Iran and human rights organs of the United Nations

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For a number of years now, the most complicated aspect of the relationship between Iran and the UN has revolved around the issue of human rights, and this has overshadowed other challenges. In general, the three main bodies of the General Assembly, Security Council and Human Rights Council (replacing the Human Rights Commission) play a role in advancing the human rights agenda of the UN. All three bodies have issued a significant number of resolutions regarding the situation of human rights in Iran, most since 1979. There are a number of mechanisms at the disposal of each of these bodies, but with regard to the relationship between Iran and the UN, two particular processes impart the greatest influence. One is the Universal Periodic Review, which takes place every four years[1] and is when the human rights situation in a particular country is examined.[2] In 2010 when Iran faced the Review, it was relatively cooperative with the UN and this resulted in most of the 188 recommendations being accepted.[3]

The second most important Human Rights Council mechanism is the appointment of Special Rapporteurs, whose mandates are either focused on a specific theme (meaning they follow a specific subject in all countries) or country (their duty is to investigate all human rights issues in a given country). Their duties include investigations for and preparation of reports on cases involving human rights violations and the presentation of these reports to the Human Rights Council. Although these reports may not directly result in improvements, the appointment of a Special Rapporteur and her or his activities to investigate the situation in a country is nevertheless part of an important and influential process which can apply pressure on the responsible state. Iran’s collaboration with thematic Rapporteurs is somewhat more hopeful than that of other countries. For instance, in 2002 Iran invited all thematic mandate holders to visit Iran. Between 2003 and 2005 six Special Rapporteurs visited Iran. However, since then none have been able to gain entry.[4]

Given the conditions some of the thematic Rapporteurs face while carrying out their tasks, such as the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on prisons and conditions of detention or on freedom of expression, at times, the international community reaches the conclusion that the situation of human rights in a given country has reached such dangerous levels that it stands in need of a special rapporteur of its own. This in and of itself indicates critical conditions and at an international level casts a negative impression of the relevant country. Since 1985 concerns regarding Iran gained prominence internationally, so the Human Rights Commission appointed the first Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran. Andre Aguilar of Venezuela served in this post until his resignation in 1988 but was never allowed to enter Iran. During his tenure he submitted two reports to the Commission and General Assembly, both of which referred to his dissatisfaction regarding Iran’s lack of cooperation and the worrisome situation of human rights in Iran. After him, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl held this position until 1995 and travelled to Iran three times resulting in a total of 15 reports. Between 1995 and 2002 Maurice Copithorne served as the third Special Rapporteur for Iran but was only allowed to enter Iran once. Until 2011 no other individuals were appointed. In 2006 the UN Human Rights Council replaced the Commission and in 2011 by passing a resolution voted to appoint a new Special Rapporteur for Iran. Since then Dr Ahmed Shaheed has occupied this position. Although his appointment as a Muslim accompanied the hope that Iran may prove to be more cooperative, but as the following demonstrates, unfortunately Iran’s approach to this issue has not changed in any significant way.[5]

What has been repeatedly raised in reports submitted by all Rapporteurs is their concerns regarding the worrisome situation of human rights in Iran. The majority of charges revolve around a specific issue, that of executions. For instance, the increase in the rate of executions, the presence of hundreds of political and ideological prisoners in Iran’s jails, the challenges and barriers to freedom of expression and pressure on newspapers and journalists, as well as widespread human rights violations against women and religious and ethnic minorities.[6]

Over the years, two main approaches have affected policy makers, legal experts and officials of the Islamic Republic: first, the process whereby these charges view Islamic Republic laws, codes and the judiciary and security apparatus as the root cause of these violations. The second refers to the animosities and tensions between the west and Iran following the Islamic Republic revolution and casts all such charges in light of conspiracies aimed at weakening Iran’s position. In other words, human rights are another tool in the hands of western enemies of the Islamic revolution. There are also those who consolidate the two. What is certain is that Iranian officials view all human rights organisations according to the second approach and although the patterns of action on the part of the Islamic Republic government is gradually moving towards a more conciliatory approach towards such bodies, nevertheless, it may be that the nucleus of such relations are based on the original approach which considers the UN as a place where countries that hold the right to veto conspire against others. Naturally the same approach extends to the Human Rights Council.[7]

In one of his latest reports, Ahmed Shaheed has written that he contacted Islamic Republic officials 25 times and has requested that they respond to current cases of serious concern. According to his report, Iran has considered 4 cases. Furthermore, all his requests to visit Iran have gone unanswered.[8] In response, the Islamic Republic emphasises these specific points regarding charges of human rights violations in that country. Based on these very points they consider it their right to refuse to cooperate with human rights bodies, organs and mechanisms.

