Testimony and remarks

Iran Accountability Week: Testimony by Freedom House President Mark P. Lagon

Testimony by Mark P. Lagon
President, Freedom House

Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights, Parliament of Canada

Mr. Chairman, Honorable Vice-chairs and Committee members, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the situation of human rights in Iran.

Allow me to start by first commending the Government of Canada, which year after year has been a leader at the United Nations General Assembly in denouncing the systematic abuses that the Iranian regime commits against its citizens.  Freedom House applauds Canada’s commitment to this noble cause, and we pledge to work with you to maintain global attention on these persistent violations against the Iranian people.

We are at a different juncture than we were two years ago. International engagement on Iran’s nuclear program has given hope to Iranians that they may emerge from the decades-long isolation imposed on them by their government. Dialogue and diplomacy should always be welcomed, but they are not an end in themselves. The talks with Iran have unfortunately coincided with a de-prioritization and de-linking of human rights from the global agenda, when they should instead advance the concerns that the Iranian people and the world share about the regime’s repression of its citizens.

Two years ago, in a tense and securitized environment, Iranians were deciding whether to vote in another deeply flawed election in their country. In a courageous move, many returned to the polls in an attempt to shed an exceedingly repressive eight years under the Ahmadinejad administration, and to help avert the specter of conflict between their country and the West. Some Iranian pragmatists described the choice as one for the “the best of the worst” among the eight candidates approved by senior clerics. 

Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate aligned with leading reformists and supporters of human rights was elected because he promised to remove restrictions on speech, advance women’s rights, and release dozens of political prisoners jailed because they criticized the government’s handling of the 2009 election. Eighteen months later, Rouhani’s campaign promises have failed to materialize. Despite the president’s rhetoric and some superficial steps, he has not delivered on his vows for reform, and his administration has focused almost entirely on the nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, the country’s hardliners have deepened repression. The human rights situation has deteriorated further, as is clear in relation to gender equality, increasing imprisonment and execution of political opponents, and crackdowns on the freedoms of expression and religion.

Iranians continue to demand gender equality, but have instead seen further deterioration. Vicious acid attacks against women have gone unpunished. Pending legislation restricts the hours during which women are allowed to work, and creates a hierarchy for public sector hiring that would further marginalize women, particularly those who are not married. Other bills would empower employers and members of the religious militia to enforce the government’s conservative dress code for women, curb the use of modern contraceptives, outlaw voluntary sterilization, and dismantle state-funded family-planning programs.

Since 2013, authorities have banned women from 77 fields of study, effectively reversing hard-earned educational achievements. Another law passed over the fervent objections of Iran’s human rights community effectively legalizes forced marriage by allowing men to marry girls as young as nine, provided that they are adopted or step daughters. Iranian women are banned from watching public sporting events, and have campaigned for years to end this discriminatory policy. In a sign that international pressure works, warnings by international sporting authorities to refuse Iran hosting privileges for competitions have led officials to signal a possible change in these policies. 

In this context, in an especially ill-informed move on April 10, UN members elected Iran to the board of UN Women, a public embarrassment to the body’s efforts to advance women’s empowerment globally. 

A second and increasingly blatant violation of human rights by the Iranian regime is its staggeringly high execution rate. Iran is second only to China in the number of executions it carries out, and it leads the world in juvenile executions.  In 2014, executions in Iran reached their highest level in 12 years with 753 individuals put to death, 53 of whom were executed publicly and 14 of whom were juveniles. To put Iran’s appalling record into regional perspective, Saudi Arabia executed 90 people in 2014. Unfortunately, 2015 will likely be even worse: at least 300 people were executed in the first four months of this year, a 20 percent increase on the 2014 execution rate.

Iran holds at least 1,150 political prisoners, but likely far more given many Iranian families’ fear of government reprisals if they come forward.  Some political prisoners are held in solitary confinement in facilities outside the purview of Iran’s prison authority. The 2009 presidential candidates, and leaders of the Green Movement—Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard—remain under house arrest without charge for a fourth year in a row.  Just this morning,  prominent human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, was arrested under national security charges as punishment  for her peaceful activism in favor of abolishing the death penalty, and for meeting with EU officials in their visit to the country in March 2014.

Iran’s media and online environment are among the most repressive in the world. In 2014, seven newspapers and magazines were shut down, and blogs and news websites were subject to state censorship and filtering. At least 44 Iranian journalists are imprisoned, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who has been in prison for nine months under espionage charges. Iran’s conservative Press Supervisory Board recently banned a popular women’s magazine that had received a new license from the Rouhani government after years of being shuttered under the previous government. The violation: publishing views on the cohabitation of unmarried adults and access to public sporting events by women.  (To point out these affronts to women’s inherent rights in Iran is not to say that those Middle Eastern and Gulf states more closely aligned with Canada, the U.S., and other Western states should be subject to any less scrutiny.  Whether Saudi Arabia or other some so-called “strategic partners,” the systematic political, social, and economic disempowerment of women is reprehensible, not to mention it squandering great assets to their societies.)

Among the 65 countries studied in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, Iran is ranked at the very bottom. Authorities restrict online access to information through control of internet infrastructure, extensive website filtering, rampant surveillance, and systematic arrests. Millions of websites, including Facebook and Twitter, remain blocked for Iranian citizens while the president, cabinet officials and the Supreme Leader use social media to connect to the world. Last fall, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of 30 year old blogger Soheil Arabi for a Facebook post deemed insulting to religious sanctities. Other online offenders were sentenced to between 7 and 20 years for blogging for a technology website, contributing to a Sufi website, and Facebook posts deemed blasphemous to the regime.

