An Opportunity to Press Iran on Human Rights

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s trip to the NAM conference in Tehran next week provides a good opportunity to bring Iran’s human rights abuses into focus.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, right, meets Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, in 2010 at U.N. headquarters. The upcoming Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran is a good opportunity to get Iran to focus on human rights. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, right, meets Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, in 2010 at U.N. headquarters. The upcoming Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran is a good opportunity to get Iran to focus on human rights. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that he would be attending the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran in the face of criticism from both the Israeli and U.S. governments. Founded in 1961 by nations seeking to plot an independent course between the American-led Western bloc and Soviet-led Eastern bloc, the movement is struggling to maintain relevancy in a post-Cold War environment. The summit—which takes place between August 26 and August 31 and during which Iran will assume leadership of the group of 118 nations for a three-year term—will be the biggest conference in Iran in 14 years, with some 40 heads of state planning to attend. Demonstrating the importance of the conference to Iran’s diplomatic outreach, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will open the conference himself, an honor usually reserved for Muslim delegations.

Having made this decision, the secretary general should take the opportunity while in Iran to press the Iranian government to permit the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights entry into the country to do his investigative work. The U.N. Human Rights Council created the Office of Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran in March 2011, the first appointment of an investigator with a mandate to monitor a specific country since the council was created in 2006 to replace the 60-year-old U.N. Human Rights Commission. The Iranian government lobbied vociferously against the creation of the special rapporteur, whose mandate represents a significant diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration. It is also an important vindication of the administration’s decision to join the Human Rights Council, reversing the policy of the George W. Bush administration, which had shunned the council.

Since being elected as the special rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldivian foreign minister, has produced two important reports—an interim report in September 2011 and one at the completion of his first term in March 2012, after which Shaheed’s mandate was extended—featuring extensive testimony cataloguing “allegations that produce a striking pattern of violations of fundamental human rights.” This marks the first time any U.N. agency has documented abuses in Iran in this way. While the Iranian government’s continuing refusal to allow Shaheed entry into the country has made his work more difficult, Iranian human rights activists say his impact has been considerable.

According to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, there are a number of areas in which the creation of the special rapporteur has made a difference. “First, the appointment has activated a U.N. mechanism, which put the Iranian government on notice that it’s being watched,” he explains. “We believe that this has had a preventative impact, putting a break [on potential abuses], preventing things from getting too out of hand. It has also created an address for victims of abuses to register grievances.” Indeed, immediately after his appointment, hundreds of Iranians contacted Shaheed to submit their testimonies.

The work of the special rapporteur also had an impact on Iranian foreign policy, seriously complicating Iran’s diplomacy. “We know firsthand that as a result of the creation of the monitor, relations between Iran and Brazil have cooled off quite a lot,” Ghaemi says. With regard to the Iranian domestic front, the existence of a special rapporteur has helped to keep human rights on the agenda. “We’ve even seen references to this in [Iran’s] Parliament,” Ghaemi says. “The human rights issue has become part of the discourse within Iran.”

But while Shaheed’s work is making a difference, ensuring the position is sufficiently resourced remains a problem, as it does for numerous U.N. projects and initiatives. The positions of special rapporteur are taken on by independent experts on a volunteer basis, with reimbursement for travel-related expenses, and are assigned one staff person and a part-time administration assistant. With little infrastructure in place to support their work, many of these independent experts must rely on support from their own affiliated academic institutions or nongovernmental organizations, an advantage that Shaheed does not enjoy.

It would probably not be wise for the United States itself to allocate specific funds for Shaheed’s work, as that would negatively impact perceptions of his independence, and make it easier for the Iranian government to justify continuing their noncooperation and dismiss Shaheed’s findings. But additional support for the mandate from outside donors, perhaps in Europe or Latin America, would be extremely helpful.

The Iranian government, looking to ease its isolation, recently undertook a series of diplomatic initiatives to make its presence felt in international organizations by demonstrating its own concern with the level of pressure being brought to bear upon it. It has invested considerable effort into the upcoming Tehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which it sees as an important component of its strategy of “active diplomacy.” Now is the time for the U.N. secretary general to press the case for human rights.

Similarly, Secretary General Ban should take the opportunity to push Iran to cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency with regard to outstanding questions related to its nuclear program. As the rhetoric around the issue heats up, it’s important to note, as well, that in the view of Iranian human rights activists, military strikes on Iran would set back their cause considerably. A survey of Iranian civil society activists released in July 2011 showed that interviewees “were largely united in their view that an attack would not diminish the repression, and would instead prove fatal to civil society and the pro-democracy movement.”

Similar to the United Nations itself, the Human Rights Council is an imperfect organization. Its efforts to be an inclusive international body sometimes come at the cost of lending credibility to abusive governments. (The spectacle of Syria seeking a seat on the council, even as Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to wage war on its people, is one such example.) But there can be little doubt that criticisms of Iran’s human rights abuses are taken more seriously—both by the regime and its people—when delivered by these multilateral institutions with the force of international consensus, rather than from the U.S. government, which the Iranian regime is well-practiced in dismissing.

To be sure, Iran’s nuclear program will continue to be the key point of concern between Iran and the international community. But it’s important for the Iranian people to understand that whatever the disposition of the nuclear issue, they are not forgotten. The U.N. secretary general can help remind them of that next week in Tehran by calling on the Iranian government to meet its own obligations as a U.N. member state.

Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.

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Matthew Duss

Policy Analyst