Delegates attend the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2023.

Where Next For The Islamic Republic In The UN Human Rights Council?

Thursday, 03/21/2024

The prospect of Iranian officials facing criminal charges under human rights law took a big step forward in the current session of the UN’s Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.

The two reports presented to the Council mark a watershed for Iran, giving impetus to the ending of impunity and new emphasis on legal accountability for those IR officials implicated in human rights abuses.

The sixth and last report from Javaid Rehman, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran together with the meticulously detailed 400-page report from the Fact Finding Mission on Iran have opened a path to the formation of international tribunals and greater use of existing international jurisdiction to prosecute Iranians. Central to that is the collection of evidence which can stand up in a court.

That path is not yet named, but it has been signposted by the Special Rapporteur and the FFM. And being the UN, nothing will be speedy. But the change in direction signalled at the HRC has given a tremendous boost to the Iranian human rights activists in their many NGOs gathered in Geneva. And a unity of purpose among many of them.

Their mood is upbeat, Spring-like. In short, their hope is that if and when the current authority in Iran changes, IR officials will not be able to hide from the law, wherever they are. Flight to the West should the IR collapse would be hugely unattractive to those who might have once looked for visas to Canada and elsewhere if they face prosecution for crimes for which bodies like the FFM collect the detailed evidence. As one activist put it, “the threat of prosecution is more alarming than sanctions to the torturers and their agents”.

The Islamic Republic is on the backfoot in Geneva, as regards the HRC. The IR has always refused to recognise the UN mandate given to the Special Rapporteur since it began in 2011. And neither does it recognise the UN mandate given the FFM in the aftermath of the death of Mahsa Amini. But the protests following her death has changed everything for Iran at the UN. What was always a standoff, is now an impasse.

Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman

This mirrors the historic antagonisms between the IR and the West. Under the vast, moulded and coloured stalectite ceiling of the grandly-named Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Chamber where the HRC meets, Iranian diplomats sit expressionless listening to a catalogue of IR oppression, torture and killing. The standard response of IR diplomats in these sessions is to ignore the points made and attack the integrity of the Rapporteur. The IR response in this time was to veer off the subject altogether or make statements which in the circumstances could only be considered as bizarre. Thus for Somayeh Karimdoost, the IR deputy head of mission, Rehman is merely a British “pen-holder” for Western attacks on Iran. His report, she said, was not "reflective of Iran’s constant progress and promotion and protection of human rights”. Similarly, Gharib Abadi, head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, kicked off his response to the FFM report by singling out Germany as having supplied Saddam Hussein with the weapons to fight Iran. Germany, he claimed, was thus at the forefront of a campaign against Iran using a humanitarian veneer to cover a politically charged mechanism.

While Iran is a signatory to various international treaties which underpin international humanitarian law, it clearly does not share the same definition of human rights as understood in the Western democracies, even if the same term is used. To any observer, the lack of irony or self-contradiction in the IR response to the HRC Iran reports is striking (although not without unexpected humour. On the landing outside the 'Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations’ chamber, right where TV. journalists do their lives, the Iranian Mission had put up an enormous banner celebrating ‘Iran: 100 Years of Multilateralism”, showing the IR flag fluttering over the Palais des Nations. Last year, the Mission put on an exhibition of headless models of women displaying Iranian national costume - headless, as that avoided the troubled issue of headgear).

Looking back at the past six years of his tenure as UN Rapporteur, Javaid Rehman told Iran International, “during those years of my tenure...we’ve gone through an unprecedented time; I hope that you and your viewers would agree that Iran and the Iranian people do not feel the same way as they felt six years ago. Iran is transforming, it’s a changing society.”

There is no going back. Rehman says that "After the Gina Mahsi Amini movement, the international community was galvanised and my mandate was very active to all perpetrators responsible for crimes. So we made a lot of effort. One of my achievements I would say is the work to establish an international mechanism.”

“Rehman put the issue of impunity and accountability on the table,” says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam of Iran Human Rights, a point echoed among other prominent human rights campaigners and many well-known lawyers. In that sense Rehman paved the way for the FFM, whose work he says, is to "conserve evidence for eventual accountability mechanisms and trials. I would encourage states to use universal jurisdiction wherever they find individuals who are alleged to have committed very serious crimes under international law."

What happens now depends on the votes on mandates for the post of Special Rapporteur and extending the FFM which happen on the 4th and 5th April, at the close of the 55th HRC Session. The Islamic Republic of Iran will be delighted to see the back of Rehman, but it looks unlikely that the UN will end the mandate as such for the role of Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran. Speaking to Iran International, Rehman points out that anyone can apply for the job, but did not reveal whether he knew of any likely candidates. A new candidate will be selected and voted ion by the UN in July. Rehman says he really hopes the mandate is extended. “You see the seriousness of the human rights crisis in Iran, which requires a good repoprting mechanism to highlight all of this for the Iranian people,” he says. "I would love my successor to be able to have access to Iran, which the Iranian authorities denied me.”

That is unlikely. Iran will campaign hard for the vote against the mandate renewal and will have backing from such champions of human rights as the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Cuba and Zimbabwe. The FFM mandate extension is not guaranteed, as Sara Hossain, the chair of the FFM tribunal, told us, pointing out that Iran has a lot of friends. But its supporters are hopeful that there will be sufficient votes for the extension, which will allow it time to finish compiling the detailed evidence which would provide the basis of prosecutions and legal actions for redress and compensation for the victims of IR state oppression. When asked whether she would continue to serve as Chair of the FFM, Ms Hossain indicated she’d certainly consider it as she’d invested to much of herself in it so far.

The future for the IR cannot be predicted, but there is a fairly common view among the concerned UN community in Geneva that its current situation cannot continue, faced as it is with such internal opposition. Until that situation changes, the role of the HRC and its mandates for investigating human rights in Iran will remain a highly influential on the policies of the UN governments and many groups within Iran. The response of the IR at this session shows clearly the threat that poses for the IR itself.

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