Iranians have grown accustomed to turbulent politics. The political fortunes of officials in Iran wax and wane on the whims of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s unelected and unaccountable head of state, who has occupied the office since 1989.
However, amid changes in political futures, one sad reality stays constant: the enduring impunity of Iran’s leadership for gross human rights violations.
2020 has proved to be no exception to this rule. This week marks one year since anti-government protests erupted in Iran on November 15, 2019—known as the Aban protests—and quickly spread nationwide. The demonstrations were met with a violent response by the state; hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed by security forces and thousands more were jailed. To this day, no government officials or perpetrators of the killings have been held responsible.
Instead, amid this climate of impunity, the Islamic Republic has brought national security charges against hundreds of protesters simply for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and Iran’s judiciary has convicted protesters on the basis of confessions obtained under torture.
In the aftermath of the Islamic Republic’s violent crackdown on protesters, human rights organizations called for a special session in December 2019 of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to address the violations. Human rights defenders warned of the prospects of rampant torture and mass executions of protesters in Iran’s jails.
However, these calls were largely met with silence from the international community. This may be attributed in part to a general weariness from states after months of anti-government protests from Chile to Hong Kong to Iraq in 2019, which were all marked by state violence. Shortly afterwards, the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill, with UN meetings postponed and the pace of diplomacy and engagement operating at a slower clip—the lag continuing to this day.
But the lethargy in taking action on Iran’s human rights record can also be attributed to weariness specific to the Iran context as well, including world powers’ disapproval of the Trump administration’s unilateral pullout from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and the continued intensification of its “maximum pressure” campaign. The rising hostilities between Washington and Tehran had European allies of the United States focused on salvaging diplomacy on the nuclear file, with little appetite or bandwidth for addressing the Islamic Republic’s gross human rights violations. With the US withdrawal from the UNHRC in June 2018 and a stretched Europe, there were few paths left for a robust multilateral response to the violence against protesters.
However, with a new US president and the possibility of a reset where the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is concerned, the political impasse between world powers on how to engage with Iran may be coming to an end. With that repositioning comes an obligation to ensure that human rights concerns are not swept to the side in a desire to placate the Islamic Republic in negotiations on the nuclear file.
Under international law, states have an obligation to respect and ensure the human rights of persons within their territory. Ensuring human rights includes investigating, prosecuting and punishing individuals who have committed human rights violations as part of a fair and impartial process. Victims and survivors also have the right to justice, truth, and reparations.
Ideally, justice would be served by the Iranian leadership investigating violations and punishing perpetrators within their ranks. Unfortunately, that is not a realistic scenario. Iran’s judiciary is headed by Ebrahim Raisi, a man who played a key role in the summary executions of thousands of political prisoners in Iran’s jails in the summer of 1988. With Raisi at the helm, many violations originate in the judiciary and a lack of fair trials and disproportionately heavy sentences operate as the norm in cases deemed “politically sensitive.”
It is within this repressive framework that some of the top concerns of human rights defenders unfortunately came to fruition, including death sentences against three young men who participated in the protests—which were halted after a global outcry—and the execution of Navid Afkari, an Iranian wrestling champion who had been arrested during a prior wave of nationwide protests in January 2018 and sentenced to death based on confessions allegedly obtained under torture.
If states ignore this on-the-ground reality in a reset of relations with Iran, they do so at their own peril. Since the adoption of the JCPOA, the Iranian people have engaged in widespread, nationwide protests in December 2017 to January 2018 and November 2019, with sporadic protests continuing to this day. The underlying factors prompting this unrest—such as dissatisfaction with rampant state corruption and disillusionment in prospects for reform—mean that protests are likely to continue, especially in the absence of sweeping civil, political and economic change.
Recently, there are some signs that some in the E3—Britain, France, and Germany—understand this. For example, parliamentarians in Germany tabled motions in September calling for clear human rights benchmarks in dealings with the Islamic Republic.
With those priorities in mind, governments should call for the following in any renewed engagement with Iran:
- Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was granted temporary leave from prison on November 7, a move that raised hopes for her permanent release and the release of other prisoners of conscience in Iran. Thousands of prisoners were released in February to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Iran’s jails. But these releases generally did not extend to prisoners convicted of national security offenses, which is a charge often levied against those peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Releases should extend to all prisoners of conscience, including anyone jailed for participation in peaceful protests.
- The Islamic Republic remains the world’s biggest executioner after China and the application of the death penalty extends to those penalized for their freedom of expression. The Islamic Republic must bring an immediate end to the application of the death penalty to prisoners of conscience and in any manner prohibited under international law.
- States should heed the demands of civil society and call for the establishment of a UN-led inquiry into the allegations of grave human rights violations— including unlawful killings, torture, and enforced disappearances—that have taken place in Iran since November 15, 2019. The inquiry should report its findings to the UN Human Rights Council, with a view to ensuring accountability and guarantees of non-repetition. The report should include recommendations on how to ensure the Islamic Republic upholds its human rights obligations and bring those responsible for serious human rights violations to justice in fair trials.
With an incoming Biden administration in the United States calling for a return to the JCPOA, there will be a desire from some states to just pick up engagement where things left off with the conclusion of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2016. But that approach would not reflect a changed reality of people-powered movements around the world clamoring for change. Demanding accountability for Islamic Republic officials responsible for gross human rights violations in November 2019 and beyond would.
Gissou Nia is a senior fellow with Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. She currently leads an effort to build a strategic litigation program on the Middle East and North Africa, with an initial focus on Iran. Follow her on Twitter: @GissouNia.
Mon, Nov 25, 2019
On November 16, 2019, the Iranian government shut down the Internet throughout the country following a decision to triple the price of fuel overnight.
Thu, Jan 30, 2020
One accurate window into which way the country will trend is to track the demands of Iranian civil society. They are leading with their chants in the streets and letters from prison. And their message to the people of Iran is clear: don’t abandon your self-respect and human dignity. Enough is enough.
IranSource by Gissou Nia
Tue, Jul 21, 2020
It is now time for Europe to renew its commitment to prosecuting international crimes, especially as Iranian survivors increasingly become European citizens and residents.