As part of his mandate, UN Human Rights Rapporteur Dr Ahmed Shaheed presented his latest findings on the human rights situation in Iran in October. The report followed the 69th session of the General Assembly in New York, which President Hassan Rouhani also attended.
It paints a bleak picture, with the situation for civil liberties largely unimproved and a rise in the number of journalists arrested and executions.
IranWire spoke to Dr. Shaheed about the report, President Rouhani’s failed promises, and what he foresaw for the human rights situation in Iran in the coming months.
Dr. Shaheed, you last spoke to IranWire in March. How has the human rights situation developed since then?
As I reported to the General Assembly (UNGA) just a few weeks ago, the trend has worsened in most ways. Although I continue to listen to the government’s promises of reform, the facts on the ground speak a different story. I’ve been very concerned about the continued surge in executions, the rise in juvenile executions, how the situation for women has worsened, and the large number of journalists — 35 or so — that remain in prison. I also haven’t noticed any positive changes in terms of civil liberties. So overall I remain very concerned.
What did you make of Rouhani’s speech at the UNGA this year? What about his comments regarding journalists not being targeted?
He needs to take these opportunities far more seriously than just speaking candidly. If you look at the report put out by the UN for Iran, the UPR (Universal Periodic Review), it wasn’t just me discussing how the situation has worsened. The human rights committee spoke about the human rights situation for journalists in the country and a variety of monitors expressed continued worry about the human rights situation. To say journalists aren’t imprisoned quite simply goes against the facts.
What real power does Rouhani have to bring about decisive change in the realm of human rights when the Supreme Leader overshadows him?
The structure of the constitution and power in the country does invest overarching power into the Ayatollah, and then parliament and the judiciary are also quite powerful. But the government also wields considerable power. I haven’t seen a sufficient attempt by the president to see how far he can push this in terms of reforms.
What else should he be doing?
It’s very clear that Rouhani has failed to deliver on his promises. There are things that take longer to change but there are certain practices he could change right now. He also ought to speak out more forcefully about when there are violations in other branches of the state. For instance, I don’t see why he can’t end the practice of public executions immediately, support a moratorium on the death penalty regarding juveniles, support equality for women regarding access to university and speak up for the rights of the media. He may have made a few steps to address some of these issues but he definitely isn’t an unequivocal advocate for human rights in Iran.
What role does the judiciary play in the unfair arrest of civilians and how independent is it?
The judiciary is involved in a number of violations when Iran is documented. Firstly, it isn’t very independent given the powers held by other parts of the polity and the outcry by parliamentarians about the unwanted interference by the judiciary. Beyond that, the testimonies we get about unfair trials are so frequent that there’s a real structural pattern regarding not respecting judicial law, a serious issue regarding the rule of law and these are at the heart of numerous violations. In the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, the government defended her execution on the basis she was given a fair trial but the facts simply don’t add up. The government says that evidence taken under coercion isn’t used in the courts but there’s no proof of this. So, on the one hand there’s a judiciary that appears to be influenced by other powerful people in the country but at the same time they’re not respecting their own procedures and laws.
In terms of human rights, how important is it for the US and Iran to reach a nuclear deal at the end of the month?
I think whenever the time comes that sanctions are lifted, the Iranian people will benefit or it’ll at least pave the way to help them – particularly in terms of their economic and social rights. But for things to improve significantly the government needs to implement policies that make a difference to human rights. The other aspect worth mentioning is the media’s focus on the nuclear deal — in a sense this deflects peoples’ concerns for human rights. If the nuclear issue was no longer a serious matter for the media, it will hopefully mean they’ll focus on human rights. In any case a deal that is agreeable to both parties would be a good thing.
So both sides should be willing to make compromises to come to a deal?
I don’t want to comment on the nuclear deal because it’s not a part of my mandate but my view is that the sooner the nuclear talks come to an agreeable solution the more space we’ll have to look at human rights.
Do you think the international community is doing enough to push Iran to better its human rights record?
I think a lot is being done. There’s been a rising awareness in the last couple of years of the situation; you can see this by the amount of stories in the press, the reports at the UN and even just two weeks ago with the extent the global community picked up on the Jabbari case. But from the perspective of victims languishing in prison, there’s never enough awareness. For a victim in prison, the worst thing would be for no one to know he or she was there. Also, they’ll feel much safer knowing their story is in the press.
Read part two of this interview tomorrow.