Washington, DC – As Iran begins to undertake its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Ahmed Shaheed – the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran – and other experts examined the challenges and opportunities for advancing human rights in Iran at two panels hosted by Freedom House and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a special Congressional body. At each panel, there was widespread acknowledgement that the JCPOA provides an opportunity to address Iran’s human rights situation. As Shaheed stated, the deal “provides a window…for the Iran government to focus their effort on improving the country’s dire human rights record.” However, the challenges remain extensive and Iran’s security environment could continue to tighten in the near term.
Mehrangiz Kar, a human rights lawyer and author, noted that many have criticized Rouhani for acting powerless to ease or halt these human rights abuses. However, Kar indicated that there are significant limitations to Rouhani’s room for maneuver given that Iran’s judiciary does not answer to the Presidency, but instead to the Supreme Leader. The “judiciary system cannot be independent in Iran because the head of [the] judiciary system is appointed by [the] Supreme Leader,” and all judges are appointed by this head. Kar observed that after the disputed 2009 elections and increasing fear of regime change, various secret agencies were allowed to dominate the judiciary system.
In the near term, Iran will hold elections in February 2016 for the Iranian parliament and Assembly of Experts, potentially leading to gains for moderates in the wake of the elections that could, in turn, boost momentum for domestic reform. However, in the near term a tightening of the security environment is likely. Kar observed that hardliners are upset that they could not prevent the Iran deal from passing the parliamentary review, and that they will work hard to deny moderates further gains and might even amplify human rights violations to display their power. Another limitation Kar cited is the lack of free elections, as the hardline-dominated Guardian Council is in charge of vetting candidates and can block many reformists from ever running.
Dr. Roya Boroumand, the Executive Director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, said the agreement had created a new context through “the easing of tensions with Iran” in which the international community can “persist in calling Iran to respect its international obligations, establish the rule of law, and stop denying its citizens justice.” Boroumand outlined some of the human rights issues related to Iran’s justice system, including an execution rate that has risen above 800 in 2015 as well as “the absence of due process,” and even the right to defense in many criminal cases. Boroumand went on and gave examples of specific cases that exemplified these human rights abuses in order to highlight “a judicial system that doesn’t value life…and discriminates and punishes the weak and the poor.”
While the near-term outlook may be bleak, the panelists elaborated on several opportunities to sharpen the focus on Iranian human rights. Dr. Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, recommended the continuation of Shaheed’s mandate at the UN Human Rights Council summit in Geneva in March 2016, calling it a “high priority.” This would allow Shaheed to continue to examine, monitor, and publicly report on human rights in Iran.
Shaheed agreed the UN must make human rights a priority and must make sure they are sending “a clear message to Iran, that more accountability, more scrutiny is what [they] will do” and the UN will “shift up the gears” with more intensive monitoring. Shaheed focused on the need for Iran to allow a “country visit with full access.” He indicated that thus far, Iran has had a “very poor response rate” to his requests for access, noting that he had sent 15 messages in the past year with only one response.
Daniel Calingaert, the Executive Vice President of Freedom House, also noted that the UN can pursue “stronger resolutions with benchmarks that are very clear on…the expectations.” He also brought up a proposal for the UN to consider a commission of inquiry for Iran, which would look at past abuses in addition to current ones so that past perpetrators are not going unpunished.
The panelists also indicated that the loosening of sanctions could provide additional leverage. As foreign businesses look to enter Iranian markets, Dr. Ghaemi suggested that they could “make clear to the Iranian administration…that their interest in operating in Iran is intertwined with improvement” to the human rights situation. In addition, Ghaemi noted some of the sanctions related to human rights violations already in place, but urged that they be fully implemented.
Shaheed warned that, if the international community does not put any focus on human right issues, human rights violations will be a long term problem affecting regional stability. “You can’t have peace without rights and development,” he said, “and you can’t have rights without peace.”