March 18, 2011

Proposal at U.N. Body Puts Focus on Iran’s Human Rights Record

Suzanne Nossel at podium (Courtesy of Sasan)

Nossel, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international
organizations, says the goal is taking “practical steps that we hope
will lead to changes” in Iran.

Washington — Diplomats and activists are gearing up for what they
call a critical multinational effort to push for human rights in Iran.

“Iran stands out as a place where respect for fundamental human
rights has deteriorated and where the aspirations of the people are
being deliberately thwarted,” Suzanne Nossel, the U.S. deputy assistant
secretary of state for international organizations, told a Capitol Hill
conference March 15. “Our effort over the coming weeks to secure a new
special rapporteur for human rights in Iran represents this
administration’s most ambitious undertaking to date at the U.N. Human
Rights Council in Geneva.”

A vote could come as early as March 24 on the proposal to appoint a
U.N. investigator, or rapporteur, to examine Iran’s actions on human
rights. “This effort is not about grandstanding or showdown but about
practical steps that we hope will lead to changes over time,” Nossel

Most of the international community’s activity involving Iran in
recent years has focused on its nuclear program; the Iranian government
rejects concerns raised by the United States and other countries that it
is preparing to build nuclear weapons.

Sweden is the lead sponsor of the proposal for a special
investigator. Jonas Hafström, the Swedish ambassador to the United
States, said the diplomatic effort on the nuclear front is important but
should not be the only topic up for discussion. Hafström called the
human rights situation in Iran “profoundly disturbing,” citing two
issues in particular: the lack of Internet freedom and a dramatic rise
in executions, including of “people who merely had expressed themselves
and voiced dissenting opinions.”

Jonas Hafström at podium (Courtesy of Sasan)

Ambassador Jonas Hafström says the international community has a
responsibility to act when countries fail to honor the human rights of
their people.

Both Hafström and Nossel expressed concerns
about the effectiveness of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the
willingness of a majority of its members to call Iran to account.
“However, the fact remains, it is the primary U.N. institution for
protecting human rights,” Hafström said.

“We recognize that even if we are successful, a rapporteur will not
deliver overnight the changes we hope to see, and our work will not be
done,” Nossel said. “We’re not naïve enough to think that this
resolution or this mandate will be transformative in itself. Achieving
impact in human rights work is a long, complex process. No single
report, statement or individual will achieve the breakthrough we hope

A special rapporteur would investigate complaints about Iran’s human
rights restrictions and issue reports to the U.N. General Assembly and
the Human Rights Commission at least once a year. “It’s possible, even
likely, that Iran will resist the visits of a special rapporteur and
deny that person access to the country,” Nossel said. “We’ve seen this
in North Korea, Burma and elsewhere. If it happens, the rapporteur will
need to rely on witnesses outside the country to carry on their work.”

Nossel said Iran “looks to the United Nations and its subsidiary
bodies as a place to legitimize itself and its ambitions for regional
and global leadership.”

The prospects for approval of the special rapporteur are uncertain.
Nossel said some countries “maintain that U.N. action against a nation
should occur only with the consent of the country concerned. Our
position is that in a situation of grave human rights abuses, we are all
concerned countries.”

Hafström put it this way: “It is the task of each government to make
sure that the human rights of all its citizens are fully respected.
This task cannot be delegated to anyone else. But it is responsibility
of the international community to help promote such respect, to call
attention to situations where this has failed and to work for its
implementation for all human rights to make rights real.”

Human-rights and Iranian-American activists have applauded the
effort. “I think that the role of the special rapporteur would be very
important: to document and keep focused on what’s happening in Iran and
to force the Human Rights Council to deal with that situation,” said
Sarah Leah Whitson, head of the Middle East and North Africa Division of
the nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch. She also spoke at the
Capitol Hill conference, which was organized by the National Iranian
American Council.

Nader Hashemi, an Iran expert and a professor at the University of
Denver, said the effort would “shine a global spotlight” on Iran’s human
rights violations. And Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand
Corporation, said Iranians will appreciate the human rights push by the
United States and its allies. “I think the Iranian government is very
vulnerable to this sort of pressure because it can deflect some of the
nuclear pressure — even within the international community, a lot of the
nonaligned movement countries might relate to Iran’s nuclear drive —
but I think human rights is an entirely different issue, especially with
what’s going on in the world today.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information
Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)




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