Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Dec. 19 unveiled a long-awaited bill of rights for Iranians, a “Charter of Citizenship Rights.”
The bill — consisting of 120 articles – includes a variety of pledges to Iranian citizens guaranteeing their physical well-being, including the right to have access to clean water, healthy food and medical services, and political rights to freedom of speech, access to information, cyberspace, and the right to assemble and rally peacefully.
Many of these rights already exist in Iran’s constitution, but have often not been implemented. Announcing the new bill, Rouhani sent out a mass text message to Iranians all over the country, which read, “Let’s familiarize ourselves with our rights and respect them strongly.”
At the start of a televised speech and prior to the ceremonial signing of the bill, Rouhani said, “The government of Iran is obligated to provide the right to life, human dignity, and justice for all Iranian citizens, living in Iran or abroad, regardless of their race, tribe, religious belief, age, or gender.”
Such a charter was among Rouhani’s campaign pledges when he first ran for president four years ago and the president may have felt the need to unveil the bill before running for re-election this spring. The charter has been translated into English and Arabic and is available in its entirety on the government’s official website.
Some conservative pundits and newspapers blasted the bill, which needs to be passed by parliament. Kayhan, Iran’s most prominent conservative newspaper, published an article entitled “Charter of Citizenship Rights, or List of Unfulfilled Duties of the Government?”
The article is a summary of a Fars news agency’s interview with Hossein Shariatmadari, Kayhan’s editor-in-chief, during which he harshly criticizes Rouhani’s performance, including the Iran nuclear deal. Shariatmadari calls the charter redundant and demands an apology from the government for what he calls its shortcomings.
Elham Aminzadeh, Rouhani’s aid specializing in citizenship rights, talked about the charter in an interview with Shargh newspaper ahead of the unveiling of the bill and emphasized the awareness the government hopes it would raise among people. Aminzadeh was also interviewed by Mehr news agency, in which she explained, “This document designs relevant strategies, and, at the time being, there is no punishment intended for disobeying the charter. However, further work is planned in order to make the contents enforceable.”
While the Iranian government says that one of its main objectives is raising awareness about citizenship rights, some wonder how meaningful this bill could be, given the actions of the intelligence branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other repressive policies of Iranian security forces who have the protection of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranked Iran 169 out of 180 countries. The reason for Iran’s poor performance is rooted in Rouhani’s insufficient pressure, the government’s lack of authority and the continuing dominance of conservative forces. The end result is a lack of predictability and rule of law that contrasts sharply with the promises of the new charter.
Security organs seeking to undermine Rouhani and preserve their grip on power have targeted journalists and Iranian dual nationals, throwing them into prison for prolongued periods on dubious charges. Two prominent candidates for president in 2009 – Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – have been under house arrest since 2011 along with Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Iran also has faced criticism for its heavy use of capital punishment and has yet to fulfill pledges to suspend the death penalty for drug offenses.
Iranian labor activists have also faced arrest and imprisonment for demonstrating peacefully to obtain back wages.
As a result, many Iranian citizens have not taken Rouhani’s bill very seriously, since there is not much hope that the contents of the bill, even if passed by parliament, would change the practices of the IRGC intelligence branch.
In light of this, Iranians wonder why Rouhani has bothered to introduce the charter now. Is he only trying to win votes in the next election? If re-elected, would he do anything differently? Does he have the ability to change anything and does he really want to change a system that has brought him to power?
Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi