Much of the United Nations’ daily business can feel predictable and uneventful. For instance, no one was surprised when, on October 31, Canada submitted a resolution to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, calling attention to the grave situation of human rights in Iran. A similar resolution has been put to the committee (and successfully passed by a vote of the majority of UN members) for the last few years, making Iran one of the very few countries that receives such persistent international condemnation. The vote will take place on November 14, and although UN nerds will take an interest in how certain countries vote, most people tuning in will nod in acknowledgment when the resolution passes as expected.
But of course it’s absolutely vital to remember — and to highlight — that, as tedious as the UN process might sound, the actual details of human rights violations in Iran are chilling, and have been for decades. On October 25, Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, submitted her report to the Third Committee, which is broadly tasked with social, cultural and humanitarian matters and which obliges every UN member state to have a voice and a vote. The report covered the first six months of 2017 and it was the first by Ms Jahangir, who was mandated for the task in September 2016 after a vote by the UN Human Rights Council. She formally took up the post in November 2016.
The Islamic Republic continues to apply its old and tired method of calling out UN-appointed experts as colonial intruders and agents. But Jahangir can hardly be pictured as a goon of the West. A Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist, she is known for standing up to successive Pakistani governments and hounding authorities over their violations. The Lahore-based activist, who doesn’t get paid for her UN position, is among the most celebrated figures in her field internationally, a celebrity in her home country, and has been the recipient of a long list of awards and accolades, as well as four honorary doctorates.
On Wednesday, October 25, Jahangir published what she described as a "hair-raising" report and presented it to the committee. Although she applauded President Rouhani and his administration for some of the measures they had taken, and for responding to 20 of 28 communications from her office, she condemned a wide range of violations that continue to take place, including sentencing children to death, arbitrary arrests of activists and trade unionists, torture, amputations, flogging, blinding and suppression of dissent. Jahangir highlighted issues ranging from the ban on women entering sports stadiums to “unabated discrimination” against the Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority. On the more historical side, she spoke of the “deep and unremitting pain” still felt over the massacre of thousands of political prisoners — almost all of them Marxists or other leftists — in the summer of 1988, acknowledging that she receives letters from the survivors of that event “on an almost daily basis.”
A Visit Long Overdue
Jahangir’s main demand, like that of all special rapporteurs, is to be invited to visit the Islamic Republic. Her predecessor as special rapporteur on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives, was never given the chance. Without access to the country and its prisons, she has to rely on communications from Iranians inside and outside the country. She has also travelled to Sweden and Norway to meet with the active communities of Iranian human rights activists there and met with the respective foreign ministers of the two Nordic countries, which allocate resources to monitoring human rights in Iran.
The work of Jahangir’s mandate is supported by UN staff in Geneva (one of the world body’s four global headquarters, which houses human rights-related divisions), but also by a range of charities and NGOs, some of which carry out their work as part of the umbrella organization Impact Iran. The coalition has published a guide, which presents evidence supporting Jahangir’s claims, giving an overall picture of the situation and highlighting a diverse list of victims: Alireza Tajiki, who was only 15 years old when he was arrested on murder charges, was executed on August 10; Anooshe Rezabakhsh and her son, Sohail Zargarzadeh, were arrested in the northwestern city of Urmia for converting to Christianity; Sogol Kazemi Bahnamiri, an engineering student at the University of Mashhad, was expelled because she is a Baha’i.
Iran’s response to the report was also predictable. Counselor Mohammad HassaniNejad, noted for being the only Iranian official who sat in during President Donald Trump’s speech to the General Assembly in September, took the floor. He said the Jahangir report was based on “prejudice,” pointing out that, for instance, religious minorities and “followers of all faiths” are protected in Iran, except, of course, those who belong to “secret organizations rather than benign faiths” with links to their headquarters in “occupied Palestine,” a reference to the Baha’is. The faith’s administrative center happens to be in Haifa and predates the foundation of the state of Israel. He also urged other countries not to impose their “way of life” on Iran “to appease a few.”
