Society & Culture

A Call for Free Speech and Transparency: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran

March 18, 2014
Natasha Schmidt
11 min read
A Call for Free Speech and Transparency: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran
A Call for Free Speech and Transparency: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran

A Call for Free Speech and Transparency: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran

“Being anti-government is not a crime,” says Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation Human Rights in Iran. “Criticizing a government’s policy, a government’s leader, should not be seen as a crime and should not make one perceived as a terrorist.”

Presenting his new report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday, he pointed out that “hundreds of individuals reportedly remain in some form of confinement for exercising their fundamental rights”. The report raises the huge surge in the number of executions in the country, the poor health of media freedom and the government’s continued refusal to tolerate criticism among its chief concerns. In both his recommendations for the country and his address to the council, he called for Iran’s government to translate its “rhetoric and the modest steps taken” towards embracing human rights reform into real action. In compiling the report, the third submitted to the council, Dr Shaheed was refused entry to Iran, a fact he also raised during his 10-minute speech. 

IranWire talked to Dr Ahmed Shaheed while he was in Geneva. This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part will be published on Wednesday.

This is the third report you’ve published. What has changed since the last report? What are the main differences?

Between my report last year and my report this year, the main difference is what you might call the Rouhani effect – and this has been quite evident today. There was a much more moderate response among the delegation than in the past. But there are conflicting signals, because you have the rhetorical statement on one hand and a declaration of a desire to address human concerns on Rouhani’s part, but the practice on the ground is quite disturbing, especially in relation to the surge in executions. And also the continued closure and harassment of media outlets – that’s also among the other concerns that I have. Measures and promises have been more in the domain of discussion or statements rather than action.

What results have come out of previous reports? What is the main purpose of this report and others like it?

What these reports do is maintain a sustained focus on Iran on its performance on human rights. Because without a country mandate, you have country reviews through treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Reviews, but they happen every four years or so. So between those times, people don’t know what’s going on. When you have an annual review on a country’s human rights situation, you get an independent assessment of what’s happening in the country, providing a forum and a platform for engaging with Iran on those issues. I notice that when these reports come out, Iranian officials do engage in a domestic discourse of sorts. There is movement in terms of how they, among themselves, discuss how to address the issues raised.

At the same time, victims feel that these mandates are a vehicle for them for greater safety. And many believe that having their case documented provides them with greater safety.

For today’s debate, the tone was different than in previous years, although Iran still maintains that the mandate is a politicized one. However, the level of attack that was there in previous years was absent and therefore I think there was a greater seriousness on the part of the delegation to engage with the mandate.

But even in previous years, when the public response was quite, if you like, animated behind the scenes in Tehran, there were individuals among authorities and groups that looked at ways to address the report. You can see, for example, when I spoke about prison conditions previously, there was a review of prison conditions in the country. So when issues are raised in the report, discussed in the UN forum, perhaps even covered in the international media – when they are in the limelight – the authorities are in fact compelled to take notice.

You were not able to travel to Iran to prepare this report. The Iranian government and others could accuse the report of therefore not being accurate. How well placed are you to compile such a report without traveling to the country?

When the country mandates began 35 years ago, not being able to travel to a country would have been a major impediment to gathering information. But today with advancements in communications and information technology, it is less of a disadvantage. We have spoken to 100 people over the last three years, and over a third of them reside in Iran. I am able to reach out to people in country. You could say that by going to a country you could get a more balanced and accurate picture, which is true. At the same time, you could also say that if you go into the country – and this has happened in previous occasions – there are many who are frightened to come out and speak because they fear reprisals if they’re caught doing so. So going into a country does not guarantee that you get the full or accurate picture.

It all depends on very judicious decisions about how many people you interview, how you choose them and how you determine the veracity of what has been said to you.

The sources you use , the people you talk to, have been described by the Iranian government as anti-Islamic. What is your response to this? What sources did you use in compiling the report? 

Yes, the government of Iran does say that my sources aren’t credible –  they are either terrorists or anti-government or anti-Islamic organizations. But this doesn’t address what I’ve been speaking to or what I’ve been consulting. For example, I consult official government documents, ranging from the constitution of the country, its official translations, its laws, its penal codes, its statements of official platforms to the head of government, to parliamentarians. So a lot of official material forms part of what I consult, including reports submitted on human rights issues to various other UN bodies.

I speak to alleged victims of violations, who, by and large are in their situation because of criticizing the government. Unfortunately, in many countries where human rights are an issue, there’s a fine line between opposing the government  and being deemed a terrorist or being an unreliable source. But it’s when rights are violated, it’s when someone has an issue with the government, that rights are most at stake. It comes as no surprise that many people like you, including some who have been in jail, would be seen by the government as anti-government. But being anti-government is not a crime. Criticizing a government’s policy, a government’s leader, should not be seen as a crime or should not make one perceived as a terrorist.

