Iran: The nuclear distraction

We must not cast a blind eye on Iran’s violations of fundamental rights…


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad UN visit - human rights protest © david_shankbone


Western preoccupation with Iran’s uranium enrichment programme has distracted the international focus away from the other key issue: the government’s human rights violations. International groups have called for a UN led effort to hold Iran to account for its violation of international treaty obligations and for the contempt it shows for both the international community and its own citizens. If the UN is to be effective, the international community must apply more consistent pressure.

Voluntary human rights obligations

Iran has ratified numerous international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and conventions on issues such as racial discrimination and children’s rights. Such obligations have been frequently violated. Thus UN reports highlight government persecution of minority groups, imprisonment of political activists, torture and executions of its most ardent opponents.

Iran’s response to criticism over its human rights record, that foreign governments shouldn’t interfere in its internal political matters, is difficult to justify. Voluntarily undertaken human rights obligations are not internal political matters but legal norms defined and substantiated by international law.

UN inefficacy

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist imprisoned in Iran for 119 days, has argued that the UN must lead the effort to hold Iran to account. He argues that the UN is one of the few international institutions recognised by Iran as legitimate and so has urged the UN to mandate an official investigator in Iran.

But the UN is not the solution. Propositions involving the UN both overestimate the persuasive force of UN demands and fail to recognise the contempt Iran has shown to this institution. The Universal Period Review carried out in February by the UN Office of Human Rights is an example of both the impotence of UN efforts and the lip service paid to this organization by Iran.

The UPR has made recommendations to improve human rights protection in line with Iran’s treaty obligations. Iran claims to be willing to cooperate with the UNHRC but its response to the recommendations has been ‘cynical’, as described by Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International has led the criticism of the inconsistency with which Iran’s government responded, condemning in particular Iran’s acceptance of the recommendation to respect religious freedom but rejection of the request to end discrimination of Baha’is, a religious minority. The government further rejected recommendations to end juvenile executions, rejected guarantees to uphold fair trials, refused to investigate torture and rape allegations and refused to release people detained for peacefully exercising their human rights. Hassiba Sahraoui, the Middle East Deputy Director at Amnesty International, has argued that the rejection of certain recommendations and acceptance of others similar, casts doubt on the prospect of proper implementation.

Other UN attempts to address the rights’ abuses have been restrained and UN General Assembly Resolution 64/176 is timid. In it the General Assembly express their ‘deep concern’ at extra-judicial executions, floggings and amputations as punishments and of the persistent failure to provide due process of law rights. They also express their ‘concern’ over the worsening of human rights violations after the 2009 Presidential election. And yet the resolution ends by a mere ‘call’ for cooperation, a ‘request’ for the Secretary General to submit another report and commits the UN to continue examining human rights in Iran. A General Assembly resolution is a demand without a sanction.

Missed opportunities

The disputed 2009 elections are emblematic of the gross human rights violations in Iran. Critics of the government were arbitrarily arrested, harassed, detained, imprisoned and tortured. The government claimed to be carrying out investigations into the torture and killings but no one appears to have been brought to justice. Iran continues to mislead the Human Rights Council by making claims that it will implement recommendations made by Governments to conduct transparent and independent investigations. But according to Amnesty International, Iranian security forces continue to arrest, detain or convict those alleged to be involved in the post-election unrest. Political and civil society activists remain in prison and, according to the Iranian judiciary, 250 people have been prosecuted in relation to the post-election unrest and at least six of those accused of taking part are at risk of execution after their death sentences were confirmed by appellate courts.

The flagrant human rights abuses committed during the 2009 election were an opportunity for the international community to unite behind the UN and demand reform. The reluctance of the international community to mount an effective challenge at the time has cost the complete loss of political momentum. With the dust having settled on the election, the international community remains once again singularly focussed on the nuclear threat.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN Summit last year represented another opportunity lost by the international community to engage directly with Iran over its human rights record. When Obama condemned Mr Ahmadinejad’s ‘hateful’ speech, he was predictably light handed on the issue of human rights. The White House transcript of an interview with Obama after the Summit is embarrassing evidence of just how little political space and time was dedicated to the issue of Iran’s human rights abuses. Obama claimed to ‘stand by’ the Iranian people but not once called on Iran to reform and Obama was quick to say he had ‘no interest’ in ‘meddling’ with the rights of people to choose their own government. But what is needed is not a claim to stand by the Iranian people but an effort to speak for the Iranian political and civil activists silenced by imprisonment and torture.

The case for political pressure

Political pressure mounted by the international community is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, the UN is the only international institution that is legally empowered and therefore justified in holding Iran to account. Any action taken by the international community that would circumvent UN machinery would be illegitimate. Instead, UN member states must support this body because is it clear that Iran has no intention of taking the Human Rights Council and, by extension, the UN, seriously.

Secondly, political pressure is necessary because the international community is obliged to speak on behalf of silenced Iranian activists. For Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize Winning Iranian human rights activist, of paramount importance is the release of civil and political detainees in Iran. Like so many others working to restore human rights in Iran, Mrs Ebadi recognises that the Iranian people must be allowed the opportunity to hold their own government to account. So long as civil and political activists are suppressed, the Iranian people are denied the ability to demand their human rights for themselves. The lack of a political voice of the Iranian people is why the international community must speak on their behalf. The international community must not ‘meddle’ with their rights, must not impose its own understanding of human rights, but simply need do as Obama claims, and stand by the Iranian people by voicing their complaints.

The question that will be asked is whether political pressure will be effective when legal measures have proved futile. But the question should not be one of efficacy but one of necessity. The international community must transform their silent signatures on UN Resolutions into insistent political criticism because the Iranian people, for fear of intimidation, imprisonment and torture, are unable to criticise the government for themselves. The international community must condemn Iran’s human rights violations in the same way it has condemned Iran’s uranium enrichment. The Iranian government may be blind to the human rights abuses it perpetrates but it cannot be deaf to international political condemnation.


A parliamentary report published in 2009 described the human rights abuses in Iran as systematic, yet little parliamentary time has been spent discussing the government response to these abuses. Occasional political statements and a few early day Parliamentary motions do not amount to political pressure. The British government need to do more and should lead the international community in holding Mr Ahmadinejad’s administration to account.

It is widely felt that ‘the West’ is hesitant to complicate the dialogue with Iran over the nuclear programme by discussing human rights or regional peace. Mrs Ebadi argues that non-democratic, non-liberal states like Iran pose a greater threat to peace in the Middle East than nuclear weapons. She goes further to accuse Western governments of forgetting about the subrogation of human rights in Iran since the beginning of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The nuclear programme has ensured that Iran remains central to western foreign policy concerns.  The argument made is one of political reemphasis, not of political refocus: concern about the nuclear threat is self-evidently important, but the threatened nuclear capability should not dominate political discussion to the exclusion of gross human rights violations. As a signatory to human rights treaties, Iran is in violation of international law as a result of its abuses of fundamental rights and governments must hold Iran to account for this. The West is obliged to give the issue of rights violations the space it deserves in political discourse because we have a legal and moral duty to hold the Iranian government to account for the violations of voluntarily undertaken human rights obligations.


Ram Mashru is the editor of the Discuss[n] blog, and writes on subjects including world affairs and politics.