The Citizenship Rights Charter: Elegant But Useless
The Citizenship Rights Charter: Elegant But Useless
One of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promises was to create a Citizenship Rights Charter. Yesterday, his government published an unofficial draft.
The draft, which was put together by the legal vice president in cooperation with the Presidential Center for Strategic Strategy, makes no mention of Rouhani’s campaign promise. Instead, in its introduction, it cites Koranic edicts and Shi’a teachings, Ayatollah Khomeini’s statements, declarations by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, as well as the third article of the Islamic Republic’s constitution.
The first clause of the charter asserts that all Iranian citizens are equal, regardless of sex, ethnicity, wealth, social class and race and “similar things”. However, considering the existence of so many religions and sects in Iran, the absence of any explanation of what “similar things” is curious, leaving the door open to interpretation.
The charter’s first article has many strong points, including:
— The government guarantees and enforces these rights.
— Government officers who violate these laws and regulations or are negligent in their enforcement will be punished.
— All executive institutions are required to prepare the ground for the execution, the expansion and the supervision of principles embodied in the charter.
Perhaps to ease anxieties and avoid disagreements, the first article stresses that the purpose of the charter is not about “creating, expanding or restricting existing rights”; the document is merely setting forth “a collection of the most important citizenship rights”. This assertion may well heighten apprehension and confirm the view among some that the charter is only a list of rights that are potentially available to Iranian citizens, and that it offers no strong guarantees for the protection of these rights.
The Right to Life and Good Health
The second chapter states that the right to life and health are among citizens’ most important and valued entitlements. But in the same chapter, the third article implicitly defends capital punishment: “No citizen can be denied the right to life, unless ordered by just courts, established on lawful standards and observant of fair prosecution.”
The ninth clause of the same article talks about the government’s duty to participate in national, religious and entertaining ceremonies or celebrations. The eighth clause refers to “good life”, a new term for this kind of government literature. The charter does not make it clear whether the government would participate in ceremonies like “Red Wednesday”, celebrated on the last Wednesday of the Iranian calendar, dating back to pre-Islamic days and featuring a ritual that involves individuals jumping over bonfires. There was no mention of government acknowledgment of or participation in the religious holidays of Sunni Muslims.
The second section of the charter is about freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as well as the right to free access to all media. But wherever there is a reference to these rights, there is also a reference to them being enshrined within “the framework of laws and regulations”. These laws and regulations are regularly defined by the judicial branch of the government, and therefore, because of the way in which the separation of powers operates within the country’s political system, the government is essentially not responsible for them. On the positive side, the section also refers to the rights of journalists and the importance of decent industry standards to be upheld. It also sets out the need for government institutions to help facilitate the process of gathering information and to desist from threatening or punishing journalists.
Article 3 sets out two powerful provisos. The 21st clause emphasises the role of law in supporting the cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic identities of all Iranian citizens. The 22nd clause defends the freedom of using local and ethnic languages and dialects alongside Persian.
The 23rd clause recognises the right of all Iranian citizens to “observe religious, ethnic and cultural rituals and traditions.” The phrase “in the framework of laws and regulations” once again appears here, muddying the clause’s impact, but the fact that religious rituals are recognised here is a step forward.
The right to privacy: a right based on a fantasy
Clause 31 of Article 3 of the draft Citizenship Rights Charter refers to the right to privacy. The clause’s stipulations are almost dreamlike or fantastical:
— The private life of people is protected from wanton intrusions, searches and inspections without legal authorisation.
— Inspecting and disclosing citizens’ letters, electronic and otherwise, and their postal parcels, are not permitted.
— Inspecting, confiscating, searching, viewing, reading, or destroying private citizens’ letters or long-distance communications such as telephone conversations, telegraphs, faxes, wireless and internet connections, or the eavesdropping, tracing and censure of the same without legal authorisation is forbidden.
Of course, in the Islamic Republic, the problem has always been what consitutes “legal authorisation”. Institutions outside the control of the government, such as security or judicial institutions, issue legal authorisations to reverse anything and everything that this article considers forbidden, based on the flimsiest of excuses. And, sometimes, they issue the authorisation after the violation of the right to privacy has actually taken place.
The need for transparency
One of the strongest merits of the draft charter is the provision for transparency in instances of potential corruption. Article 3, clauses 42 and 43, stipulate that sensitive economic information that may be used to for the benefit of special interests and that could result in corruption should be made transparent. Since the government is largely responsible for this, there is some hope that it will be implemented.
Clause 52 makes clear that the membership or the non-membership of citizens to legal political parties or civil society organisations must not lead to the abrogation or the limitation of their rights. Clauses 85 to 93 refer specifically to judicial justice. Notable points include: the right to freely choose an attorney, the importance of preventing damage to the reputation of those arrested, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of forced confessions, as well as a stipulation that such confessions are invalid.
However, these are the precise points that, like so many other clauses fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary. In fact, this is precisely why the charter is ambiguous. Considering the previous confrontations between the judiciary and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, it is not clear how the judiciary will respond to these assertions or what guarantees there are that judicial and security institutions will pay adequate attention to them.
Women’s Right To Choose Dress
The right for women to dress as they choose is defended in Article 3, clause 107, with the proviso that the dress must “agree with Islamic and Iranian standards”. These provisos are encountered in most clauses. In reality, they are fundamentalist constraints which open the way for ossified interpretations and enforcements and clearly demonstrate that Rouhani’s Citizenship Rights Charter is in essence a descriptive report rather than an active charter.
As outlined in Article 4 of the draft, the office of the legal vice president will create a National Citizenship Rights Centre and propose a law to create a Citizenship Rights Organisation and a Supreme Council for Citizenship Rights.
According to Article 5, the National Citizenship Rights Centre will correct violations of the laws and regulations specified in the bill by using all legal means at the disposal of the government and by reporting violators to appropriate authorities. It must also report the results to the president through the Office of the Legal Vice President.
It is clear from the text that the government does not want to name other powers involved so that it can avoid some of the same confrontations Ahmadinejad faced, in particular over the formation of a vice presidency for the implementation of the constitution and over the creation of a council for supervising how the constitution is carried out. It is only in Article 7 that the government promises to actively supervise citizenship rights and form a centre for those rights in cooperation with supervisory institutions and other powers.
The term “supervision” creates ambiguities as well. Does the government have the right to “supervise” the activities of the judiciary to ensure that citizenship rights have been respected? Will the judiciary or the parliament accept such supervision? What about the multitude of institutions outside the control of the government, such as Revolutionary Guards and the official radio and TV (the only media currently available in Iran)?
After six months, as stipulated in Article 10, the legal vice president will issue a report evaluating how well the indicators specified in the charter have improved. It also declares that this report will be prepared with the cooperation of “all ministries, related executive institutions and the civil society organizations active in the area of citizens’ rights”. By failing to mention judicial and security institutions that are outside its control, the government is clearly admitting that such an effort would be futile, or that it does not have the stomach for it.
In the same way, Article 12 refers only to cooperation among “all executive organisations and institutions, public and non-governmental foundations and organisations, and organisations belonging or under the supervision of the president’s office”. There is no mention of other powers or security, cultural, economic and social institutions outside the control of the government.
Despite its elegant, progressive and comprehensive prose, the charter offers no programme or plan for the actual realisation of the rights it sets out to promote. The major thrust of duties and obligation points towards the government while, in the Islamic republic, violations of citizens’ right have always been the work of institutions outside the government. This contradiction is the charter’s most significant problem, and it’s a contradiction that will hamper any other charter that the government sets out to produce.