Human rights in Iran: renewing the challenge

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent

Veteran human rights campaigner Javaid Rehman has been unanimously approved by the United Nations as the man to address the human rights situation in Iran. Global Insight speaks with him as he begins the challenging new mandate.

The United Nations recently named Javaid Rehman, a veteran human rights advocate and academic, as its Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under his mandate, established under resolution 37/30, Rehman will report twice a year to the UN Council and the 193-member UN General Assembly. In an exclusive interview, Rehman tells Global Insight that he wants his tenure to lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in Iran and better engagement with the government in Tehran. Questions nevertheless remain as to what exactly the right tools are for the international community to improve the situation in the country.

During its 38th session in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) selected Rehman for the mandate from a pool of 14 applicants. The legal expert emerged as the unanimous choice.

A well-known advocate for the protection of human rights, Rehman has previously advised the World Bank and the United States Senate. As a professor of law at Brunel University in London, he headed the Law School from 2009 to 2013, and has lectured and written extensively on international, Islamic and human rights law. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI met Rehman in honour of his writings on interfaith dialogue.

‘This position is a very influential one as the Special Rapporteur leads the discussions and developments in the UN system on human rights issues in Iran,’ says Arad Reisberg, Head of Brunel Law School.

‘Essentially, the resolution asks me to monitor and investigate the human rights situation in Iran. It asks me to transmit appeals and letters related to Iran,’ the 51-year-old professor, born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, explains. ‘I’ll follow the mandate that’s been given to me. I’ll monitor the human rights situation in Iran. I’ll report on it. I will raise issues with the Iranian government when it’s important and urgent.’

One of Rehman’s major challenges will be how to open channels of communication with the Iranian government, and visit Iran – a task his predecessors haven’t been able to do. The UNHRC resolution urges Tehran to allow the Special Rapporteur to visit the country and for the government to assist him in filing accurate and timely reports. ‘I’ll collaborate with other mandate holders, for example where there’s a case of extra-judicial execution or there’s a risk of torture. Likewise, I’m very keen to work with the mandate holders on the freedom of religion and belief. I’m very keen to work with my colleagues in the UN so we can have a better protection of human rights,’ Rehman says.

Access denied

Iran, however, has denied access to previous Rapporteurs because Tehran doesn’t recognise the mandate. Rehman says Iran is still engaged even though the country hasn’t allowed rights monitors in before. Rehman hopes he will experience more cooperation than his predecessors and that he and the government can work together to curtail rights violations.

“I’ll monitor the human rights situation in Iran. I’ll report on it. I will raise issues with the Iranian government when it’s important and urgent

Javaid Rehman
UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Rehman has written to the Iranian authorities to introduce himself and to request a visit to Iran, though as Global Insight went to press, the outcome of this initial approach was not yet known. ‘I am very keen to travel to Iran because that’s part of monitoring and reporting. It’s still in quite early stages of the process,’ Rehman says.

‘I started the mandate in the middle of July. We are waiting to have this conversation conducted properly. It will take some time to see in which direction we are going. I can only say that in the past, since 2011, no mandate holder has been able to visit and that’s on the record itself. I am optimistic. I want to visit. I am very keen to visit but we will see how it unfolds.’

This latest attempt to re-focus on Iran goes back to 24 March 2011, when the UNHRC adopted a resolution re-establishing the mandate of a Special Rapporteur. (The previous mandate established by the Commission on Human Rights had been terminated in 2002.) The motivation was to respond to increasing human rights abuses that had accompanied an earlier government crackdown on Iranians protesting the controversial re-election of former orthodox President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Alarmed by the Arab Spring, which saw some regimes falling under the weight of public street protests, Tehran has routinely responded violently to demonstrations. Protesters are often labelled as ‘foreign agents’ and accused of undermining national security.

Since 2011, two other Special Rapporteurs have undertaken the mandate. The first was Maldivian diplomat Ahmed Shaheed, who held the post from 2011 to 2016. Shaheed was followed by Pakistani human rights advocate Asma Jahangir, who died from a cardiac arrest in Lahore in February this year, aged 66. Jahangir wrote a damning report detailing persistent rights abuses in Iran that was published posthumously in March.

Though Rehman was an uncontentious and uncontroversial choice, Iran has not made any public statements on the new monitor. The Iranian Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests from Global Insight for comment. The Islamic Republic News Agency, which reflects official policy, reported on the appointment, noting that previous Rapporteurs used unverified information from Iranian opposition groups and exiled dissidents.

‘Due to using invalid sources especially anti-Iran terrorist Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, Tehran has not so far recognized many reports as regard human rights conditions in Iran,’ the Agency said in July immediately after Rehman was named for the job.

The People’s Mujahedin of Iran, better known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, was an armed resistance group that was for a long time on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, but was removed in 2012. The group advocates for regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that is almost three times the size of France. Iran’s representative at the UNHRC Kazem Gharib-Abadi has often called reports on Iran’s human rights ‘political’ and has routinely slammed monitors for ignoring rights improvements in the country, home to 82 million people.

However, before her death, Jahangir repeated criticism of the situation of human rights in Iran and stressed there was no real progress in the country despite public promises from Iranian officials. She said the information she received did not indicate any notable shift in the situation of human rights in the country.

Gharib-Abadi added another argument against the work of the Rapporteur, saying in 2017 that ‘human rights in Iran should not be judged through the eyes of secular liberal democracy’.

