On Monday, December 19, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveiled and signed the country’s Citizen’s Rights Charter — 14 years after plans to establish it were first tabled.

The idea of the charter began with the government of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, which introduced the idea during the summer of 2002. A year later, under the framework of Article 100 of the country’s 4th Development Plan, the administration was tasked with preparing and ratifying the charter.

When Rouhani launched his campaign for president on April 11, 2013, he spoke of his plans to revive the charter, promising that if he won the election he would finally enact it. He stayed true to his promise: several months after his victory that year, he published a first draft.

Unfortunately, the draft failed to impress. Ali Yunesi, Rouhani’s Advisor for Minorities’ Affairs, said it had been “hastily” prepared and was “very weak.” Judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei was also critical. He said a range of Iranian laws and parts of the constitution included references to citizen’s rights. “We should not play politics with the them,” he warned.

Even supporters of the government were hesitant, appealing to the president to refer back to the constitution of the Islamic Republic. In particular, they drew attention to Chapter 3, entitled The Rights of the People, and indicated there was no need to create a new set of principles when pre-existing sections of the constitution could be enforced.  Others turned to the 2004 “Law on Respecting the Legitimate Liberties and Protection of Citizens' Rights,” claiming that it was much more advantageous to put efforts behind enforcing a law that had originated with the head of the judiciary at the time.

But, on the whole, Rouhani’s government ignored these recommendations. Instead, it pushed for approval from its critics, trying to change the language and content to accommodate their reservations. Over the last three years, two more drafts have been published, with Rouhani signing the final version comprising of 120 articles on Monday.

Guardian of the Constitution?

To give legitimacy to his push for the charter, President Rouhani cited two articles from Chapter 9 of Iran’s constitution. Article 113 states that the president has “the responsibility for implementing the Constitution,” and Article 121 obliges the president to swear to “protect the freedom and dignity of all citizens and the rights that the Constitution has accorded the people.” But the heads of the two other powers — the judiciary and the legislative branches — have traditionally argued that this stipulation violates Iran’s constitutional principle of the separation of powers. The Guardian Council, one of Iran’s most influential governing bodies, has sided with these arguments, declaring that the power of the president is limited to the executive branch. But Rouhani insists that he is responsible for enforcing the constitution and believes that the Citizens’ Rights Charter can help him carry out his constitutional duties.

In practice, it is unlikely that the charter will be much help to Rouhani. The charter’s strong point is its elegant language, proof that Iran’s legal experts have gone to great lengths to consult both foreign and domestic literature on the subject, and to ensure the most powerful descriptions of citizens’ rights have made it into Iran’s charter. And, more than this, no one has been left out: the charter stands out for its admirable inclusiveness.

 

And then the Weak Points…

But the weakest point of the charter is the word “law.” For example, Article 12 of the charter states that:

 

the individual and collective liberties of the citizens is inviolable. No citizen can be denied these liberties. These liberties can be limited only when necessary and when the law allows it.

 

The terms “only when required by law”, “as specified by law” and “according to the law” are repeated often, appearing in articles including 36, 37, 47, 59 and 75.

These phrases are enough to justify a number of characteristics of modern Iranian life: morality patrols, arrests, online filtering or censorship, international travel bans, surveillance…the list goes on. In fact, at the moment in Iran, the term “ordered by the judge” encompasses the power of the law and is the source of many violations of the civil rights of Iranians.

For example, Article 75 of the charter states that “no person or authority can strip another person of his property or seize or confiscate his property” unless allowed by the law. Under the Islamic Republic, thousands of citizens — minorities, especially the Baha’is, officials who worked under the Shah, and critics or opponents of the current regime — have been stripped of their properties. In all cases, this has been done “lawfully” based on statements made by leaders of the regime or on orders by the judiciary and the courts.

The judiciary, the police and the Revolutionary Guards —especially its Intelligence Unit — all use this method of bending the law to fit their own purposes. The government has no authority or control over them. If need be, these mostly unelected officials justify their violations of citizen’s rights by citing the laws of the Islamic Republic. These laws and procedures are enough to make a mockery of the Citizens’ Rights Charter.

Like God And His Prophet

Nevertheless, those who prepared the charter have endeavored to make some small advances. Article 21 states that if citizens find that government institutions or government employees have violated the law they have the right to ask the judiciary and the authorities to set it right. And Article 42 states that if citizens’ rights are violated they have a right to ask for compensation. Yet the charter leaves out the exact procedures for ensuring these promises are met. Since security agencies and judiciary officials are exclusively in charge of handling such complaints, it is somewhat like complaining to God against His Prophet.

In recent years, the most reliable recourse has been the Court of Administrative Justice. Some people have succeeded in having this court push back against unlawful actions by institutional agencies, but the power and the jurisdiction of the court is extremely limited.

Since the charter cannot do anything to recast the existing situation, it sets out an obligation for the executive and institutions under its supervision to implement the charter. It asks nothing from the judiciary and the legislative powers.

After three years of waiting, it is obvious that even though Rouhani’s government has accepted the challenge of improving the language and the content of the charter, it has not risen to the more serious demand: to honor its commitment to citizens and their rights. Instead, it has yielded to the arguments set out by the strongest principlist critics of the administration. Casting themselves in the role of protecting the values and ideals that shaped the Islamic Republic, they repeatedly turn to the importance of the separation of powers. This strips the president’s refrain that he is responsible for implementing and guarding the constitution of any meaning, an empty slogan without any real power behind it.

While some human rights advocates may gesture approval of parts of the charter, they know, as Rouhani surely does, that it cannot usher in any real change.  It is unlikely that the head of Iran’s judiciary or the heads of security agencies will lose a night’s sleep over the charter’s ratification.

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