In recent weeks, an alarming report of the International Atomic Energy Agency concentrated the world’s attention on Iran’s push to develop nuclear weapons.
But on Dec. 19 — nine days after international Human Rights Day — the United Nations General Assembly reminded the world of another, and perhaps more fundamental, problematic dimension of the Iranian regime’s behavior: its treatment of its own citizens.
UN member states put Iranian human rights abuses front and center by endorsing two new reports — one by Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed, the other by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The reports expressed grave concern about the country’s continuing assault on human rights. A resolution, introduced by Canada, gained 89 countries voting in favor and 30 against, with 64 abstentions. All of the Western democracies supported the nonbinding resolution.
The UN resolution identified a wide range of heinous acts carried out by Iranian government agents, including the frequent use of torture, flogging, and amputation; infliction of capital punishment for vaguely defined crimes, often through coerced confessions; frequent public executions and secret group executions; infliction of the death penalty against minors; and execution by stoning — despite a government rule against it — and by prolonged strangulation. It has been reported elsewhere that Iran executed more than 450 people in 2011, one-third of them in secret executions.
UN members also expressed deep concern at “pervasive gender inequality and violence against women” in Iran, as well as a continued crackdown on women’s human rights defenders and violent repression and arrest of women exercising their right to peaceful assembly. The UN reports on Iran both focused on the persistent arrest of women working for the “Campaign for Equality,” also known as the “One Million Signatures” campaign, which seeks to bring attention to serious forms of gender inequality enshrined in Iranian law.
Iran has engaged in “ongoing, systemic, and serious” infringement of freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, according to the UN resolution. It noted the extensive imprisonment of journalists and bloggers, the forceful breaking up of demonstrations, unfair trial practices that prevail in the Iranian revolutionary courts, and arrests and death sentences for the vague charge of “enmity against God.” The UN resolution called on Iran to immediately release those detained “for simply exercising their right to peaceful assembly and participating in peaceful protests.”
Iranian violations of the rights of minorities, including Christians, Jews, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, and Kurds, were also cited in the UN resolution. It particularly highlighted persecution of members of the Baha’i faith, noting that they have been arbitrarily imprisoned and denied employment, government benefits, and higher education and that 20-year prison sentences were reinstated against leaders of their faith following “deeply flawed legal proceedings.”
The UN also called for Iran to launch an impartial investigation of allegations of killings and other abuses in the crackdown by police and paramilitaries that followed the 2009 presidential elections, which were widely perceived as fraudulent. Iran was pressed to prosecute those responsible for the post-election abuses and to ensure that the upcoming 2012 parliamentary elections “reflect the will of the people.”
These findings remind everyone that it is vitally important that all member states support the UN’s efforts to improve the human rights situation in Iran and the specific recommendations it has set out as a needed course of action. This includes pressing Iran to cooperate fully with the mandate of the special rapporteur and to allow him to visit the country, to allow for the fair investigation of and public reporting on human rights violations, to stop the practice of imprisoning and executing those who express dissent, and to release those already imprisoned.
For all of Iran’s bluster and denial, its leaders are sensitive to such criticism. Iran withdrew its application for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2010 after an international outcry about how it treats its own people.
The realization that such a country may soon possess a nuclear weapon provides added impetus to highlight its human-rights record and press for change. Indeed, we should recall the insight by Soviet physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, who pointed out that “the defense of human rights [is] the only sure basis for genuine and lasting international cooperation.”
Iran must be pressured, by the UN, the United States, and others, to alter its human rights record fundamentally before we can hope to make genuine progress on other issues of global importance.