On July 8, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council appointed a new Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and, for the first time, a person of Iranian origin was chosen for this position. Nazila Ghanea is a professor in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK, and has been active in the field of freedom of religion and human rights for over 20 years.
Ghanea will take up her mandate on August 1, 2022, succeeding Ahmed Shaheed, a Professor of International Human Rights Law and Global Practice at the University of Essex, who from 2011 to 2016 also served as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
UN special rapporteurs work as volunteers and do not receive any pay from the United Nations. But that has not stopped Iran’s government from trying to cast these special rapporteurs as in the pay of “hostile” or “biased” countries to submit unfavorable reports about human rights in Iran. In August 2015, for example, The Guardian reported that Iran had used a fabricated WikiLeaks cable to smear special rapporteurs and had claimed that the Saudi embassy in Kuwait had paid Ahmed Shaheed $1m to take an anti-Iran position.
But Iran has been a “country of special concern” for human rights organizations for more than 40 years on issues of freedom of religion or belief. United for Iran, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that monitors rights violations, says in its Iran Prison Atlas that at least 67 members of minority religious groups were imprisoned at the end of 2021 for practicing their faith. The government had sentenced at least 62 of these individuals to long-term imprisonment or had executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or “armed rebellion against Islamic rule”.
Two recent examples include the case of Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish, who died in hospital last year, after suffering seizures in prison and being denied medication. Mahjoubi’s personal physician and Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital doctors had diagnosed his condition but the advice was disregarded by the judiciary. And in 2014, Mohsen Mir Aslani, a psychoanalyst, was executed for blasphemy because had rejected the tale of Jonah and the Whale.
Iran’s recent history is filled with similar examples – one of the most ongoing and systematic of which is the widespread persecution of the Baha’is under the Islamic Republic which has continued unabated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“People either nominate themselves for this mission or are nominated by others,” Nazila Ghanea told IranWire. “I was nominated by the state of Oman, an international NGO and two NGOs from Brazil and Malaysia. The UN Human Rights Council’s Consultative Group, composed of representatives from five regional groups in the United Nations that include Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Caribbean countries and Western Europe, chooses about five of the candidates to interview. The committee then chooses three of them, ranks them from first to third, and sends their nominations to the President of the UN Human Rights Council.”
The Council President then consults regional groups, Ghanea said, and sends a list of candidates for approval to the full Human Rights Council which is composed of 47 UN Member-States.
“I am honored that I was ranked first by the Consultative Group and the President of the UN Human Rights Council and that this choice was endorsed by the international community,” Ghanea added.
UN special rapporteurs have two types of mission: some are country-focused and others focus on a global thematic issue. Javaid Rehman, a Professor of Law of Pakistani extraction, is the current Special Rapporteur on Iran’s human rights situation. Ghanea will be responsible for monitoring freedom of religion or belief in Iran but, as a thematic mandate holder, she will be responsible for addressing this freedom across all 193 UN Member-States.
“My work is focused on freedom of religion or belief, based on the standards of the international law concerning human rights,” Ghanea said. “This is a vast discipline and includes freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. My work will address the right of everybody to hold their own religion or belief, to change their beliefs and to be able to manifest and share their beliefs. The right is guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that has been signed by 173 countries, including Iran and, therefore, these countries are obliged to respect these rights.”
Article 18 of this convention states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
Ghanea emphasized that the independence of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is one of the most important characteristics of the mandate.
“Special rapporteurs are independent, apolitical and unpaid. The UN covers necessary expenses for the mandate but rapporteurs do not receive a salary. This mission is purely a human rights calling and it is necessary for special rapporteurs to remain independent and to assure others of their independence.”
“Persian-language media has asked me about my role in relation to Iran and whether I will have any chance to visit the country,” Ghanea said. “Iran faces challenges not only in terms of social hostility around religion or belief but also government restrictions to freedom of religion or belief and discriminating due to religion or belief. Since there is a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, I must work with him to carry out my mandate regarding freedom of religion and belief there.”
Ghanea added that there is a standing invitation for special rapporteurs to visit Iran. This was issued in 2002 by Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, but that since the mid-to-late 2000s no special rapporteur on human rights in Iran or freedom of religion or belief has been able to visit. Notable also is the fact that, in 2002, when the invitation was first issued, the UN Human Rights Council also failed to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. The lapse was condemned by human rights entities such as Human Rights Watch and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom – but for a decade the Council avoided appointing an Iran human rights mandate-holder.
“UN special rapporteurs follow clear guidelines that include regular reporting to the UN on their mandates,” Ghanea said. “Responding to violations of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is one of my duties. The violations can be reported online. Special rapporteurs ask the countries concerned to respond and then inform the international community about cases that violate freedom of religion or belief.”
Other activities of special rapporteurs, Ghanea said, include supporting respect of human rights, raising public awareness and promoting human rights standards.
Ghanea added that one of the areas she will look at will be the freedom of religion and belief of migrants: “Today there are more than 280 million migrants in the world, some of them Iranian, so I want to be sure to include the religious freedom of migrants within the human rights framework.”
Freedom of religion or belief and the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment is another area that Ghanea said has received insufficient attention and that she hopes to address in her work.
Ghanea said again that the independence, impartiality and professionalism of the special rapporteurs must be protected. “My goal is to support this independence, to keep the mandate impartial, focused on its main objectives so that it can strengthen our resolve to end discrimination based on religion of belief and freedom of religion or belief for everybody, including Iranians.”