What, in your opinion, is the reason for the increase in executions since Rouhani’s election last June? Is it a reaction to his election? Is the government trying to curb the power of the executive branch of the government? Can the international community do anything to influence the government and reduce the number of executions?

First of all, I want to point out that the government is not contesting the accuracy of my figures and the fact that, since 2004, the number of people put to death by hanging has gone up from 99 to 700. As to what is behind this surge, that’s in the domain of speculation. The government is saying that executions are a last resort measure and I that have not considered the amount of people who have been pardoned or not sent to the gallows despite being guilty of capital crimes. But as to why the number has gone up after elections, I am holding judgment on that. I want to know more about what is actually happening. Of course, it is not unusual that when a government or leaders want to start out on a reform path, they find detractors who might contest them. But it is a big leap from there to say that human bodies and human lives are being used. That’s a different thing altogether. There are a number of theories that people have come forth with – I want to investigate some of these, including whether or not changes to laws may account for the increased number. But the last thing I want to think about is that people can become collateral damage between factional fighting.

Most of the infringement on human rights in Iran has been carried out by the judiciary branch of the government. What can Rouhani’s government and the executive branch do to stop these violations?

It will not be easy to address the broad range of violations, but as a start, one of the top things would be to find ways to ensure that the laws as they stand now actually stick, because some of the laws are quite good, and are in fact designed to avoid the kind of infringements that occur. The problem is there is no good mechanism for redress or remedy violations and therefore impunity becomes the norm. It’s important to strengthen the mechanisms that are already there to look at these problems.For example, there is the Human Rights Commission, which in most countries would look at rights violations, but in Iran’s case, it hasn’t become a commission that is designed to do that. It should be redesigned. Then Iran can apply for membership in the international forum for this, which is the Asian-Pacific Forum for National Human Rights Institutions

Second would be to increase transparency in the country. This is done by allowing civil society organizations to flourish, including those concerned with human rights defense, and by giving more space for public expression. I’m not saying violations always occur with complicity or with the authority or knowledge of the government; often many things happen without government complicity or knowledge. But you couldn’t know that without there being transparency or a way for the media and others to bring out information. I would suggest opening up a space for free expression and for civil society activism and to create mechanisms that can actually oversee what’s going on.

Have you heard any conflicting voices about the situation for human rights in Iran? Have Iranian diplomats, officially or unofficially, said anything that counters government line, anything that you have found encouraging?

Having met with diplomats in New York and Geneva, I do believe that there are elements in the country that recognize that the path taken over the previous years wasn’t in the best interest of the country and therefore they need to find a new way of doing things. We have seen, for example, remarks by the Minister for Culture and Guidance speaking very directly on what has to happen – but then countered by the Interior Minister. Of course there are competing discourses. This is not unusual because it’s a country trying to move in different directions.

The challenge here is how much willingness there is to move forward. It must be looked at it in context. if you go back to the Khatami presidency, for example, when even the parliament was described as reformist, and compare it with the current, which cannot be seen as a reformist, the coalition of forces were more in favor of reform than now. But I still believe that President Rouhani’s public statements speak to a willingness on his part, a sincere desire to address the issues in regards to human rights violations. Clearly, under a rational actor model, the path Iran has been following over the last eight years is not a viable model. Therefore, I think rational actors like President Rouhani seek to reverse the trend and find a much more stable environment for the government and society and for future generations in particular.

Have you had any unofficial conversations with members of the government. If so, what were they about?

I have had both on the record and off the record conversations. I believe at there is an opportunity to find a way forward. I am calling on people to be patient. I think we have to understand that people who want to see change in Iran must find that mechanism by which Iran itself can be engaged.

Human rights discussions with Iran today, at least my discussions with them, tend to suffer from the years of isolation, where Iran was at a distance from the human rights discourse. If you look at Iran’s statements in the UN forums from the early 1980s after the revolution, they began with a very harsh or conservative stance on cultural activism. Over the years, this has evolved, but there’s still a sense of people talking past each other: Iran has seen debate in the council as a threat rather than an opportunity. It will take some time for Iran and the UN mechanisms to deliberate together so that they are engaged in a process that can aid and assist Iran to move forward. A degree of confidence on Iran’s part is needed so that it knows that moving along with these mechanisms is not be detrimental to them. There is a need to understand the relationship better, a need to narrow the area of differences to find some common ground on which those working on the mandate and the Iranian authorities can engage. 

Read part two of this interview:

Reform Must Start Now: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran



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