x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Iran's rights abuses are in the spotlight after UN report

A report by Ahmed Shaheed, the UN's special rapporteur for Iran, underlines Iran's obligations to adhere to multiple human rights treaties it has ratified.

A mild-mannered former foreign minister of the Maldives has reminded the world why Iran deserves scrutiny for more than just its nuclear activities.

On March 11 Ahmed Shaheed, the UN's "special rapporteur" for Iran, reported to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, presenting troubling new detail on systemic human-rights abuses against Iran's minorities, journalists, human-rights defenders and women's-rights activists.

Mr Shaheed also cited "unimpeachable forensic evidence" that torture is widespread. His findings served notice that Iranian authorities are engaged in an intensifying clampdown on dissent, a signal of increasing nervousness ahead of the presidential elections planned for June.

Tehran is keen to portray itself as the victim of harsh US-led financial sanctions linked to its nuclear programme, so the allegations of wide-scale abuse of its own citizens clearly stung. Iran's representatives in Geneva categorically rejected Shaheed's findings. Other Iranian officials claimed the report had been orchestrated by the US, its European allies and Israel.

The rapporteur's monitoring work, which the UN Human Rights Council has now authorised to continue for another year, promises to become more than a nuisance to Iran. Within hours of Mr Shaheed's report, the European Union added nine Iranian officials - including judges, prosecutors and internet censors - to a growing list of Iranians subject to a travel ban and asset freeze because of rights violations.

Mr Shaheed's attention to political freedoms, ahead of the first presidential poll since the flawed 2009 election, will be even less welcome. As Mr Shaheed told The Guardian newspaper this month, the "significant and unreasonable limitations placed on the right of Iranian citizens to stand for presidential office undermine their right" to participate.

His report spelt out Iran's obligations to adhere to the multiple rights treaties it has ratified, that commit the government to protect civil, political, economic and social rights, including the freedoms of expression and assembly.

The US and other states, mainly European, are pressing these issues in the Human Rights Council and elsewhere. For them the challenge now is to not slacken as crisis diplomacy over Iran's nuclear programme ramps up.

Talks last month between Iran and major world powers raised hopes that a new deal, to relax economic sanctions in exchange for nuclear-programme concessions, could provide a path to resolution. The talks resume next month.

While a nuclear deal would be welcome, the chance for a diplomatic success remains slim. Meanwhile, rights activists have repeatedly said the international focus on Iran's nuclear plans - which many states see as cover for weapons development - has stalled progress on human rights in Iran.

That outside focus began to change with the 2011 appointment of Mr Shaheed, the first rights investigator authorised by the UN since 2002. The US began in 2010 to impose sanctions on Iran for rights abuses; the EU began a year later and has now sanctioned almost 90 individuals.

Mr Shaheed, barred from visiting Iran, compiled his latest report on the basis of 169 interviews last autumn with human-rights defenders, non-governmental organisation sources and private citizens.

While disturbing, the allegations in his report present little that is new: a clampdown on civil society, bloggers, political opponents, lawyers and women's-rights advocates. Many examples have been documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Mr Shaheed is the fourth special rapporteur to Iran, and the Iranian government has co-operated little with any of them.

But the 2013 presidential election cycle could boost his role as the world's monitor of political freedoms in Iran. Few expect the current regime to significantly improve its behaviour, but a power shift via the elections cannot be ruled out.

The elections are expected to feature a shortlist of regime-approved candidates, but are already causing jockeying among conservative factions. The latest censorship moves - moving to block internet access over virtual private networks - signals the level of official concern about a repeat of the 2009 "Green Revolution" demonstrations that rocked the country.

The US and its allies should continue pressing for rights reforms to demonstrate their concern for the future of the Iranian people and to show that they are not focused only on nuclear matters.

They should combine this with stepped-up efforts to give Iranians greater access to technology to circumvent censors, withstand cyber-attacks, and maintain the capability to post content online.

Iranians have proven a willing and adept market for these so-called "liberation technologies" even as their government reinforces what is already one of the toughest online censorship regimes.

Ordinary Iranians also have been an avid audience for news reporting from international broadcasters transmitting in Persian, such as the BBC, the Voice of America and Radio Farda. The challenge for these broadcasters is to bypass the jammers, censors and harassment by security forces, to inform and educate Iranians about events in the region and around the world.

The findings of UN-endorsed monitors like Mr Shaheed should be disseminated across every available platform to let Iranians know that they are not alone.


Robert McMahon is the editor of CFR.org, website of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are his own.