by Dokhi Fassihian
Almost two years after the Iranian government initiated a brutal crackdown against its people following the mass protests after the disputed presidential elections of 2009, the Human Rights Council established the new post of an independent human rights expert to investigate and report on violations taking place inside the country. The initiative, led by the United States and Sweden, came after many months of intense advocacy by the human rights community, as well as Iranian advocacy organizations, which worked to overcome political challenges to finally achieve international action on Iran.
The U.N. mechanism is designed to exert international pressure on the Iranian government to improve its human rights record. While the mandate’s impact is not easily predictable in the short term, such enhanced international attention could lead to improvement in prison conditions, or the emergence of a national debate about the costs of continuing current abuses. (Beginning n 1984, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights mandated a special representative on human rights for Iran. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the country saw modest improvement under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. The mandate was discontinued by a slim margin in 2002.) In being assigned its own special rapporteur, Iran has joined a handful of governments deemed so highly abusive by the international community that the U.N. has decided to monitor their treatment of their citizens. Sudan, Burma, North Korea, and Somalia also have rapporteurs, which report to the U.N. on the abysmal human rights situations in those countries. Unlike the rapid move to set up U.N. investigations into the recent crises in Libya, Côte D’Ivoire, and Syria, the crisis that erupted in Iran in June 2009 caught the world by surprise and found it paralyzed to respond. A combination of factors, including negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and the state of the international human rights debate, caused a delayed reaction by the world.
In 2009, international attention was focused squarely on solving the nuclear dispute with Iran, which had ratcheted up dangerously during the Bush years. With the United States already embroiled in two expensive wars, Obama began his presidency seeking to reduce tensions with Tehran. In a historic address in March 2009, Obama called for an end to three decades of enmity between the two nations and a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute. What came after had simply not been predicted. Obama’s outreach fueled an already energetic Iranian electorate, which campaigned vigorously for the June presidential elections. But the decision by the incumbent to engineer fraudulent results unleashed months of street protests and developed into a major human rights crisis for which the world was unprepared.
On the international front, the human rights community was reeling from its most serious setback in years. The Bush administration had boycotted the Human Rights Council since its creation in 2006, leaving the body prey for authoritarian regimes such as China, Cuba, and Egypt, which rallied other states to block action against abusive governments and erode human rights standards. Just weeks before the events in Iran, a special session of the Human Rights Council had convened to address the massive human rights catastrophe unfolding in Sri Lanka. The session, a diplomatic effort of the European Union, was hijacked by allies of the Sri Lankan government, and instead of establishing an investigation into violations of international law, a competing resolution was adopted praising the government’s policies, which had amounted to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians in a rush to end the civil war. Fearing a similar disaster with Iran, the world hit the pause button.
Among his first acts in office, Obama decided that the United States would join the Human Rights Council. He also signed an executive order banning torture and announced his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. His administration then began the grueling diplomatic work of repairing relations with allies and the United Nations itself. The first human rights priority of the Obama administration was not Iran, but issues already on the international human rights agenda such as the threat to the human rights mandate in Sudan and combating an organized assault on freedom of expression by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Next, it worked to address emerging crises in smaller countries such as the coup in Honduras, the massacre in Guinea, and the violence in Kyrgyzstan.
The Iranian crisis eventually retreated from our television screens, but the repression continued. Activism among the Iranian diaspora was decentralized and largely driven through social media, without a clear policy focus. In the initial weeks and months of the crackdown, Green Movement supporters and sympathizers advised the U.S. government to keep its distance from the movement for fear of undermining its legitimacy. Meanwhile, as early as the summer of 2009, international human rights groups and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi were calling on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to dispatch a special envoy to lran.
The international community failed to respond adequately to the waves of state-sponsored violence and ongoing repression that gripped the country throughout 2009 and 2010. By the end of 2009, human rights groups estimated that up to 6,000 Iranians had been detained, hundreds tortured and raped, and dozens put on show trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms and death. Few crises of such scale in recent years had been so neglected by the world. Countries traditionally in the lead on human rights resisted calls to support concrete action on Iran despite the deepening crisis, and calls by Iranian organizations to include human rights on the P5+1 agenda were also unheeded. The U.N. General Assembly passed the recurring annual resolution on the human rights situation in Iran that December, with a substantial increase in the margin of support. But the resolution included no investigation, no reporting mechanism, and no diplomatic envoy.
The Iranian people made a few more attempts at street protests in 2010 to demonstrate that they wanted human rights to become an international priority. The Iranian government responded with a terror campaign of killings, detentions, and executions. While the Obama administration condemned the abuses, its political muscle was focused on building global pressure on Iran to convince it to give up its nuclear ambitions. Without strong institutions and a democratic opposition advancing the human rights agenda through concrete policy prescriptions at the international level, there was little hope that the democracy and human rights movement could successfully compete with the nuclear agenda.
By June 2010, there was still no international action on the human rights situation in Iran despite a consensus that the Islamic Republic represented the world’s worst human rights crisis over the preceding 12 months. The United States, frustrated at the lack of progress on the nuclear front, pushed for a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, but resisted growing pressure from rights groups to put forward a resolution at the Human Rights Council meeting that same month. Instead — with the help of Norway — the United States worked to build support for a cross-regional statement expressing solidarity with the Iranian people.
