Rouhani’s campaign pledges to treat human rights protection as an urgent agenda item.
“Unfortunately, particularly during his second term, his administration became more complicit in human rights violations.”
Sepehri Far believes it is imperative that Iran cooperates with the UN special rapporteur, working to take the edge off international concerns: “If Iran wanted to take reforms seriously, they could utilize the special rapporteur mechanism to engage with the Human Rights Council and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the concerns.”
“It is totally unacceptable that Iranian authorities have not felt the need to even transparently provide statistics into the number of people who have been killed during the November 2019 protests,” she said, referring to unrest over a surprise increase in gasoline prices, which triggered a brutal crackdown by authorities that resulted in an estimated 1,500 civilian deaths, according to Reuters. Other sources have reported smaller figures.