The onset of spring has meant disaster for many provinces across Iran, with severe floods resulting in death and injuries, large scale damage to homes and infrastructure and devastating impacts on people’s livelihoods from north to south. In one of the worst cases, 19 people were killed in Shiraz. The extensive material damage is yet to be fully evaluated.
Deforestation, where trees have been cut down to sell land for commercial purposes, along with real estate developments in dried-up ravines and river beds, were key contributing factors to the nationwide disaster. But the incompetence of government agencies to deal with the disaster has deepened the crisis. State institutions failed to issue adequate warnings about the severe weather, and agencies tasked with minimizing damage to life and property and with providing disaster relief and assistance also failed to deliver.
In the absence of effective government help, in one flooded northern city residents took the initiative themselves and prevented further flood damage by using whatever limited resources they had. To many, it came as no surprise that the institutions that should have been managing the crisis proved incapable of doing so. In almost any other country, the government would have been held legally accountable for such failures.
In Iran, damage to the environment paved the way for deadly floods — damage that was the result of violations of both the Iranian constitution and the Islamic Republic’s obligations under international conventions.
The Feeble $90 Maximum Fine
Destruction of trees, cutting down forests and taking possession of protected lands all violate Article 50 of the Islamic Republic Constitution, which states: “The preservation of the environment, in which the present, as well as the future generations, have a right to a flourishing social existence, is regarded as a public duty in the Islamic Republic. Economic and other activities that inevitably involve pollution of the environment or cause irreparable damage to it are therefore forbidden.”
Deforestation and the destruction of the environment in northern Iran are not only in violation of the clear text of the constitution, but it is also so widespread that Iranian experts have warned that 30 years from now, all forests in the country will have disappeared [Persian link]. In response to such imminent and colossal disaster, in January 2018, the government approved a law to protect forests and pastures, setting the maximum penalty for cutting a tree down at 375,000 tomans, or $90 [Persian link]. Such light penalties and punishments have not, and will not, dissuade those who are actively destroying the environment.
Article 690 of the Islamic Penal Code states: “Anyone who [through any action tries] to create evidence for taking possession of forests and nationalized pastures, mountains, gardens, tree nurseries, water supplies, springs, natural streams, national parks, agricultural and stockbreeding facilities and farms, wastelands and uncultivated lands and other lands and estates which belong to the government…[or] resorts to an operation that destroys the environment and natural resources, or commits any violation or unlawful possession or disruption of rights in the abovementioned cases, shall be sentenced to one month to one year of imprisonment…”
It further states: “When the accused are three or more individuals and there is strong circumstantial evidence that proves their commission of the crime, an arrest order shall be issued…”
In recent years there have been numerous reports of land grabs in forest and mountain areas, as well as a new phenomenon — “sea grabs,” which constitute the intentional drying up of part of the sea in order to take possession of the area to sell it. However, practically no legal action has been taken against those who carry out these crimes against the country, most of whom work as a mafia.
In one instance from several years ago, a land-grab case was lodged against Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary of the judiciary’s Human Rights Headquarters and brother to both the former head of the judiciary and the speaker of the Iranian parliament, but it did not go to trial and no reasonable explanation was provided to the public.
The Do-Nothing Parliament and Executive
In the absence of a national law to protect the environment, in 2011 the cabinet approved a “Statute for Evaluating the Environmental Effects of Major Development, Production and Service Projects” [Persian PDF]. According to this statute, the environmental consequences of any change in protected areas — whether forests, meadowlands, wetlands and sensitive marine areas — must be evaluated and the evaluation must be published. The goal was to prevent or minimize damage to the environment as a result of development projects.
The cabinet also sent a bill with the same name to the parliament for its approval, but for more than a year the parliament has taken no action on it. As a result, Iran lacks a national law to protect the environment and even the 2011 bylaws mentioned above have not been effectively implemented.
It is not only the government that is unprepared to deal with environmental disasters and crises. The parliament, known for its procrastination in passing laws, and the judiciary, with its disregard for the destruction of forests and irreversible damage done to the environment by profiteers, are both guilty of allowing such national disasters and the ensuing damages to life and property.
In the international community, governments are held responsible for disasters inflicted on their citizens due to their negligence.
In 2016, the UN International Law Commission passed a draft resolution on the “protection of persons in the events of disasters,” according to which governments have specific duties and responsibilities in preventing disasters such as the recent floods in Iran.
This draft resolution defines “disaster” as “a calamitous event or series of events resulting in widespread loss of life, great human suffering and distress, mass displacement, or large-scale material or environmental damage, thereby seriously disrupting the functioning of society.”
According to this document, “each State shall reduce the risk of disasters by taking appropriate measures, including through legislation and regulations, to prevent, mitigate, and prepare for disasters.” It adds: “disaster risk reduction measures include the conduct of risk assessments, the collection and dissemination of risk and past loss information, and the installation and operation of early warning systems” and “the affected State has the duty to ensure the protection of persons and provision of disaster relief assistance in its territory, or in territory under its jurisdiction or control.”
One example of the lack of preparation and negligence on the part of government agencies in Iran is the Meteorological Organization’s failure to predict the recent extreme weather, a failure that indicates the depth of the crisis at institutional level. President Rouhani himself criticized the agency: “The intensity of rain in short term is something that the weather bureau must be able to forecast,” Rouhani said on March 26. “Forget about long-term forecasts. Even forecasts for 72 hours would be enough.”
But such criticisms do not mitigate the liabilities of any administration. It is the Islamic Republic’s institutions in their totality that are guilty in the aftermath of the recent flood disaster, which has left at least 28 people dead; several children remain missing. These institutions have neither observed domestic laws and regulations nor have they taken the UN’s “protection of persons in the events of disasters” mandate seriously.
And, as has happened throughout the last 40 years, they have also flagrantly violated the country’s own constitution. The result was death and destruction during the Iranian new year holidays. What should have been the most joyous time of the year for Iranians has now turned into a time of national mourning.
Rouhani Visits Devastated Areas as Floods Continue, March 28, 2019
Iran’s Budget for Religion 80 Times Higher Than Disaster Relief, March 28, 2019
As Environmentalists Perish in Prison..., March 26, 2019
Iran’s New Year Floods, March 25, 2019