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The role of the United Nations, its treaties and procedures have been an important feature of the discussions contained within the Iran Human Rights Review (IHRR) since its establishment in 2010. However, this is the first edition to make the United Nations its central theme. The decision to focus this issue of IHRR on the UN comes at a time when Iran is facing its second round of examination by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), among much criticism for its failure to act upon its commitments during the last round.[1] Furthermore, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, assumed his function a few weeks ago. Jordanian Al Hussein is the first Muslim holder of the post and this, alongside his experience of Middle East political dynamics, could play a role in the development of his relationship with the officials of the world’s sole Shi’a theocracy, Iran.[2]

The aim of this issue is to address the gap that afflicts the realities at the grassroots level in Iran and the diverse channels for seeking justice and rights through the UN machinery. The contributors to this edition of the IHRR address the UN dimension to Iranian human rights in different ways. Some directly assess Iran's participation in UN institutions and conventions. Other contributors use the UN as a backdrop to their analysis, such as Hossein Rassam who uses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a framework against which to test Iran's human rights performance and moral frame of reference. All see the UN as a vital forum for the discussion of human rights in Iran.

After the establishment of the Islamic Republic almost 36 years ago, Iran decided to remain signatory to many agreements[3] previously signed under the Shah’s regime, for example the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as ratifying some newer ones such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, since the 1979 revolution the governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have claimed they would (unilaterally) add the caveat that the application of these conventions in Iran is subordinate to the regime's interpretation of Sharia law. Other conventions more challenging to the IRI’s approach to human rights that became operational at the time of or after the revolution, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have not been signed by Iran.[4] As Professor Ali Ansari points out in his contribution, the Iranian government sometimes attempts to challenge the entire international narrative on human rights as a western cultural imposition and accuses, with a degree of justification, their governments of hypocrisy or inconsistency. Such a narrative overlooks Iran's own important role in the global development of human rights, from Cyrus the Great, to the Constitutional Revolution and its influence in the drafting commission for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as Ansari discusses.

Iran operates a ‘pick and choose’ approach to UN participation, participating where it feels it can influence debate towards its foreign policy goals, such as the opportunity to grab headlines at the General Assembly or influence the debate for example using UNESCO’s World Conference Against Racism process to further its opposition to Israel[5], while rejecting measures that would lead to increased scrutiny of its actions. Iran cites its ideological opposition to alleged western interference and claims victimisation when it repeatedly refuses to allow access to the country for the UN's thematic special procedures rapporteurs on challenging topics such as torture and religion or to the appointed Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, currently Dr Ahmed Shaheed, a former politician from the Maldives. As Dan Wheatley notes in his essay, one of the few exceptions to this was the access granted to the Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing following the Bam earthquake, marking the last of a small flurry of six visits during the Khatami Presidency.[6] Iran, however, did allow a working level mission from the OHCHR office into the country ahead of a potential visit by the High Commissioner, a visit that is yet to happen. Raha Shadan’s contribution to this review charts the history of the role of Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, noting the blockages that Dr Shaheed’s predecessors also faced alongside an analysis of way in which the narrative of human rights can be hindered by geo-politics.

Despite Iran's non-compliance with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, as Tori Egherman's contribution shows, there is a growing level of interaction between international civil society and Dr Shaheed's office, particularly amongst diaspora groups. UN support, specifically through the Security Council, would be required in order for Iranians to access international legal instruments such as the International Criminal Court, as discussed in Pardis Shafafi's contribution examining the process and findings of the Iran Tribunal. However, with three of the five permanent members (the USA, Russia and China) having either not signed or ratified the court's Rome Statute, the Security Council is extremely unlikely to refer a fellow non-member to the ICC or similar instruments.

Iran's pro-active engagement at the UN centres on building alliances with other opponents of Western hegemony amongst the countries of the global south. Particularly under Ahmadinejad, Iran sought to align itself with emerging radical left wing governments in South America, most notably Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez, as well as governments in Africa and Asia. Support for keeping UN pressure out of Iran's 'internal affairs', has not only come from Iran's natural authoritarian bedfellows but from some emerging democracies, often with a history of colonial interference, that bristle against perceived western hectoring. Such alliances are not only defensive in nature but fit within the Iranian government's ideological approach as a 'revolutionary' regime, committed to not only overthrowing the western-backed Shah in 1979 but challenging American and European influence elsewhere in the international order, as Ansari's contribution notes. Elahe Amani’s contribution highlights the way in which Iran finds common cause with other conservative governments to impact the language used by the UN's Commission on the Status of Women, as one of the 45 UN member states given a seat on the Commission. She also notes Iran's participation alongside other repressive states on the Committee on NGOs.

