Iran – a country notorious for silencing dissidents, persecuting religious minorities and carrying out other human rights violations – has now turned to Biometric technology to widen the scale of its surveillance operations and to further suppress minorities.
In 2015, Iran introduced the Biometric National Identity Card. The card contains a chip which stores a huge amount of personal data such as iris scans, facial images, health status and religious or ethnic background. As these cards are linked to a central database monitored by the government, they can be used by the government illegally for spying on the personal activities of citizens. The card is now a mandatory requirement for availing of government services, performing bank transactions and for obtaining an internet connection.
The intrusive surveillance of citizens carried out by Iran using facial recognition technology is well documented by human rights activists and organisations. Biometric Cards now act as a new mechanism which can be used by the government to identify more efficiently political dissidents, protesters, human rights activists and religious minorities and thereafter arrest them. As these cards are a mandatory requirement for accessing the internet; the government is also abusing this technology to monitor the online activity of its citizens. Any person that expresses opinions or advocates against the government can now be swiftly identified and targeted by the state.
Moreover, the government has stepped up its repressive policies against the religious minorities of the country with the help of this technology.
It is well known that the religious minorities in Iran – the Bahá’í community, the Mandaeans and the Yarsan, are subject to discrimination and oppression. The Bahá’í people, in particular are labelled as heretics by the state. Several UN reports, and in particular the report by Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, have highlighted that:
‘…the Baha’is of Iran have suffered the most egregious forms of repression, persecution and victimization” over the last 40 years’
According to a 2018 annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) the community is ‘the most severely persecuted religious minority in Iran, not recognised by the state, and denied their political, economic, cultural, and religious rights.’ The report also highlighted that in the last decade, due to their religious affiliations, more than over 1000 Baha’is faced arbitrary detention. Moreover, the community is also denied access to economic rights and several businesses owned by Baha’is have been permanently closed by the government. Many children of this community are also routinely denied the right to education. Additionally, those that are lucky enough to be enrolled in school, do not have the freedom to practise their religion or to study their religious texts. It is the government’s stance that the religion is “man-made” and is a “political movement disguising itself as a spiritual community.” Supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei espoused the following in a 1991 official government memorandum:
“The progress and development of the Bahá’í shall be blocked at all costs.” Thus, the community enjoys no rights to contest for political positions or political participation and the community is being systematically persecuted by the government of Iran.
This persecution and denial of socio-economic rights reached new levels when in January 2020 the government passed a new rule – applicants for the Biometric Identity Card can no longer select “other” in the religion field of the form. Applicants now only have the option of selecting one of the four recognised religions – Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Consequently, any person not belonging to these official faiths will either have to lie on the application form or forfeit the card altogether.
A strong advocate for this change was conservative MP of Iranian Parliament – Mohammad Javad Abtahi. As per a report published by Minority Rights Group, Abtahi condemned the “other” category in the National Identity Card application form. He believed that “it meant the government was bestowing legitimacy on ‘deviant’ sects” and hence demanded that the application process be reviewed, and the ‘other’ option be removed. President Hassan Rouhani has also not spoken against this discriminatory rule. In light of this, his promise of upholding “principles of non-discrimination and equality of all individuals and groups before the law, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion and socio-political affiliations” is nothing more than empty words.
One of the most significant beliefs of the Bahai faith is to always speak the truth, which means that people of this community would be committing a sin if they lied about their religion on the application form. They have no other option but to live without the identity card. Without this card, it is impossible to obtain a driver’s license, gain admission to a university, get a credit card, apply for a job, apply for a mortgage or even get an internet connection. Thus, the community is systematically being denied their basic fundamental human rights. Moreover, ticking any of the other religions acts as a tool by which the government can manipulate data about the religious make-up of the country, and claim that the faith does not exist at all.
Voicing her criticism of the rule and the Iranian government in the Telegraph, Padideh Sabeti (Spokesperson – Baha’i International Community) claims that the government has deliberately eliminated the option so the Baha’i – the country’s largest minority – is not recognised. She also highlighted that the officials were given strict instructions by the state to tick ‘Muslim’ for any Baha’i applicants. When Baha’is complained about this, the complaints were simply ignored by the officials.
Not only does this rule amount to a violation of International Human Rights Law – such as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Articles 6 (Right to Work), 11 (Right to an adequate standard of living) and 13 (Right to Education) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – but also amounts to a blatant disregard of Iranian Constitutional Law which prohibits the investigation of one’s religious beliefs and discrimination on the basis of holding of certain belief. Despite several reports about the right to citizenship of the Baha’is by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Iran continues to abuse the Biometric Identity Card mechanism to deny these citizenship rights and systematically persecute the Baha’is. Urgent intervention is needed by the international community to prevent further persecution of this community and international pressure is needed to ensure that Iran abides by the obligations imposed by international human rights law.
It remains to be seen what the full implications of using biometric technology would be, but the lack of international regulations on technological developments of this kind, paves the way for countries with a bad human rights record to accelerate their discriminative and illegal surveillance practices. The urgent need is to put in place a human rights-based regulatory framework for the governance of emerging technologies such as biometric identifiers.