22 June 2021: The UN Human Rights Council was presented with the report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The 18-page document, which was first published in May 2021, covers four main areas of concern in Iran: the death penalty and arbitrary deprivation of life; access to justice and accountability; rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly; and the right to an adequate standard of living and right to health (while also considering the impact of sanctions).
The session carried added significance as it is less than a week since hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s presidential election. Raisi’s human rights record is dire. As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary he has been accused of being integral to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. He is already sanctioned by the U.S. government which would make it impossible for him to even attend a UN session and his election was heralded with calls that he should be tried for crimes against humanity.
Amnesty Secretary-General and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions said:
“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
It is in this setting that the United Nations Human Rights Council was presented with the Iran report.
Death Penalty and Arbitration of Life
The first section of the report concerns the ongoing use of the death penalty in Iran, highlighting the Secretary-General’s concern:
“at the high number of death penalty sentences and executions, the inclusion in Iranian law of the death penalty for a range of acts, the imposition of the death penalty in violation of fair trial standards and the lack of official data around executions.”
Iran is the second biggest executioner globally behind China and one of the only countries to still execute minors. In 2020, at least 267 individuals were executed, 65 of them were Kurdish, with at least four child offenders and nine women among them. 95 people have already been executed in 2021, which included six women.
The High Commissioner in her presentation exposed the grim fact that:
“over 80 Child offenders are on death row with at least four at risk of imminent execution.”
The Secretary-General’s report ultimately recommended that the Iranian government abolish the death penalty and “introduce an immediate moratorium on its use and to prohibit the execution of child offenders in all circumstances.”
Access to justice and accountability
The report’s second focus centred around Iran’s ongoing impediments to justice and accountability. Amongst other issues, the document raised concerns around; torture and lack of due process; the detention and sentences of 2019 protesters; the persecution of lawyers and human rights defenders; and the abhorrent detention of dual and foreign nationals for use in foreign negotiations.
According to the UN’s findings, at least 355 individuals were forced into false confessions between 2009 and 2019. Additionally, judges routinely refuse to investigate torture allegations while relying on said forced confessions for convictions.
At least 500 people have been subjected to criminal investigations following the November 2019 protests, with detainees “reportedly subjected to inhuman treatment and torture to confess to association with opposition groups or foreign Governments.”
“Prisoners of conscience, political activists, human rights defenders and lawyers are disproportionately excluded from temporary release. Some political prisoners have been in prison for years without a single day of furlough”
Report of the Secretary-General, Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran
Of particular concern was the “use of espionage charges against dual and foreign nationals.” Iran has routinely targeted dual and foreign nationals, detaining them to gain leverage in negotiations with foreign countries – a practice known as hostage diplomacy.
Watch IOHR’s documentary on hostage diplomacy here:
Among the recommendations were that the government immediately release all persons detained arbitrarily and that to “prosecute and hold accountable public officials, including law enforcement officials” found guilty of perverting justice.
Rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly
The continuing crackdown on civil society organisations, peaceful assembly, the media and freedom of expression online make up the third section.
The report raises the “continued reports of interference with the independence of bar associations” and the cooling effect it is having on the effectiveness of civil society organisations.
Equally of concern is the “criminalization of the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly and at the violent dispersal of peaceful protests. Between 1 June 2020 and 31 January 2021, security forces used force to disperse at least 39 such protests.”
The report also highlighted how:
“A high number of deaths result from the excessive use of force by security officials, border officials and law enforcement agents.”
This included the widely condemned crackdown on protesters in November 2019, which reportedly led to 304 deaths. The High Commissioner raised her concern that;
“The use of inappropriate Force base security forces against protesters and bystanders in November 2019, amounting to the worst incident of state violence at protests in decades. However, protester human rights defenders’ lawyers, journalists and civil society actors, continue to be subjected to intimidation, arbitrary detention and criminal persecution, including the death penalty.”