Far from not caring about what goes on in the UN, HassaniNejad’s response shows that Iran is very concerned about how it appears on the world stage and uses its forums to air its denials and protestations. And the UN report commanded attention in Tehran too. On Monday, October 30, judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani rejected the findings, saying they were the words of “enemies.”
Support for Jahangir's Report — But Also Calls for "Better Understanding"
On the UN floor itself, those representing countries with dubious records on human rights, including the representative of the Syrian regime, stood to defend the Islamic Republic. The over-eager Syrian diplomat, Amjad Qasim Agha, got into an argument first with the Saudi representative (who had asked him to refrain from attacking the Saudis when discussing Iran), and then with the committee secretary, the Moroccan diplomat Moncef Khane, and then with the entire room. Agha’s behavior led to the meeting having to be shut down for 10 minutes after security officials threatened to oust him. The ordeal led to embarrassing headlines in the Syrian press.
The Saudi diplomat, speaking in Arabic, one of the six official languages of the UN, had blasted Iran for “supporting terrorist practices” and “discrimination against Arabs and non-Persian citizens.” He also spoke of the 1988 massacre of leftist prisoners, who he described as “objecting to Khomeini.”
The United States, United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and the European Union supported the report — again, predictably — and called on Iranian officials to allow Jahangir to visit. Some countries took something of a middle ground. Japan spoke of its attempt to “better understand” Iran through “dialogue” and of the bilateral meetings in February in which it had learned about Iran’s attempt at “empowering women.” A representative from Papua New Guinea asked Jahangir if she could use a “less confrontational approach.”
Equally predictable was the opposition to Jahangir’s report, which came from Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Eritrea, Belarus, Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. These countries usually state their opposition to single-country mandates in principle and say they prefer the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, in which every state is periodically reviewed by every other state in the UN.
Known as the “special procedures,” the Council gives single-country mandates to independent experts like Jahangir to report on a specific country or specific issues, such as freedom of religion or violence against women. Protests against “double standards” and “politicization” when it comes to adoption of the special procedures are not as hollow as they may seem. Apart from Iran, only 11 countries have been assigned a special procedure: Belarus, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and the Israeli-held Palestinian territories. Many of these were established over the last few years (Iran’s goes back to 2011), whereas some, like the procedure for Cambodia, go back to 1993. With the exception of Israel, almost every other country belongs to what might be described as the “anti-West camp.” Human rights activists are aware that the oppressive regimes of Damascus, Tehran or Asmara use this obvious pattern as an excuse, and many of them have called for special rapporteurs to be appointed to monitor the human rights situation in Western-allied countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt or Turkey. As it stands, the Third Committee is only getting human rights resolutions about Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and the Russian-held territories of Ukraine (including the Crimean peninsula). Technically, Iran and other states could also present country-specific resolutions to the committee, but they maintain that the Third Committee’s brief should not be discussing human rights.
On November 14, the Iran resolution will most likely be passed, causing Tehran some grief and embarrassment. It will be a reminder that, for all the good will that Tehran nowadays gathers at international institutions, the majority of the world states still think very little of its human rights record (and, by definition, this is mostly non-Western countries). It will be interesting to see how the countries in the Middle East vote, especially given the current Tehran-Riyadh cold war. Pakistan’s opposition to the UN mandate for Iran demonstrated that the Saudis have so far not sufficiently wooed Islamabad.
The Iranian foreign ministry is now run by Javad Zarif, a man who has spent much of his adult life around the UN, working for the Islamic Republic’s permanent representation in New York. Zarif has been asked to join the UN before and is deeply respected by many a UN bureaucrat. In his more than four years as President Rouhani’s foreign minister, Tehran has shown much more willingness to engage with the UN, which has not always made it easy at home. For example, its adoption of a UNESCO education document led to a scandal within Iran and intervention from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Despite these shifts and conciliations, little has changed in Iran overall. Human rights continue to be trampled, violated, and ignored. And what’s happening within the Third Committee is a clear reminder of what remains constant, unchanged and, to use Jahangir’s words, “hair-raising.”