For the remainder of 2010, international and Iranian organizations intensified pressure on the Obama administration to support the establishment of a U.N, reporting mechanism. Another resolution adopted by the 65th session of the General Assembly passed with the highest margin of support in eight years and placed the issue on the agenda of the council’s session in March. Significantly, by the end of the year, several Iran-focused nongovernmental organizations were pressing for the same policy — working separately but in tandem at the national, international, and grassroots levels: the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the National Iranian American Council, and United4Iran each called for the establishment of a U.N. human rights monitoring mechanism for the country. Efforts were made to elevate the voice of Iran’s embattled human rights defenders and opposition supporters. These strategies, along with congressional pressure, bolstered by another failed round of nuclear talks in January, led to a decision by the Obama administration to move forward with a serious human rights initiative in March.
Enlisting the diplomatic commitment and leadership of the United States was indispensable to the ultimate passage of the resolution, which was adopted by a Human Rights Council vote of 22 states in favor, 7 against, and 14 abstentions. Adoption of the resolution, establishing the council’s first country-specific rapporteur, was a seminal moment. Since its creation, and in the absence of the United States on the body, the council had only eliminated country-specific rapporteurs it inherited from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced. Building cross-regional support with the help of Sweden and other members of the European Union, and winning the support of other major regional players such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea were key in passing the historic resolution. More than just a major achievement for the Iranian human rights cause, the birth of a new country mandate was a critical step forward for the international human rights system.
The strong vote in favor of the resolution revealed that the regime has few friends on the global stage. Expectedly, but in a somewhat delayed reaction, Iranian officials blasted the United States and the council for acting in a “selective” and “politicized” manner — common refrains of abusive regimes seeking to avoid scrutiny. More recently, the head of Iran’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Larijani, stated that Iran is ready to cooperate with the special rapporteur and, in the same breath, expressed concerns about the “professionalism” of U.N. experts — a common line of attack on independent experts by abusive states. His comments provide us with a preview of the tactics Iranian officials may use to discredit the work of the yet to-be-appointed expert to justify their refusal to allow the rapporteur to visit.
In another move, Larijani recently announced plans to work with other states to develop an “Islamic Human Rights Charter,” providing another glimpse of how the Iranian government is preparing to resist pressure to change its laws and practices. In 1990, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), including Iran, adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam presenting what it proclaimed to be the Islamic perspective on human rights. The declaration — citing sharia as its sole source — is widely criticized for being at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in failing to provide for gender equality, religious freedom, and freedom of expression. In 2007, OIC ministers announced plans to work on an Islamic charter and even develop a permanent body to promote the “human rights” provisions of the Cairo Declaration. Iran’s reintroduction of this idea now signals a self-serving move to use “religion” as a shield.
Realistically, no one expects the Iranian government to cooperate immediately with the rapporteur. Such a mechanism is usually reserved for governments that have demonstrated a persistent record of noncooperation with the international human rights system and hostility toward universal human rights standards. (Although Iran has officially issued a standing invitation to all UN special missions, it has not actually granted any requests to visit since 2005. Iranian officials regularly cite Iran’s “religion” and “culture” as prescribing a different set of values than those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) It is designed as a means of pressure to force a behavioral change. The mechanism may not work quickly, and much of its effectiveness depends on the political will of Iranian authorities. In the final analysis, Iran’s response should be measured by how genuine its cooperation is with the international human right body — specifically, whether regular, unhindered visits by the rapporteur are allowed, whether the government accepts the rapporteur’s independent findings, and most importantly, whether it implements the rapporteur’s recommendations in a measurable way.
The Iranian human rights community should make the most of the new rapporteur by engaging with him or her, staying abreast of international negotiations surrounding the reporting and follow-up to the rapporteur’s recommendations, and defending the independence of the rapporteur against attacks by the Iranian government and its allies. The Iranian human rights community should also reject any attempt by the Iranian government to prescribe a different set of standards for the Iranian people than the rights that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and companion international treaties.
These critical tasks will require direct engagement by Iranian human rights advocates with governments around the world, including traditional leaders on human rights such as the United States and the European Union, but also emerging powers such as Brazil, South Africa, and India. Civil society organizations supporting the Iranian human rights community should work collaboratively in areas of common cause to increase policy impact. Iranian human rights defenders and democratic opposition groups must overcome two destructive narratives perpetuated by the Iranian regime that serve as strategic impediments to advancing their agenda: the “anti-neo-imperialist” paradigm aimed at the United States and the “cultural relativist” narrative about Iranian society that rejects universal rights.
In the end, the new U.N. mechanism represents hard-won leverage by the international community to press for change. The mandate of the rapporteur will be subject to renewal every year, through an intergovernmental process of negotiations and voting in Geneva. The process of annual reporting provides opportunities for formal recommendations to be made to Iran on reforms it should implement and stronger accountability mechanisms for violators if the human rights situation does not improve. While the Human Rights Council is not able to compel Iran to uphold its international obligations, it can work in combination with bilateral and grassroots efforts to persuade Iranian authorities to reform. The pressure exerted by the mechanism — and the prospect for an international investigation into Iran’s possible violations of international law — provide incentive for Iran to consider the benefits of ending abuses.
Governments that supported the creation of the mandate should demand, as part of their regular bilateral relations with Iran, significant and tangible improvements to the human rights situation. Before agreeing to discontinue the mandate, improvements should include the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the removal of restrictions on civil society and the media, and measurable progress on the rights of women and minorities. In addition, as a condition for discontinuing the mandate in the future, Iran should agree to host a national office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Tehran to provide assistance to Iranian authorities to implement legal reforms and ensure accountability for violations. Such an office should continue to be in Iran until the government advances genuine democratic reforms and establishes a permanent National Human Rights Commission in line with the Paris Principles.
Dokhi Fassihian is the executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project in Washington, D.C., and serves on the boards of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), United4Iran, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. This article was commissioned by the Rahavard Journal of Persian Studies where it will appear in print.