Iranian Delegation Pushes Back Without Substance

Declares “Multiculturalism” Legitimates Violations 

The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert treaty body tasked with reviewing countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), confronted the Iranian government delegation with grave violations of the treaty on 17 and 18 October in Geneva.

Aaron Rhodes, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and attendee at the session, said that it seemed as thought the Iranian delegation were biding their time. “It is truly unfortunate the Committee raised concerns about the same issues in 2011 that were raised in 1993, which was the last time Iran submitted to a review,” he said. Adding that the Iranian delegation seemed surprised by the number of questions raised, Rhodes said that Iran’s ICCPR review had to be extended to an unprecedented length due to the insufficiency of Iran’s written responses in answering the Committee’s questions.

The ICCPR is the major international treaty protecting civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, and freedom from torture. Iran ratified the ICCPR in 1975 and is legally bound by its provisions. As party to the ICCPR Iran must submit itself to a periodic review of its record of compliance by the Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Covenant and makes recommendations for needed improvements.

During the review the Iranian delegation attempted to deflect criticisms by consuming response time with meandering responses. Instead of responding to the Committee’s concern about facts on the ground in Iran, the delegation often repeated that Iran’s laws and practices protect human rights. They claimed the principle of cultural relativism gives Iran latitude to interpret its human rights obligations.

At the start of the hearing, the delegation alleged that it has a good working relationship with UN bodies including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, referring to a plan for “technical cooperation.” They expressed Iran’s continuing and increasing commitment to the ICCPR and human rights since the 1979 revolution. However, Iran has not permitted a review of its ICCPR performance for 18 years, and has not allowed any visit by a Special Rapporteur since 2005.  Moreover, Iran has not responded to requests by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmad Shaheed, to visit the country.

While the Committee expressed appreciation for Iran’s participation in the review, they criticized the delegation for failing to engage fully in the process. Yuji Iwasawa, a member from Japan and vice-chair of the Committee, told the delegation that its written submissions and responses did not answer the Committee’s questions. Iulia Motoc, a Committee member from Romania, was surprised that the delegation has refused to answer questions about the persecution of homosexuals as “beyond the mandate and subject matter of the Covenant.” Rafeal Rivas Posada, from Columbia, also voiced his concern about Iran’s non-response, saying, “You are clearly not complying with your mandate on this issue.”

Cornelius Flinterman, from The Netherlands, stressed that equality between men and women was a core principle of the Covenant. He asked why Iran was one of only seven states worldwide that had not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). He raised concern that women reportedly faced new segregation policies in higher education. Flinterman asked why women occupied only 2.7% of seats in Parliament and were largely absent from decision-making positions except those that correlate with traditional views of female roles.

The Iranian delegation responded that “there is no gender discrimination in Iran as such,” but said other explanations can be attributed to the different treatment of men and women. The delegation explained that physiological differences between women and men make women particularly suited for government positions on family issues, education, and health.

Flinterman also declared the Iranian government’s claims about female judges misleading. Flinterman and other Committee members took issue with the fact that members of the One Million Signatures Campaign had been jailed for peacefully seeking to change discriminatory laws. The government asserted that nobody was in prison for his or her membership in the Campaign and that those people had committed other crimes.

Christine Chanet, a Committee member from France, denounced mass executions for drug-related crimes, saying such crimes did not warrant the death penalty under international law. “It is not up to states to define what are the most serious crimes,” she said, stressing that certain sexual conduct and apostasy are capital crimes in Iran. She complained that the delegation had ignored questions about the execution of minors and about which crimes carried death sentences. Deputy of the Iran’s Human Rights High Council, Khosro Hakeeme, admitted that “70% of executions in Iran are for narcotics violations” but ignored concerns that people could be executed for their sexual conduct or religious belief.

Ms. Motoc asked if Iran had investigated the deaths of about 100 persons during post-election demonstrations in 2009, complaining no one had been brought to justice for the death of Neda Agha Soltani despite video and other evidence of culpability. She also expressed concern over the jailing of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists.

Gerald Neuman, from the United States, noted that in a written response to the Committee, Iran said 13 investigations of torture had taken place in the last four years. “This is an extraordinarily low number of investigations” for a country the size of Iran, he said, and asked what measures were being taken to uncover more cases of torture and ill-treatment.

Ms. Chanet asked additional questions about how the independence of the Judiciary was protected. She was concerned about cases in which lawyers had no access to their clients’ files and were unable to call defense witnesses.

The delegation insisted that the Iranian Judiciary was completely independent, although “there might be cases of negligence.” They admitted results of any trial in which lawyers had been restricted from doing their work would be suspect and should be appealed. However, they failed to address allegations that defendants don’t get fair trials and access to lawyers.

Several Committee members raised concerns about the harassment and imprisonment of human rights lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh. In response, an Iranian delegate said that lawyers who acted “in their own interests” could be prosecuted, and noted that some lawyers had approached their professional duties in such a way in order to receive offers of foreign citizenship.

Mr. Ahmad Amin Fathalla of Egypt observed that political opinions were at the heart of the freedom of expression. He requested clarification about what was considered politically offensive speech and raised concerns over arrested journalists. He said that to claim any criticism of the government is “divisive” is at variance with the Covenant. Fathalla went on to express concern about restricted Internet bandwidth, blocked websites, and the interruption of email communication.

A delegate said “media are completely free.” and “categorically denied” the existence of banned media, but then recited a list of prohibited actions including propaganda against the state and insulting the president, arguing freedom of expression is not absolute. Iranian MP Zohreh Elahian said that Iran banned pornography, other indecent material, and incitement against the government, and that “families were concerned.”

Mr Fathalla also expressed deep concern about Iran’s treatment of religious minorities including Sunni Muslims, Sufis, and the Baha’is.  He noted that the Committee had received information that 110 members of the Baha’i faith were in prison.  The Iranian delegation stated that Baha’is enjoy full citizen rights but that the behavior of both the Sufis and the Baha’is was problematic, and violated laws, requiring the government to step in at times to prevent social conflict.  They ignored concerns for Sunni Muslims.

When Mr. Iwasawa raised concern about trade union association and assembly rights, he was told, “Iran has one of the strongest labor laws,” in the world, with workers councils and 250 independent guilds. Workers are allowed to air their grievances in rallies, and are only arrested when they destroyed public property, said a delegate.  In reality, there are no independent guilds in Iran and those attempting to form independent guilds are often persecuted.

At the end of the session, several members of the Committee expressed skepticism about the Iranian delegation’s written and oral responses, particularly with regard to the rights of the Baha’i people. Ms. Motoc said, “Freedom of expression does not seem to exist.”

The Committee Chairperson concluded that several issues in particular seemed to require further work:  the status of the Covenant in domestic law; the equality of men and women; the death penalty; torture; the rights of Baha’is; and the persecution of homosexuals, which she affirmed was indeed an issue within the purview of the ICCPR.