Iran, the UN and Human Rights - At a glance

Iran and UN – their relationship is still under construction. A scaffolding in the hall of the General Assembly.

Iran has ratified important legally binding treaties under international law. Almost all of the countries in the world are contractual partners in these treaties.  Even though Iran has publicly committed to these treaties, the Islamic Republic continues to breach its contractual obligations daily through torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and deprivation of the rights of women and minorities. 

Human rights violations in Iran

Therefore, despite all of the diplomacy of the UN bodies and Special Rapporteurs, Iran receives criticism more often than almost any other country in the world.  Because the Iranian government refuses to end the human right violations in the country, the UN resolutions on Iran have often documented the same violations over the years. The following contains examples from a selection of the resolution from the UN General Assembly in 2012:

  • “Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including flogging and amputations”
  • “The continuing alarmingly high frequency of the carrying-out of the death penalty in the absence of internationally recognized safeguards, including an increase in the number of public executions”
  • “The failure to abolish the execution of minors and persons who at the time of their offence were under the age of 18”
  • “…persons in prison continue to face sentences of execution by stoning”
  • “Increased persecution and human rights violations against persons belonging to recognized religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians and their defenders”
  • “Increased persecution and human rights violations against persons belonging to unrecognized religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith and their defenders”
  • “a continued crackdown on women’s human rights defenders, arrests, violent repression and sentencing of women exercising their right to peaceful assembly, and increased discrimination against women and girls in law and in practice”
  • “Ongoing, systematic, widespread and serious restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of opinion and expression”

The General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran almost every year since 1985, even though resolutions are only passed in rare and serious cases.  However, an identifiable improvement of the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic has been virtually non-existent. In fact, quite the opposite - the situation has continued to worsen since the elections on June 12 of 2009.  Nevertheless, in order to avoid the regular criticism of the UN, the Iranian government seeks to prevent such resolutions and to obstruct the work of the human rights institutions of the UN.  For instance, in 2007, Iran submitted a motion on the question of whether the General Assembly should even vote on the resolution “Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”.  Alarmingly, the result was very close. Iran lost the vote with only 80 to 84 votes.

[more on the resolutions of the General Assembly …] 
Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has been particularly concerned about the systematic human rights violations in Iran since he took office. He publishes a special report on the Islamic Republic every year. 
[to the reports of the Secretary-General of the United Nations …]
In March of 2011, the Human Rights Council decided to establish the mandate of “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, and appointed Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the former foreign minister of the Maldives.  Since then, Dr. Shaheed has issued periodic reports on the human rights situation in Iran.  However, Iranian leadership persistently refuses him entry to the country, making it impossible for Shaheed to personally investigate the situation on-site. 
[to the reports of the Special Rapporteur for Iran …]
The United Nations has commissioned several Special Rapporteurs to observe the human rights violations on certain groups of people and specific forms of human right violations worldwide.  In recent years, the UN Special Rapporteurs for torture, violence against women, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, extrajudicial executions, and independence of the judiciary have all criticized Iran in their special reports. Furthermore, the UN Committees issue reports on human rights issues in Iran on an irregular basis, and finally, there is the Working Group against Arbitrary Detention who handles cases in Iran several times a year. 
[to the reports of other Special Rapporteurs …]
[to the resolutions of the Human Rights Council …]
[to the reports of the UN Committees …]
[to the reports of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention …]

Which human rights agreements has Iran ratified?

In 1945, Iran was one of the 51 founding members of the United Nations. At that time, Iran was still a constitutional monarchy under the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (since 1941). Through his reform program known as the ‘White Revolution’, the Shah planned and carried out many forms of social and economic renewal.  This is included taking steps toward gradual liberalization, such as women’s suffrage. Under his reign, Iran ratified two key UN agreements for human rights before they came into effect: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was also ratified. However, Iran was still far from being a European-style democratic state.  The arbitrariness of the Iranian domestic secret service was especially hated. 
In 1979, the Shah was swept from the throne by a revolution, which mostly consisted of secular and often leftist students and citizens. Well-organized Iranian Islamists took advantage of the situation; they succeeded in taking up key positions and establishing the “Islamic Republic of Iran” according to their ideas.  The new rulers arbitrarily killed thousands of dissidents – but they continued to declare their support for the UN agreements on human rights. 
 Iran has since ratified or signed further UN human rights documents.  Signing an agreement is primarily a declaration of intent, whereas ratification refers to the establishment of a legally binding international commitment. See the following examples from the UN-Conventions on the Rights of the Child & the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights signed; ratified: June 24th 19
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed; ratified: June 24th 1975
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination signed; ratified: August 29th 1968
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child signed; ratified: July 13th 1994
  • Additional Protocol to the Convention against child trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography; subsequently ratified: September 26th 2007
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; later ratified: October 23rd 2009
  • Additional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child against the involvement of children in armed conflict; signed: September 21st 2010
Iran has neither signed nor ratified the “Convention against Torture”, the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women”, or the optional protocol to abolish the death penalty. The convention on the elimination of discrimination against women was accepted by the Iranian Parliament after intensive debates in 2004; however, the ‘Council of Guardians’ banned it immediately as “un-Islamic”.

Human Rights and “Islamic Principles”

It is noteworthy that the representatives of the Islamic Republic always refer to human rights in association with “Islamic principles”. These are the basis of Iranian law and are of divine origin.  From the Iranian government’s perspective, these stand above all laws made by humans, and therefore above human rights laws. It is emphasized that human rights policy in Iran is a reflection of ‘national and regional specificities, as well as of its ‘cultural, historical and religious background’. Even though Iran insists that this “Islamic interpretation” of human rights is not in conflict with their international human rights obligations, the UN reports on the human rights situation in Iran find the opposite – at least for the “interpretations” of all previous governments of the Islamic Republic. 
The ISHR views this rhetoric on “Islamic” human rights as a diversionary tactic and as an attempt to gloss over the perception of human rights crimes.  Flogging, stoning and crucifixion is not referred to as torture but as “Islamic punishments”, and the oppression of women as their “protection”.  Those who criticize human rights violations in Iran are denounced as arrogant Westerners – or often in Iran, as “Satan”. 
Iran has ratified binding international human rights agreements. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, those treaties are often violated to an extent that is incomparable to almost any other country in the world. The other contractual partners, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, should and must demand the immediate compliance with the agreements.