March 24, 2011

U.S. Engagement Delivers Concrete Action to Support the Iranian People

The international community took its strongest action to-date in

support of human rights in Iran today, in a major victory for President
Obama’s policy of engagement at the United Nations Human Rights Council
(HRC). Yet, this accomplishment did not come without controversy. Only
four days before, the Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), launched a withering attack against the
international human rights body and announced her intention to introduce
legislation that would block the United States from running for
reelection at the HRC.

Thanks to its active presence on the HRC,
the Obama administration was able to work with Sweden and a broad
coalition of cross-regional partners to ensure the Council took action
on Iran. This groundwork paid off today as the HRC voted to establish an
independent human rights monitor on Iran to address the ongoing human
rights crisis.

The need for a monitor is clear. Iran’s dismal human rights record
has only been getting worse, with the Iranian government going on an
“execution binge” and severe penalties for political dissent that have
even landed 28 journalists and 9 bloggers in prison.

independent human rights monitor can provide greater transparency and
protect victims by focusing international attention and scrutiny on the
Iranian government’s abuses. In fact, a recent study by the Brookings
Institution found that human rights monitors are “one of the most
effective tools of the international human rights system.”

A human
rights monitor was in place for Iran from 1984 to 2002, and Iran’s
human rights situation did improve over that time. But the vote to renew
the monitor lost by one vote in 2002, while the United States was
absent from the UN Human Rights Commission under the Bush
administration. Instead, the United States was left to criticize Iran
from afar with nothing concrete to actually show for it. Now we see the
Obama administration picking up the pieces and rebuilding the
international consensus necessary to have a measurable impact on this
issue. However, if Ros-Lehtinen gets her way, the effort will come to a
crashing halt and a unique opportunity to truly support human rights in
Iran would be squandered.

In the case of Iran, a monitor is
especially important since the Iranian government is surprisingly
sensitive to criticism of its human rights violations.  The New York
Times’ former Iran correspondent, Nazila Fathi, recently testified that
international pressure on human rights makes a difference. She explained
that the government constantly pressured her not to report cases of
human rights violations or the number of executions that took place, and
that pressure was reduced on prisoners when their cases were publicized
or when the international community issued statements of concern.

this is why Iran’s government has worked so feverishly at the UN and
the HRC to block efforts to scrutinize its human rights violations.
Recent reports from diplomats in Geneva indicate that Iran lobbied the
often-sympathetic Organization of Islamic Conference and Non-Aligned
Movement states on the HRC to block the vote to establish a monitor. But
like its bid to join the HRC last year, Iran’s efforts were thwarted
thanks to the vigorous efforts of the United States at the international
human rights body.

As the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State Suzanne Nossel said at the National Iranian American Council’s
recent human rights conference on Capitol Hill, an international rights
monitor “carries the imprimatur of the entire international community,
and in this case would deliver information and messages that would be
difficult for Tehran to dismiss or counter.” In short, an international
human rights monitor has more credibility and carries more weight than
the statements of any one country.

There’s little likelihood that
this success will sway Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen from pushing forward her
legislation attacking U.S. participation at the HRC. Skeptics will argue
that the action came too late, although the inconvenient truth is that
the United States was reluctant to press the issue earlier, fearing it
would divert political capital from its efforts to increase
international sanctions to punish Iran for its nuclear program. But in
Iran’s century long struggle for democracy, it is better for
international action on human rights to have come late than never. And
it is safe to say that this action would have never happened without
strong backing from the United States. 

So while Iran’s diplomats,
including its Deputy Foreign Minister, lost the battle at the United
Nations Human Rights Council, they can take comfort that if Ros-Lehtinen
succeeds their job will be much easier next time. But for now, the
Iranian people can take comfort that the international community is
finally answering their call for human rights.

David Elliott is the assistant policy director for the National
Iranian American Council.  This article first appeared in the
Congressional newspaper, “The Hill




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