The decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council to create a special mechanism to monitor the situation in Iran has drawn a furious reaction from Tehran, which refused point-blank to cooperate.
The Human Rights Council in Geneva voted on March 24 to approve the new post of special rapporteur to investigate reports of abuses in Iran – recreating a post that lapsed in 2002. The last time any UN human rights investigator visited the country was in 2005.
The decision means that any alleged breach of human rights could be reported to the UN Security Council by the rapporteur, potentially leading to further international sanctions against Iran, specifically against officials accused of responsibility.
The Iranian government was quick to respond. The day after the ruling, foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said it was an unjustifiable decision taken for political reasons, under pressure from the United States.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s committee for security and foreign policy, said the UN decision was not legal, and Iran should not allow the special rapporteur to enter the country.
The US representative at the Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, rejects suggestions that the decision was prompted by Washington.
“This is not about the United States’ assessment of the human rights situation in Iran,” she told Mianeh. “Virtually, it’s a consensus understanding that Iran is an outlaw in the international community – no matter how you look at it – when it comes to human rights. This is not the particular line of the United States; this is the condemnation of the international community with respect to human rights.”
Donahoe pointed out that representatives of many countries from different parts of the world voted in favour of the resolution.
While US diplomatic efforts played a part in forging a coalition to push through the resolution, the range of countries that voted for it show that it was more than an American project. Of the Human Rights Council’s 47 members, 22 of those present voted for the measure and seven against.
The vote scotched Iran’s advance efforts to persuade council members that its human rights record was satisfactory.
Addressing a session of the UN Human Rights Council in February, Mohammad Larijani, who heads the Iranian High Council for Human Rights, said his country was fully complying with its international obligations, and said the issue was being used by some western governments “as a tool to apply pressure against us”.
Brazil’s yes vote came as a particular blow to Tehran, given Iranian efforts to build a strong relationship with this major South American state over the past four years. A few weeks before the Geneva meeting, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent his adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr to Brazil to put Iran’s side of the story.
But Javanfekr’s lobbying attempt was pre-empted by a delegation from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and other activists who arrived in the country and contacted the local media and civic organisations.
Their visit was part of a two-year effort by Iranian émigré groups and international human rights organisations to provide evidence of rights abuses to the Human Rights Council’s member states, and also to local media and NGOs so that they could hold their governments to account.
Unlike some other offenders like Burma and North Korea, Iran has seen an exodus of prominent lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and victims of violence and torture in recent years. In emigration, these individuals were able to deliver powerful testimony on recent abuses and raise international awareness of the situation inside Iran.
Some rights activists abroad are already gathering evidence against senior officials in hope of filing lawsuits the moment they set foot in the relevant jurisdiction.
According to diplomats present at the Human Rights Council session, the vote represented a resounding defeat for the Iranian government at the hands of rights activists inside and outside the country.
Aside from lobbying efforts by critics, the Human Rights Council vote was influenced by Tehran’s lamentable record of cooperation both with this body and with other supervisory mechanisms such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Tehran has refused to admit UN human rights inspectors since 2005, and of the 80 enquiries that the Human Rights Council submitted to the Iranian government in 2009 and 2010, only eight received replies.
Human Rights Council members will have been particularly disturbed by a report they received in February indicating that the Iranian authorities had confirmed 60 executions last year in just one prison, Mashhad. The sudden revelation of this hitherto unknown fact – contained in a report commissioned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last year – will have led council members to wonder what else lay under the surface that could potentially embarrass them if they voted against the resolution.
Once the special rapporteur is appointed, which should happen by mid-May, he or she will begin compiling a report on Iran. Once again, Iranian émigré activists and international rights groups will feed in the evidence they have gathered.
Depending on the rapporteur’s findings, a report could go before the UN General Assembly in September.
In the past, it has proved difficult for the Human Rights Council to put cases before the General Assembly with a view to having them considered by the Security Council. But the recent unrest in the Middle East has led some analysts to conclude that UN structures will become more receptive and quicker to act on such issues.
The Human Rights Council’s recommendations are not mandatory, but the Security Council’s are, and Tehran would face serious consequences if it ignored them. Its current behaviour – disregarding queries from the Human Rights Council and blocking visits – will do nothing to improve its position.
Omid Memarian is a journalist and multimedia expert based in San Francisco.