Iran went on the attack over Jahangir’s report. Iranian state television accused the Rapporteur of receiving bribes from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-foe in the region, to use fake information – accusations she strongly denied. Her predecessor, Shaheed, was also accused by Iranian officials of being an agent of both the US’ Central Intelligence Agency and the Israeli national intelligence agency Mossad.

Future cooperation

That may not bode well for Rehman’s new mission. However, he says international law is on the side of human rights and that could be used for the betterment of the rights of Iranians. Rehman notes that Iran is a signatory to various UN instruments on human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration obliges countries to protect citizens from torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest or detention – all issues that rights advocates say the Iranian clerical regime still commits in violation of its international commitments and against its own people. Rehman says one of the tasks he faces is to bring compliance with international obligations.

Working in his favour perhaps is that Iran has a moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, who proclaimed his mission as rebuilding the Iranian economy, reaching out to the outside world and respecting human rights at home.

Rouhani specifically pledged to introduce a Charter on Citizens’ Rights that would prevent future human rights violations. In his 2017 speech to the UN General Assembly, Rouhani said: ‘We in Iran strive to build peace and promote the human rights of peoples and nations. We never condone tyranny and we always defend the voiceless.’

On the other hand, Rehman’s appointment comes as Iran is witnessing an internal power struggle between hardliners and moderates and as the country braces for more economic sanctions led by the US under the Trump administration. That has generally emboldened the hawks in Iran who are not amenable to the human rights cause and view the issue as a means of exerting Western pressure to derail Iran’s regional and foreign policy. Hardliners in Iran are likely to fall on the side of denying Rehman access to the country.

Without access to Iran, it’s not clear how Rehman will obtain testimony. He may have to rely on Iran’s large exile and refugee population to provide evidence for future reports.

Several players with an interest in Iran have already said they are reaching out to Rehman in a bid to bring more attention to the rights situation in the country.

Jamal Abdi, newly appointed President of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, welcomes Rehman’s appointment and says that reports from the Iran Rapporteur are instrumental in pressuring the Iranian regime to improve human rights. ‘The appointment of Dr Rehman to serve as the next Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran will ensure the continuation of important and neutral work aimed at holding Iran’s government accountable to its international human rights obligations,’ Abdi says. ‘These balanced reports provide an important opportunity for the Rapporteur, backed by the UN and the broader international community, to press Iran to abide by the recommendations of the report and move toward compliance with its human rights obligations.’

Previous reports have painted dire pictures of violations such as arbitrary arrests, discriminatory treatment of women and religious minorities, executions for non-violent crimes in unfair trials and the lack of an independent judiciary, as well as the absence of freedom of expression and assembly. Internationally, Iran has been accused for many years of rampant abuses such as arrests of journalists and stifling labour unions. Legal experts say judicial proceedings in Iran often do not fulfil stringent guarantees of fair trial and due process, alarmingly in cases where the death penalty is a possibility. Canada, the US, the European Union and the UN often condemn Tehran for the lack of improvements.

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In September, three Kurdish political prisoners were executed despite urgent appeals from UN human rights experts for Iran to halt the executions. Loghman Moradi, Zanyar Moradi and Ramin Hossein Panahi were executed in Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj. The UN revealed in a statement that they were subjected to torture, severe beatings, tied up in stress positions and threatened with rape in order to force them to confess to the murder of the son of an Islamic cleric in 2009.

Also this month, Tehran further intensified its crackdown on rights defenders and lawyers, arresting four people in September alone. It is such circumstances that cause some observers to doubt that an immediate improvement in the rights situation in Iran is possible, despite the new appointment of Rehman.

‘The human rights situation in Iran is complex, mixing an autocratic government with religion, internal politics, regional politics and nuclear weapons,’ says Daniel Appelman, Membership Officer of the IBA Human Rights Committee and a partner at US law firm Montgomery & Hansen. Appelman feels there will be limited opportunity for improvement short term and emphasises the need for ‘effective internal pressures on the government by civil society and effective economic incentives from the EU and the US. And those two probably need to work in conjunction.’

Turning Iran around

Rehman tells Global Insight that since his appointment he has been busy looking into different aspects of Iran’s rights landscape. ‘I’ve been engaged with various issues of civil and political rights but also economic rights, cultural rights, minority rights,’ he says. ‘These past few months have been largely to assimilate the issues so that I may be able to report them.’

Rehman acknowledges that Iran is not alone in being of concern when it comes to human rights. ‘You can see the level of challenge posed to each country, even in countries in the West. Maybe there are countries that are generally recognised to be respecting human rights, but they also have challenges and issues,’ he continues.

Iran’s challenges are serious and for the country to change, a starting point would be to encourage the Islamic Republic to implement laws that comply with international human rights treaties. ‘To turn Iran around is challenging in itself and the laws will have to comply with human rights treaties. Countries have to accept human rights obligations. Many countries have not ratified a number of treaties. But this is a starting point. Once you accept laws in principle then you have to implement them as well. I think that’s the real test in any country,’ he says.

‘Rehman will face challenges – and opportunities – unlike any that confronted his forerunners,’ says Tzvi Kahn, Senior Iran Analyst at the hawkish Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Kahn, who monitors Iran closely, says that recent nationwide protests have pushed Iran’s poor human rights record to the forefront of international attention, which made ‘Tehran’s denials even more risible than its previous distortions. In fact, the regime itself lacks credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.’

Kahn believes Rehman will have an international impact, particularly when the risk of a crackdown is high: ‘The new Special Rapporteur can demonstrate that the world is watching – and that international pressure will not cease until Tehran addresses its people’s rightful demands.’

Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at