The first instance is that, in general, the entire process of examining the situation of human rights and the specific charges are politically motivated and, contrary to appearances, are set to damage Iran’s security.[9] Second since Iran is an Islamic country, its laws are based on Islam and therefore, it cannot be in full accordance with western human rights standards and in its approach it relies on cultural relativism as justification.[10] Third, the Special Rapporteur gathers his information from unreliable sources, meaning the body of information gathered is selective and that those individuals who have committed serious crimes, such as violent actions or causing disturbance to public order, are wrongfully identified as human rights defenders.[11]

Despite such claims and the lack of cooperation of the Islamic Republic with the Special Rapporteur, overall, Dr Shaheed has been able to present reports that are precise and well-documented, resulting in resolutions being passed at the General Assembly regarding the human rights situation in Iran. Certainly, technological advancement, access to information and easier communications are among the factors that have greatly contributed to his success when compared to previous mandate holders. Dr Shaheed has explained that, even without visiting Iran, he has been able to prepare his reports using interviews with primary sources, i.e. those who have been directly affected by human rights violations. The high number of interviews conducted both with those in Iran as well as those among diaspora practically demonstrates that communication mechanisms have removed the barrier of denied entry to Iran.[12]

In conclusion, it must be noted that, despite claims by the Islamic Republic representative at a session of the Third Committee in November 2013: “The recent presidential elections in Iran is a sign of democracy and tolerance for human rights. After the election of Rouhani, greater efforts will result in upholding human rights standards.”[13] But as reflected in the Special Rapporteur’s statement: “Despite gentle steps towards reform, the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a serious concern and despite some positive moves by President Rouhani’s administration, human rights violations of citizens, in particular, women, activists and religious minorities continues unabated.”[14] This very issue led to the fact that during the early days of 2014 the Human Rights Council voted to renew Dr Shaheed’s mandate for another year.[15] This move included 21 in favour, 16 abstentions and 9 votes against and was met with opposition by Islamic Republic representatives and increasing blatant attacks against the person of the Special Rapporteur.[16]

What is obvious is that this year can be an excellent opportunity for activists and human rights organisations inside and outside Iran. International organs must employ various forms of pressure to force the Iranian government to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms in order to increase the chances of proceeding with the necessary documents and preparations for the Special Rapporteur to visit Iran. Human rights activists must take advantage of this opportunity to provider better and more information to the Special Rapporteur so that he is able to provide a more complete report about the situation of human rights in Iran and address possible gaps in his previous reports, in order to regain confidence in the possibility of improving the human rights situation in Iran.

[1] Universal Periodic Review known as UPR is a new mechanism involving all member states as peer reviewers.

[2] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Universal Periodic Review,

[3] United Nations, General Assembly, Report of Secretory General, 2010, A/65/370.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kaweh Ghoreishi, Larijani, The politics of anger leads to expansion, Rooz Online, September 2013, (in Farsi)

[6] UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, (in Farsi)

[7] During the 41 session of the UN in 1986 Ali Akbar Velayati stated: “The Human Rights Commission and the Third Committee of the General Assembly are among the few bodies that remain under the influence of super powers. With a few clear and transparent exceptions, many of the issues of human rights are used by western powers against countries that have recently gained independence.” Quoted in 1982 -2004 reports of the Human Rights Commission and the Islamic Republic published in Rahbord magazine, Fall 2005.

[8] BBC Persian, The lack of independence of the judiciary and judges is criticized in a recent report by Ahmed Shaheed, March 2014,

[9] Marzieh Afkhami, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: “The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a permanent axis of the region based on religious patriarchy and moderation intends to pursue a constructive approach with the international community and does not accept prejudiced reports as standards of assessing human rights in Iran.”

[10] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, February 2013,

[11] UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, March 2014,

[12] BBC Persian, The lack of independence of the judiciary and judges is criticized in a recent report by Ahmed Shaheed, March 2014,

[13] Iran Human Rights, Latest Report of Ahmed Shaheed, November 2013,

[14] BBC Persian, The lack of independence of the judiciary and judges is criticized in a recent report by Ahmed Shaheed, March 2014,

[15] UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran Mandate Renewed by UN Human Rights Council, March 2014,

[16] Radio Farda, Reactions to the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, March 2014,

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