Given that a number of avenues for international collaboration with Iran are closed off through a mix of UN and other international sanctions and through the policy decisions of the Iranian government, it is unfortunate that authors in this publication (and past editions of the IHRR) have needed to draw attention to the negative side-effects of some of the schemes that are able to proceed. Taimoor Aliassi's contribution argues that funding for anti-drug programmes supported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has damaging side-effects. He argues that funding may not only be diverted to other uses through opaque governance structures but that it may be helping to facilitate an increasing use of the death penalty, secret trials and even extra-judicial executions, with a particular impact on Kurdish and other minority communities living in border areas.

The composition of the Human Rights Council,[7] the body designed to oversee member states’ compliance with human rights standards, has been open to considerable criticism from western based human rights activists.[8] Like a number of other UN bodies, membership is elected by the General Assembly on a regional basis and currently contains a range of states not seen as beacons of human rights best practice including Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Algeria, Cote d' Ivoire and Kazakhstan. So the Human Rights Council contains within it those with an interest in limiting intrusion into issues of 'state sovereignty', among both authoritarian and democratic states, while discussions can be side-tracked by regional and global politicking and rivalries.

Despite the drawbacks outlined above, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) provides an important formal mechanism for all countries, not only HRC members, to scrutinise countries’ compliance with the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, conventions to which the state is a party and other applicable international laws. Global civil society can make written submissions to the process and participate in preliminary dialogue but the review itself is handled by UN member states. Hassan Nayeb Hashem’s essay argues that as the UN Human Rights Council has developed through its work in practice and the influence of NGOs its performance has improved, with it now able to take a more objective and less political approach to the issues that come before it.

Iran’s initial UPR assessed its human rights record in February 2010.[9]During this process, of the 188 recommendations put forward in the UPR, Iran initially accepted 123 recommendations and subsequently partially accepted 3 more recommendations.[10] This included acceptance of the proposal put forward by the United States and others to ‘allow for a visit by OHCHR and other United Nations Special Rapporteurs and experts who have requested access to Iran’ (29 - see also 24-30), a clear commitment as yet unfulfilled, despite the presence of a standing invitation and five outstanding requests from thematic special rapporteurs in addition to Dr Shaheed.[11]

The Iranian delegation used the opportunity of the 2010 UPR to restate its view “that its human rights situation had consistently been used by some Western countries to apply political pressure and advance ulterior political motives”. It rejected 46 recommendations including calls for Iran to sign and ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and for it to allow access to the Special Rapporteur on Torture, amongst some of the more specifically worded recommendations on challenging aspects of Iran’s human rights performance.[12] As of September 2014, campaign website argues that of the 126 recommendations from the 2010 UPR either accepted or partially accepted, only five have been fully implemented, with 30 partially implemented, 81 deemed not implemented and 10 cases where they argued the information needed to make a judgment was not available.[13] It would seem that Iran is better able to address issues around economic and social rights and humanitarian issues rather than civil and political rights that are more likely to fall outside the ideological approach of the regime, which is Islamist but in principle egalitarian, and its desire to retain political power. There is no mechanism for enforcement of compliance with the recommendations that Iran accepted from the 2010 UPR or to compel it to change its position on those it rejected.

Iran is due to undertake its second UPR on Friday 31st October 2014 and this marks an opportunity to assess progress in the areas Iran itself committed to in 2010 and to what extent the Rouhani Presidency will lead to a change in Iran’s approach to UN processes.[14] Over the past few months Human Rights Council member states have received facts and recommendations from Iranian civil society and human rights experts in preparation for the upcoming UPR. The major thrust of concerns revolves around Iran’s worsening human rights record, as set out in this and previous editions of the IHRR, and lack of commitment to those recommendations it accepted during the 2010 UPR. Chief among these concerns are the increasing rate of executions, persecution of religious minorities, lack of access to information and freedom of expression. Concerns have been raised by human rights activists that the focus of the international community and the Iranian leadership on negotiations to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue has drawn focus from action on human rights.[15] There is wariness that current collaboration, or the appearance of it, on nuclear matters may be being used to mask the lack of negotiations on other matters such as human rights, though some activists such as the international Campaign for Human Rights in Iran warn against using lack of progress on human rights to block nuclear talks.[16]

For all the flaws of the UN system set out here and by other contributors, the UN remains the only international body that is able to exercise direct influence on human rights issues that maintains the, if sometimes grudging, participation of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore it provides an important mechanism for civil society, be it international, diasporan and, where possible, based in Iran, to hold the IRI government to account against its international commitments and domestic constitutional obligations. It also provides formal mechanisms for political contestation involving states and civil society, in attempts to influence Iran to sign and ratify additional UN Conventions and optional protocols or around adopting emerging human rights norms in areas the Islamic Republic currently does not accept. Furthermore, this issue of the Iran Human Rights Review suggests that Iranians have the opportunity to view their human rights violations as a catalyst for the development of human rights instruments at the UN by grounding their articles through implementation at the grassroots level in Iran. This serves as a means of cultural change, perhaps the surest foundation for a steady process of improving human rights for all Iranians irrespective of their diverse backgrounds.

