Iran, human rights and international relations

Ahmed Shaheed. United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran

Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran - Photo: UN

As Iran faces international pressure over allegations of its involvement in the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report which may contain more damaging revelations about its nuclear program, a third specter may soon come to haunt it: Human rights.

Iran’s abysmal human rights record 

The Islamic Republic has one of the worst human rights records of any country anywhere, going back to the very genesis of the regime. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Khomeinists executed thousands of people of all stripes with no due process in order to wipe out opposition and consolidate power. Arbitrary arrest, torture and executions were a fact of life throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which followed the revolution, culminating in the mass executions of the summer of 1988 in which thousands are believed to have been executed in a matter of days. In addition to this, throughout the 1980s and 1990s the regime was involved in the assassination of the opposition abroad, as well as the brutal murders of dozens of intellectual figures within Iran in what has become known as the Chain Murders.

As the United Nation’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed’s report and an International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) account from February 2011 both make clear, the violation of human rights in Iran continues to this day and is systematic in two important ways.

First, virtually every category of human rights is violated in Iran. Ethno-linguistic minorities, who have long sought a degree of administrative and cultural autonomy and rights were among the first victims of the regime, and continue to suffer from state discrimination and harsh anti-insurgency campaigns in their home regions. Religious minorities, particularly Baha’is, face legal discrimination, such as exclusion from higher education and state jobs, destruction of their holy sites and places of worship, and worst. Likewise, women are also legally discriminated against, particularly within the judicial system where their lives, testimony and inheritance are valued as being half of a man’s. These three examples only begin to help us illustrate the true breadth of Iran’s human rights problem.

Second, the Islamic Republic violates human rights through the denial of due process, from the moment one comes into contact with authorities to after one is released from their custody. Arrests are often arbitrary and can happen to a person without any formal charges being pressed for long periods. Once in detention, torture is often used to obtain false confessions against a defendant. This is exacerbated by limited access to legal counsel, with lawyers often denied access to their clients, and intimidated for raising complaints. Trials are often a sham, with the outcome pre-determined. When sentences are given, they are often for vague charges such as moharebeh or “enmity against god”, and can carry heavy penalties from decades in prison to capital punishment. Even after a person has completed a prison sentence or been executed, they or their families will continue to be intimidated. [ICHRI, p.8]

In recent years the dire human rights situation has been worsened by an increase in executions, including alleged secret group executions, giving Iran one of the highest per capita rates of execution in the world. As the ICHRI report has pointed out, Iran executed 85 people in January 2011 alone, more than the number of people executed in all of 2005. [ICHRI, p.2] Iran has been particularly criticized for executing minors or individuals who committed crimes while they were minors. Iran also executes individuals for what are not considered “most serious crimes” under international law, including some categories of drug-related offenses.

Iran’s response to allegations of human rights abuses 

How does the Islamic Republic deal with allegations of human rights abuses, both domestically and abroad? Iran has five primary methods of responding to its detractors.

The first method of response is silence. Particularly in regard to the issue of mass-executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, even the Reformist faction (which is considered by some as being more ‘liberal’) has been tight-lipped and unwilling to substantively deal with this and other skeletons in the closet.

The second method of response has been outright deception. The ICHRI report, which is entitled Official Distortion & Disinformation, highlights outright lies by representatives of the Iranian government. Thus while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may claim that there are no political prisoners in Iran, concrete evidence points in the opposite direction.

The third method of response is to claim that there is a double-standard and focus on what the Iranian government believes to be egregious abuses of human rights by its opponents. Thus, when the US raises systematic rape and torture against political prisoners in the Iranian penal system, the Islamic Republic will point to heinous but isolated instances of human rights violations by the US in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib prison. This defense however merely serves to distract from what the Iranian government is doing rather than explaining away its behavior.

The fourth method of response is a claim to moral relativism, saying that while certain limitations on human rights or punishments may appear barbarous by Western standards, they are acceptable under Islamic law and in Iranian culture. The weakness of this particular response is perhaps belied by the public outcry that punishments such as whipping, amputation, and stoning cause within Iran.

The fifth method of response, specifically for capital punishment, is to say that executions are a private right under qisas or the law of retribution. Under this law a victim or their next of kin can choose whether or not the guilty party is executed, thus exculpating the government of any role in the execution. [ICHRI, p.4, 7]  This is highly problematic because the government is privatizing justice in instances when victims or families, still grieving, are likely to desire vengeance and may not be in a position to determine an appropriate sentence for the offense. Furthermore, qisas executions do not account for the large number of executions carried out for enmity against god and drug offenses.

Iran’s human rights problem in the context of international relations 

Are human rights a paradigm that can be used against Iran by its opponents in the context of international relations (IR)? Yes and no.

Human rights is slowly becoming an important aspect of Iran’s interactions with the US, EU and UN. While it may not yet be as important as the nuclear issue or Iran’s support of non-state-actors in the Middle East, it is gaining momentum. However the effectiveness of human rights as a platform for censuring Iran in IR comes not only from the willingness of Western powers to apply human rights to Iran, but also from the changing dynamics of Iranian society itself. After the experience of the revolution and war, interest in human rights has taken-off in Iran. There are now thousands of activists dedicated to various aspects of human rights, and as we pointed out in a previous story it is also seeping into Iranian politics.

On the other hand, the human rights issue may be subsumed just as quickly as it arose, particularly if Iran is able to exchange economic and security concessions in order to relieve pressure on this and others fronts. This has happened in the past and may happen again. However, with momentum building within Iran for greater human rights, this paradigm may prove to be more than a disposable tool deftly wielded by Western powers. Rather, it may become a self-sustaining issue in Iran’s international relations, perhaps not on par with Iran’s nuclear program, but important nonetheless. As the UN reacts to the Shaheed report and deliberates, we will get a clearer idea of whether this is the case.