Continuing the High Commissioner again exposed the on going impunity for the security forces,
“There has been no accountability for any of the gross human rights violations committed by security forces in response to protests, neither has there been any notable effort to address large numbers of documented cases of torture and ill treatment, children, women and men, linked to the justice systems reliance on forced confessions.”
The UN document estimates that at least 15 journalists were in detention as of December 2020, while more than 57 individuals were arrested for online activities between 1 June 2020 and 31 January 2021.
The Secretary-General recommends that:
“the Government guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to ensure that any limitation to those rights offline and online is in accordance with the established criteria for permissible restrictions under international human rights law”
Right to an adequate standard of living, right to health and the impact of sanctions
The final section focused on poverty and the economic situation in Iran, as well as the threats to the right to health.
Iran has been simultaneously grappling with an economy in tatters, accentuated by ongoing sanctions, and the impact of a rampant outbreak of COVID-19.
The report found that: “between December 2019 and December 2020, the annual rate of individual economic activity fell by 2.9 per cent with close to 1.5 million people leaving the job market”
At the same time “sanctions and banking restrictions have had an adverse effect on the health sector, including shortages of pharmaceutical and medical items”, with COVID-19 agggrevating these challenges.
In his recommendations the Secretary-General:
“Note[d] the economic and financial challenges experienced by the Islamic Republic of Iran and urge[d] States that have imposed sanctions on it to take appropriate steps to ensure that measures such as humanitarian exemptions are given prompt”
Prior to her role as UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet was the UN Women Executive Director and she returned to the theme of protection of women, seeming to praise Iran for attempting to criminalise violence and sexual harassment of girls and women in a new law but noting that the legislation,
“fails to provide effective remedies to protect women against violence, or to ensure remedies. It also does not criminalise child marriage or marital rape and fails to repeal the multiple discriminatory provisions against women in Iran Civil Code”
Response to the report in the Human Rights Council
The report was presented to the Human Rights Council by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who noted:
“Overall the report finds a disturbing human rights landscape for men and women and children of every religious faith, ethnic origin, social class, and other status. We regret that the framework for the right to political participation is not in line with international standards”
After the onslaught from the High Commissioner to the presentation of the report, Iran’s UN Envoy, Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh began is repose claiming,
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is fully committed to the protection and promotion of human rights and respects its international obligations.”
H.E. Mr. Hamaneh claimed that Western states “pressurise and demonise Iran ” and went to say that:
“The report presented today is based on an entirely political mandate, initiated by a group of like minded, or rather, similarly biased countries that have for long instrumentalised human rights as part of their adversarial agenda against Iran”
The Iranian Envoy sought to lambast the findings but did not offer any proof or alternative evidence.
“We don’t hesitate to try in all good faith to correct a host of misinformation, false claims and unsubstantiated allegations mentioned in the report.”
In further attempts to discredit the reports findings, the Iranian envoy stated:
“The report is one of the four yearly reports, Always similar in content, theme and tone, originating from a mentality that is far from good faith. Compiled inevitably to satisfying the mandate devised by a few Western states to pressurise and demonise Iran”
H.E. Mr. Hamaneh resumed the ongoing feud between the United States and Iran, stating:
“the US continues to carry on with the unlawful and inhuman legacy of the former administration, in defiance of international law and basic principles of humanity. We should never forget that the US even tighten[ed] international sanctions during the pandemic,”
Skirting over the fact that it was the lowest turnout since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the Iranian envoy also spoke to how last week’s election:
“showcase[d] their determination to exercise their constitutional rights and secure the country’s democratic processes, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains resolute in upholding human rights.”
Sadly, it appears clear that Iran will continue to flagrantly dismiss all evidence of its mass atrocities against human rights and the question is now how best to confront this new regime.
The Iranian Ambassador to the UN in his speech asked his peers to “consider ending this careless vicious circle” of attacking Iran’s record on human rights but gave no hope of any change in the situation of those suffering under them.