Iran’s human rights record will once again come under scrutiny today, as the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) begins its Universal Periodic Review process of the country in Geneva.
Crucial to the council’s assessment of human rights in Iran will be the treatment of prisoners of conscience, the arrest of journalists, and extrajudicial executions.
Several high profile cases will undoubtedly be raised, including last weekend’s execution of Reyhaneh Jabari, who killed a former Intelligence Ministry agent after he allegedly raped her. The cases of Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old British-Iranian woman jailed for attempting to attend a volleyball game earlier this year, human rights activist Mehdieh Golrou, arrested for participating in a peaceful rally to protest against recent acid attacks on women in Isfahan, and photographer Arya Jafari, detained and taken to an unknown location after he took photographs of the protests and sold them to the international media could also be used as evidence of Iran’s failure to uphold its commitments to UN treaties.
In February 2010, during the first review of human rights in Iran at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), Iranian authorities agreed to comply with 126 specific actions to improve the human rights record in the country.
According to its most recent report to the HRC, Iran claimed it had implemented 122 of the international community’s suggestions, which included respecting the rights of religious minorities and uninhibited access to the internet. But, as the cases above demonstrate, facts on the ground prove otherwise. In addition to the arrests of journalists, authorities continue to target people using social media to share news and opinion, and minority religions face persecution, including members of the Baha’i faith, who are denied access to higher education and banned from government employment. There have also been recent claims that Islamic Republic authorities have done little to combat or even investigate the suspected renewed activity of Ansar-e-Hezbollah, a vigilante group that takes its support for the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance’s Morality Patrol to extremes: many believe the group are responsible for the recent spate of acid-throwing attacks against women wearing “bad hejab” in Isfahan.
The council’s Universal Periodic Review will take place on the morning of Friday October 31 in Geneva and will be broadcast live between 9 and 12 on the UN website.
Award-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr has herself been targeted by Iran’s judiciary and authorities. In 2009, she won the Lech Walesa Award for her work. The same year, she received the Human Rights Defenders Tulip from the Dutch foreign ministry.
IranWire spoke with Sadr about the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review, recent human rights violations in Iran and the government claim that it honors its commitments as a member of the United Nations.
What effects can the actions of international organizations have on the situation of human rights in countries like Iran?
I believe their actions can only be effective when the people of these countries are told about them and when civil society and civil rights activists correctly play their part. For example, for years the international community pressured Iran into accepting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Eventually, Iran joined the convention and this gave numerous Iranian children rights organizations a chance to improve those rights by working within the framework of the convention. The Iranian government was obligated to take a series of steps at the national level. For instance, they began teaching the convention’s articles to pre-school administrators, whereas this wouldn’t have been possible before.
On the other hand, the international community has always made suggestions for governments like Iran — but these recommendations remain dormant if civil society doesn’t pursue them. Four years ago, when Iran accepted 126 of the 212 recommendations put forward by various countries, we failed to push for them. For example, we did not ask the Iranian government why the Internet in Iran isn’t free of censorship, even though it accepted the Netherlands’ recommendation that citizens enjoy a free internet.
As women’s’ rights activists, we did not ask why they failed to change citizenship laws, even though the [government] accepted a recommendation by the Czech Republic that a mother be allowed to pass on her citizenship rights to her child even if she had married a foreign national.
The list goes on.
Has the Iranian government implemented any of the recommendations?
The Iranian government claims it has brought in 122 of the 126 recommendations it accepted and that only four are missing. But we know that isn’t true. For instance, they agreed to all these things shortly after there were mass arrests [following the disputed presidential election of 2009], when many people who protested against the election results were sent to prison and reports came out about them being tortured. Many of the recommendations centered on releasing the detainees. Some focused on the need for accurate judicial reviews of complaints made by political prisoners about their torture, and specified that the authorities responsible needed to be held accountable. The Iranian government now claims it has implemented these recommendations.
There were also many recommendations on how to improve the rights of children. The Iranian government claims it has passed the “Protection for Children and Adolescents without Parental Care or with Abusive Parents Act” and portrays it as an achievement for children rights but we know there’s an article in the law that allows a man to marry his adopted daughter. When the law was being discussed a lot of people objected to this particular provision. But the Iranian government presents it in such a way that if somebody reads it without knowing the details, they’d think that over the past year there’s been an amazing improvement in human rights in Iran.
There were also a lot of recommendations on the rights of religious minorities, especially the Baha’is. Surprisingly, Iran accepted some of them, such as respecting the rights of the Baha’is and other minorities. In its report, Iran claims that minorities are completely free and nobody is pressured because of their beliefs or religion. But we know that Baha’is are a minority under intense pressure. They are barred from a college education, a large number of them are in prison and they are subjected to other restrictions that we can prove still exist.
Which four recommendations does Iran say it hasn’t implemented?
The ones that were supposedly not implemented are quite amusing. One was the Japanese recommendation of providing “a full explanation of the relationship between the restrictive actions of the authorities and the constitution.” Malaysia recommended exploring “the possibility of undertaking a comprehensive study on the positive implications of the implementation of a legal system based on civil and Islamic law, and share its experiences and the best practices in that regard.” Algeria suggested that Iran should share “with interested countries the Iranian experience with regard to promoting the participation of civil society.” And Tajikistan’s recommendation was for Iran to share “with other developing countries its experiences and best practices in guaranteeing the right to food and combating poverty, in particular in the area of microcredit.”
Given all the controversy surrounding human rights violations in Iran, which one do you think the international community pays most attention to?
In this forum [Universal Periodic Review], governments will do the talking, not representatives from human rights organizations. Whatever recommendations are made will be up to them entirely. Each country has its own priorities and positions based on its own policies. What makes it difficult for them is that Iran has a long list of human rights violations and each country only has 30 seconds to a minute to put forth recommendations.
Do you have a specific plan regarding this?
As human rights activists and organizations we’ve tried to offer what are known as “shadow reports,” in which we talk about the actual human rights situation in Iran and ask different countries to offer Iran specific recommendations based on our evaluations.
There have been a lot of meetings between human right organizations and NGOs and diplomats from various countries. We’ve also participated in preliminary meetings but how much they’ve discussed topics that are of concern to us, we don’t know.
The important thing for human rights organizations and NGOs has been to convince the participating governments to come up with specific recommendations, because last time they made very general ones such as “improving women rights.” Such a thing is not measurable. But if they make a recommendation regarding a specific law or individual provisions then four years, on we could accurately say whether the law has changed or not.
We have tried to draw attention to recommendations that weren’t emphasized last time. Many countries suggested that Iran should stop discrimination against women. This time we tried to talk about specifics — for example, regarding the he jab — and pointed out that it’s an important question. We provided statistics about women who’ve been arrested for this [not wearing hejab or wearing it in a way that authorities deem inappropriate] and spoke about hejab laws so that they can offer specific recommendations.
In various sessions, we talked about questions we felt other countries didn’t know much about. Last time only four countries made recommendations regarding the rights of sexual minorities in Iran; they weren’t accepted. This means that many countries don’t know how sexual minorities are treated in Iran. We tried to explain so that there might be more recommendations regarding it this time.
Read the October 2014 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran