From Bad to Worse: The Human Rights Situation in Iran
Despite the recent focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s deteriorating human rights situation has been the subject of mounting international concern for a number of years. The conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who first took power in 2005, has harmed Iranians’ interests through its divisive factional infighting, economic ineptitude, and deepening confrontation with both the democratic world and Iran’s Arab rivals. But a newly published United Nations report has highlighted the extent to which the regime’s policies have also degraded the country’s already poor human rights conditions during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.
Presented to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this week, the document amounts to a damning indictment of the Iranian regime. Not only is it the council’s first comprehensive human rights report devoted to Iran since 2002—and the first report on Iran by any of the council’s special rapporteurs since 2005—it is also the first such report to have been published since the disputed presidential election of 2009. The official results of that balloting led many thousands of young Iranians to pour into the streets to protest apparent abuses of the electoral system by the authorities. Violently suppressed by the security forces over the course of several months, these protests foreshadowed the uprisings that broke out in the Arab world less than two years later.
The report was authored by Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister from the Maldives. He notes that despite his numerous attempts to meet with senior government officials in Tehran, he was repeatedly denied access to the country. Iran insists that it is willing to cooperate with the Human Rights Council, but it has accused Shaheed of being a stooge of the West, and past appeals by the council’s various thematic rapporteurs have yet to be addressed by Iranian authorities.
Furnished with the testimony of multiple Iranian civil society organizations, Shaheed asserts that the government has been responsible for the cruel and degrading treatment of detainees, the imposition of the death penalty without proper judicial safeguards, and the steady erosion of civil and political rights. Anyone caught in the government crosshairs can be charged with vaguely defined crimes including acting against national security, insulting the supreme leader, and spreading propaganda against the regime.
Among the most high-profile cases are those of opposition leaders Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The two men have been under house arrest since February 2011, when they called on the public to protest in solidarity with the other pro-democracy uprisings in the region. No formal charges have been brought against them, and they have been unable to communicate with the outside world. They have been allowed only a handful of family visits over the past few months. Other well-known cases include that of prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. After being summoned to Evin prison in September 2010, she was arrested and transferred to solitary confinement for conspiring against national security. She has since been sentenced to six years in prison and banned from her profession for an additional 10 years. Sotoudeh has undergone several hunger strikes behind bars, and is reportedly in poor health.
There does not seem to be much hope on the horizon for the political opposition or civil society activists in Iran. Tightly controlled parliamentary elections earlier this month confirmed the dominance of conservative factions loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad’s resulting loss of influence is unlikely to hold any particular benefit for the country’s forcibly marginalized reformist groups. Meanwhile, responding to external threats such as devastating economic sanctions and political changes in the Arab world, the ruling hard-liners have pursued a campaign of intimidation and oppression at home and bolstered the murderous government in Syria as it attempts to crush its own opposition movement.
It remains unclear whether Tehran will be able to successfully navigate its current international difficulties. But the new UN human rights report serves as an important reminder of the problem that lies at the heart of the world’s perennial tensions with Iran—the aggressively antidemocratic character of its regime.
* Nicholas Bowen recently earned his PhD from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is currently assisting with Freedom House’s forthcoming report Freedom of the Press 2012.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.