Based on the evidence set out by the contributors to this review and above, the Islamic Republic of Iran should consider:

  • Fulfilling its obligations under the UN Charter, treaties and conventions to which it is a state party.

  • Allowing the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran and other representatives of UN special procedures access to visit Iran to make assessments on the countries' compliance with its commitments and international human rights laws in accordance with Iran’s standing invitation to OHCHR mechanisms and the commitments the Islamic Republic made at the 2010 UPR.

  • Ending its attempts to unilaterally add a caveat of ‘compliance with Sharia Law’ to UN conventions to which it is already a state party.

Civil society groups working on Iran could look to:

  • Work with countries in the global south to find appropriate ways to hold Iran to account for its compliance with its obligations under the UN charter and conventions, without being caught up in geopolitical or ideological struggles between Iran and western powers.

  • Explore further the historical foundations of the Iranian domestic human rights discourse as part of improving access to human rights education and increasing understanding of elements not sourced from the European Enlightenment.

  • Improve education available to Iranians about the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the international conventions to which Iran is already a signatory.

  • Raise awareness of the documentation efforts of the Iran Tribunal and other initiatives to improve education and understanding about historical human rights abuses.

  • Work more collaboratively with other groups to focus on areas of agreement rather than disagreement, to effectively engage in UN and other international processes.

The UN and international community could:

  • Reassess the way in which United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) funding and projects are administered to ensure that efforts to tackle drug smuggling and use in Iran are managed in a transparent and accountable way that does not lead to discriminatory action against minority communities or an increased use of the death penalty.

  • Offer specific and measurable recommendations during the 2014 Iran UPR.

  • Address the need for mandate holders and experts to visit Iran, without conditions or reservations.

[2] Though of course it is worth noting that Jordan sits on the Sunni side of the growing Sunni/Shia divide in the region, albeit that Jordan is traditionally seen as a moderating voice in regional tensions

[3] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Core International Human Rights Instruments and their monitoring bodies,

[4] In the case of CEDAW there are 7 non-signatories: Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States.

[5] This was most notable at the 2009 conference (‘Durban II’) where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to attend, used the rostrum as a platform to criticise Israel.

[6] UN Human Rights Council, Country and other visits by Special Procedures Mandate Holders since 1998 F-M, as of September 2014, This shows that between 2002-2005 Iran allowed access for the SR on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the SR on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, the working group on arbitrary detention, the SR on the human rights of migrants, the SR on violence against women and the SR on adequate housing.

[7] UN OHCHR, Human Rights Council- Current Membership,

[8] BBC News, Concerns over new UN Human Rights Council members, November 2013,

[9] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, March 2010 (relating to a review session in February 2010- listed as addendum 1),

[10] Examples of recommendations accepted by the Iranian government included: ‘4. Ensure the full implementation of international obligations and constitutional guarantees, including with regard to the prohibition of torture (Austria); 8. Reconsider the inclusion of “apostasy”, “witchcraft” and “heresy” as capital offences in its updated penal code (New Zealand); 33. Adopt measures to guarantee women’s equality under the law (Chile); 41. Take measures to ensure that no torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment occurs (Netherlands); 58. Guarantee free and unrestricted access to the Internet (Netherlands);’

[11] UN Human Rights Council, Country and other visits by Special Procedures Mandate Holders since 1998 F-M, as of September 2014,

[12] Iran rejected 45 recommendations at the time of the review along with one further recommendation by the follow meeting in June 2010, 46 in all. It noted, neither rejecting or accepting, 16 other recommendations. See UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Islamic Republic of Iran- Addendum, June 2010,

[14] Recent editions of the Iran Human Rights Review have cast doubt on whether the Rouhani Presidency is moving towards any substantial change on human rights performance in practice.

[15] Monavar Khalaj, Human rights set aside while Rouhani seeks Iran nuclear agreement, FT, May 2014

[16] Hadi Ghaemi, Voices from Iran: Strong Support for the Nuclear Negotiations, July 2014,International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

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