Religious freedom is also under serious and continued threat. Bahai’s, Christian converts, Sunnis, and Sufis continue to be targeted, and dozens are in prison. 

Academic freedom is limited, especially for Baha’is and women, but President Rouhani has taken positive steps to ease repression on university campuses. In 2014, about a dozen student associations were allowed to renew their work after being forcibly shut down under the previous administration, while several new groups were recently granted permits to operate. Real reform is unlikely, however: the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology—who had lifted restrictions on universities and allowed students expelled for their political activism to resume their studies—was impeached by Parliament.  

Independent labor unions continue to be banned and those who participate in protests are fired or summoned to court. At least 230 people were arrested in peaceful labor protests over the past year, and nearly a thousand were fired in February 2015 for participating in labor protests. Five labor leaders were arrested on the eve of International Workers Day.

Unfortunately, it appears that these crackdowns will continue. The Parliament has introduced new legislation that would further restrict Iranians’ rights to expression and association, and would enable regime conservatives to control the country’s civic and political space ahead of Assembly of Experts and Parliamentary elections next year. These measures would bring political parties, journalists, and NGOs firmly under the control of commissions and councils dominated by hardline authorities, and outlaw any activity that the regime considers harmful to its interests. 

Indeed, elections, which are used in Iran to legitimize theocratic rule, rarely change the country’s political reality. They rarely do because unelected institutions—primarily the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and increasingly the judiciary and security services—effectively have veto power over the decisions of elected institutions, including the parliament and executive.  

While Khamenei may wish to be viewed as a broad, overarching, supreme guide, he is in reality a micro-manager over an expanding web of committees and councils in various organs and branches of government. These entities, which Khamenei’s appointees control, oversee policymaking in every field, including socio-cultural, foreign, and economic policy. They ensure that policymaking is in line with the leader’s views; that no center of power gains more influence than the leader; and that decision-makers are shielded from any accountability and influence that could come from domestic or external actors.

Similarly, the country’s electoral system is designed to ensure that candidates and the entire electoral process are carried out under the authority of the Supreme Leader, and not the Ministry of Interior. All candidates for high public office are heavily vetted by the Guardian Council on the basis of subjective criteria and non-transparent procedures. In practice, this means that public officials and political hopefuls are accountable primarily to the Supreme Leader, and only secondarily to the electorate. Iranian presidents have naturally found themselves in an untenable position, which is likely why every Iranian president since the beginning of the Islamic revolution has fallen out of favor of the Supreme Leader and considered ineffective in the eyes of the country’s citizenry.

Iranians have repeatedly attempted to achieve reform through the ballot box and through peaceful protests, but two decades of experience has proven that it will be far more difficult and costly, if not impossible, to achieve without international support. At this critical juncture, the world must not turn its back on the Iranian people’s aspirations for democratic reform. Governments engaging with Iran should make clear to Iranian authorities that attention to human rights will not take a backseat to the pursuit of strategic and security cooperation, and that these issues are deeply intertwined.  Leading human rights defender, Nasrin Sotoudeh, rightly said this in April with regard to the nuclear negotiations: “To think that reaching an international consensus [on the nuclear talks] will by itself lead to an opening in the domestic scene is a mistake.”

  • Freedom House looks forward to supporting a Canadian-sponsored resolution on the human rights situation in Iran at the UN General Assembly this fall. The General Assembly should repeat its request that the Secretary General take additional steps to strengthen his office’s engagement with Iran to improve the implementation of the human rights recommendations in the resolution. 
  • As part of those additional steps, Freedom House calls on the Secretary General to appoint a special advisor on Iran, similar to the special advisors appointed on Burma since 1995 which provide political guidance to Burmese authorities on democratization, peace and development. The special advisor on Iran’s primary role will be to engage in discussions with Iranian authorities on beginning cooperation with the UN on human rights, including providing access to the country by the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, as well as other special procedures, and cooperating fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • We hope that Canada will work in conjunction with the United States and Sweden at the UN Human Rights Council next March to build on the commendable multilateral consensus achieved since 2011 to adopt a resolution that addresses the deteriorating conditions in the country and sets clear and measurable benchmarks for progress. 
  • The mandate of the Special Rapporteur created under the Human Rights Council in 2011 needs to be given more heft by governments. Countries with significant populations of Iranian refugees should allow access to their territories by the rapporteur so he can meet with Iranian victims. The rapporteur’s access to Iran should also be a diplomatic priority for all countries in their engagement with the Iranian government.
  • Iranian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, including high-level officials, should be held accountable by all governments through targeted sanctions.  Even if comprehensive sanctions are lifted in the context of diplomacy on nuclear capabilities, those targeted sanctions would place effective pressure and stigma on those responsible for violating the dignity of women and men in Iran without affecting the general public. We hope Canada will join the US and EU in applying asset freezes and visa bans on Iranian officials responsible for abuses.

The human rights situation in Iran is abysmal.  Canada has been a leader in calling attention to that.  Human rights respecting nations of the Global North and Global South have a responsibility to offer solidarity to ordinary Iranians subject to repression by their government.  A focus on nuclear talks and understandings does not justify sweeping acute human rights abuses under the rug. Rather, a combination of resolve and political guidance by the international community can chart a peaceful path forward for democratic reform in Iran.


Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.