Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Iran Lobbies Over Rights Forum
Iranian activists have viewed with anger and dismay the outcome of a United Nations review of human rights in Iran and the country’s rejection of its recommendations.
Iran attracted criticism from the West over a lack of freedom of speech and assembly and the position of religious minorities like the Bahais at the routine session in Geneva on February 15 of the UN Human Rights Council.
In its reaction to the session, Iran accepted some recommendations but rejected a range of calls to clean up its record and to allow UN human rights and torture inspectors to visit. The UN has no powers to adopt resolutions or enforce any measures raised at the session, called a Universal Periodic Review, UPR.
Already marginalised, Iran appears to have no reason to care about its international image, say analysts. However, some believe that it might not care to be seen next to the governments of some states with notorious human rights records like North Korea, Burma and even China and the path chosen by the Iranian government in Geneva could prove risky.
Analysts say Iran sees human rights as a political and ideological battleground with the West and for that reason puts intensive effort into making alliances to counter the West at the UN forum.
The Iranian delegation led by Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary-general of state's High Council for Human Rights, reserved its response on 20 recommendations but rejected 45, mainly those related to the country's major human rights challenges over the past three decades and particularly since the June 12 presidential elections.
Iran’s reaction to the recommendations, calling its critics an "organised clique", was predictable.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, western countries have frequently used international platforms to criticise the Iranian government for its human rights record. Iran has framed such criticism as a part of western countries’ political fight with it and has never shown any sign of caring about its international obligations.
It has, however, been putting considerable effort into lobbying countries to side with it in international forums and thus ease the political pressure. This resulted in a number speaking in favour of Tehran at the Geneva meeting, including Venezuela, Kuwait, Cuba, China and Russia, all of which have a close political and economic relationship with Tehran.
An Iranian NGO member who was in Geneva for the meeting, and asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR that Iranian diplomats have done an intensive lobbying job.
“Over the past four months there have been dozens of meetings with those countries which share strategic economic, ideological and political interests with Iran to ridicule the Human Rights Council,” he said. “It was so confusing and even funny to see some countries harshly criticise Iran while others praised its human rights and asked Tehran to share its experience on how to improve conditions in other countries.”
One ambassador who spoke in favour of Iran told IWPR in Geneva that his country’s vote was based on the two countries’ political relationship. “The UN is not like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Every vote is designed and calculated precisely towards the countries’ national interests, which might be political or economic,” he said.
“This is not just about the countries of the south. Even the United States and some western countries use such calculations and that’s why countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which do not enjoy brilliant human rights, always get a free ride in international venues because of their relations with the United States and western countries.”
Iran's lawmakers last November allocated 20 million US dollars to investigate what they called "gross violations of human rights by Britain and the United States”, Iran’s state-owned English language Press TV reported.
The bill in the Iranian parliament (Majlis) earmarked the money from its Oil Stabilisation Fund and made human rights a new front in the fight with the West along with the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme and Tehran’s alleged support of terrorism in the Middle East.
Seeking to deflect attention from western countries’ criticism, Larijani in his closing remarks at Geneva referred to the US’s double standards and accused Washington of acting selectively on human rights issues. “We should pay attention to cultural and historical values and the roles these cultures play in human rights,” Larijani said.
Some of the claims made by Larijani and his 32-member delegation were viewed with disbelief by members of the Iranian opposition and human rights activists.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, "Tehran's response to the UPR session contradicts the reality facing thousands of Iranians wishing to exercise their fundamental rights ... The government's denials show that without strong international pressure on Tehran, human rights abuses will continue."
The UPR is applied to all UN members in rotation but in Iran’s case comes as it is under the spotlight following a period of unrest since last June’s re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which the opposition says was fraudulent. The Green Movement that arose out of that opposition has been violently crushed by the authorities when it has demonstrated.
Critics say hundreds of Iranian journalists, activists, students and members of the Bahai community are in prison and Iran executes the second largest number of people in the world.
Larijani said in Geneva that no one in Iran is detained or prosecuted for defending human rights and that such cases that were pursued involve charges of terrorism or espionage.
One Iranian delegate, Ali Raeisol-Sadati, deputy minister of justice, in response to criticism of Iran’s excessive use of capital punishment, said the death penalty is reserved "only for the most serious crimes”.
However, just a week before the UN meeting, a 20-year-old student named Mohammad Amin Valian was charged with moharebeh, or enmity towards God, which is punishable by death. According to human rights organisations, the only evidence against him was a photograph of him throwing a stone during protests on the holy day of Ashura last December. In court, he admitted throwing three stones but said he did not hit anyone or anything. He is one of at least 11 post-election protesters who have been sentenced to death.
A member of the Larijani delegation from the interior ministry said that freedom of assembly is fully respected in Iran and annually more than 5,000 demonstration permits are issued.
However, opposition candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi have both said they cannot get permits for their supporters to assemble and peaceful protesters have been clubbed, beaten, and even gunned down in the streets since June. The government has admitted to at least 42 deaths on the streets since June not including those killed under torture inside prisons.
Members of the Mourning Mothers who hold vigils on Saturdays in Tehran’s Laleh Park are often detained and beaten by security forces; opponents say this is a clear case where freedom of assembly is disallowed and an indication that the government is actually afraid of its own people by not letting even these mostly elderly women demonstrate peacefully.
Larijani’s presence in Geneva to defend the hardline government’s human rights record was seen by the opposition as signalling to those inside and outside Iran that the country is determined to continue its crackdown and ignore its international obligations and the concern of millions of people around the world.
It will not only deepen the mistrust towards the government in Tehran but could also pave the way for world powers to use Iran’s recklessness in this area as an excuse to push their agenda in other areas like the nuclear issue and Iran’s regional and international role.
If so, Iran’s calculated decision to distort the truth over the post-election violence could prove costly, both economically and politically.
Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and blogger based in San Francisco.
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