The question that occupies the minds of many victims and witnesses of human rights violations in Iran as well as Iranian human rights defenders and activists centres around whether the UN, as a collective body, embodies the political will and influence to affect the human rights situation in Iran or not. Is it not that the UN is a body of governmental representatives, each of which act based on their own interests? Are they not willing to disregard human rights violations in Iran in order to protect their political and economic interests?
In answer to the second question, governments represent nations at the UN, many of which have come into power through undemocratic means and are not necessarily representative of their people. However, over the past decade the number of countries in which leadership is elected democratically is on the rise and can therefore be considered, to some extent, as representative of their nations.
However, the first question stands in need of a more extensive debate.
The most important question regarding the efficacy of human rights bodies and organs within the UN is with regard to whether their decisions are binding or not. It is a fact that within the UN structure it is only the Security Council which can pass binding resolutions. A cursory examination of recent decisions by the Security Council indicates that although the decisions have not been able to address all aspects of human rights, its emphasis has been on trying to address human rights in conflicts and struggles among states and within the borders of certain countries. However despite the framework offered by Chapter 7 of the UN Charter it has been unable to prevent the increase in war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Efforts to realise the right to peace and development as human rights can encompass global issues on peace, security, development and human rights that are within the overall framework of the UN and overseen by the Security Council, Economic and Social Council and the Human Rights Council with an increasingly important remit.
In addition, enforcement is a relative concept. In today’s world, interactions among individuals, including through the media and social media, enable information and knowledge to reach all parts of the global community at an unprecedented rate. Consequently, every resolution and even submissions by an organisation or expert involved with the UN can exert influence among governments, civil society organisations or citizens. For instance, the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran has served as a source of hope for victims, witnesses and defenders of human rights seeking restitution.
As a result of propagation through the actions of human rights defenders, those UN resolutions that are not binding but are initially approved by the Third Committee and then put to vote at the General Assembly, can be highly influential, including the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and resolution 60/255 that led to the creation of the Human Rights Council.
Over the past eight years, the resultant Human Rights Council, although not an ideal body as its membership includes countries that are clearly in violation of human rights, has been able to conduct a series of ordinary sessions and extraordinary sessions, and passed many resolutions. It has therefore been able to play a stronger role in the protection and promotion of human rights in the global community compared to its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. There are many instances when a country has voted against a General Assembly or its Third Committee resolution, but at the Human Rights Council has changed its vote through abstention or absence, or a vote of abstention in New York has changed to a vote in favour of the resolution at the Council.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which is a recent Human Rights Council mechanism has been able to multiply the human rights obligations of states. These are obligations that states have agreed to implement. Aside from the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, the remaining 192 member states of the UN have accepted at least a number of recommendations aimed at improving the human rights situation in their respective countries.
In addition to Working Groups, Rapporteurs and Experts, the expansion of the mandate of thematic and country Special Rapporteurs have greatly assisted the advancement of the human rights regime by making it more politically difficult for countries to refuse to collaborate with such mechanisms. There have been a growing number of expert panels at the Human Rights Council over recent years, as well as increasing participation by countries and NGOs that have further developed its performance.
Through experience over the past four years through participation as a representative of Sudwind, an NGO with consultative status, the overall direction of the Human Rights Council would seem to be moving towards greater acknowledgement of human rights with less weight given to the political inclinations of member states and more attention to objectivity. The events surrounding the Arab Spring, which has now reached its autumn and even winter, created significant changes in the Council and changed the direction of its discourse. At each regular or urgent session there have been points of conflict at which, fortunately, the Council, along with experienced and diligent NGOs have been able to shed a positive light on and resolve whatever challenge may have arisen. During these four years we have witnessed that, in comparison with the past, in addition to the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, many more of the 193 UN member states have attended its sessions, sent their senior officers to the annual sessions or more often announced their position on issues during Council sessions.
Furthermore, more NGOs have been present during Human Rights Council sessions and from among those who have been active, more exert greater influence. NGO positions have also changed and now more than ever before they are given the chance to express their views without fear of interruption and the consequent inability to fully present their argument.
The inauguration of the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the UN was a result of the Vienna Declaration and its programme of action more than 21 years ago. Over the years the responsibilities of the post holder have increased, alongside the expansion of the organisation’s charter and the creation of regional offices and have yielded a great deal of impact. The positions adopted by the High Commissioner as the most senior and objective expert from the standpoint of the Security Council and other organs of the UN, are increasing in importance among different countries.
The rise in the number of human rights conventions and their implementation through voluntary adoption and ratification by certain countries, as well as the development of treaty bodies, further strengthen the impact and influence of the UN. Currently bodies based in Geneva review reports about various countries periodically and offer suggestions with a view to better implement the articles of the covenants or conventions in each given country. Naturally those countries that have voluntarily joined a specific covenant must accept recommendations offered by relevant experts and consider them as binding. Although this may not apply to countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran but in most other cases it does, rendering the protection and promotion of human rights as an effective process throughout the world.
With regard to Iran, all of the aforementioned are achieved with difficulty. The Islamic Republic of Iran has chosen to remain party to all covenants signed and ratified by the pre-revolutionary administration. Most noteworthy among these are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Nevertheless, in practice, the current 36-year-old administration has considered them as imposing and itself as only partially and conditionally responsible for their implementation. The ratification of only two additional conventions over the past ten years has come with the reservation to condition all articles in accordance with Sharia law. Submissions of reports to relevant treaty bodies have come only after long delays and recommendations by experts have often gone without response. Despite repeated requests by Special Rapporteurs and other Rapporteurs, in particular Dr Ahmed Shaheed, for roughly a decade, Iran has refused entry to all of them, including requests by High Commissioner Navi Pillay, who for the last five years of her tenure requested to visit Iran to no avail. Iran has also failed to implement the vast majority of the recommendations it chose to accept following its inaugural UPR in February 2010.
However, human rights defenders focused on Iran can, through appropriate use of UN mechanisms, play an increasingly integral role in improving the situation of human rights in Iran. There remain many capacities as yet to be developed by Iranian human rights defenders, which will greatly improve their effectiveness.
At a point in time in the past, following human rights developments in Iran was limited to a few experts. Now is the time when a significant mass of activists can seek human rights education and training in order to assume their rightful position as defenders in general or specific areas of expertise and exert their utmost effort to promote and protect human rights. It is only in this light that violations of human rights in our country will cease to exist.
 Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2014, http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2014#.VEdqUhZQhqJ (122 countries identified as electoral democracies compared to 117 in the 2004 report,, though there have been some worrying declines in other freedoms within this period).