Iran's Newfound Engagement Should Extend to Human Rights

The international community has the responsibility to elevate the human rights portfolio on par with other issues, and to induce Iran's cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council and its appointed mandate holder.
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Governments should prevent horse-trading across the human rights and nuclear portfolios

In recent months, the new Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani has taken important steps to engage with the international community to resolve concerns surrounding its nuclear program. In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, Rouhani declared that Iran "is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and results-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and the removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency." While Rouhani was talking specifically about Iran's nuclear program, the Iranian people and the world hope that this newfound approach will be extended to human rights.

Reducing international tensions and improving the economy were not the only issues on which Rouhani was elected to office. In fact, these goals were not distinct to his campaign. Most of the candidates within the large field of presidential hopefuls offered their own solutions toward these objectives. What actually distinguished Rouhani from his opponents, and arguably the reason why he won, was his promise to uphold the human rights of the Iranian people. During the campaign, Rouhani promised to advance free speech; to end discrimination against women and minorities; and to release political prisoners. In April, he stated that "All Iranian people should feel there is justice. Justice means equal opportunity. All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice."

This week, Iran is once again the topic of discussion at the UN. This time, human rights take center stage. The presentation of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran on Wednesday affirms that much work remains to be done for President Rouhani's pledges on human rights to be turned into policy. According to the Special Rapporteur's report:

The human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern.... tensions between various aspects of the country's laws and its human rights obligations, along with the capricious application of those laws, remain causes of the lack of progress. As a result, gender discrimination, as well as systemic violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, continue to characterize the human rights situation in the country.

The fact is, until recently Iran has done little to improve its record on human rights despite the demands of its people and the international community. The government has failed to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms, or to implement the hundreds of recommendations provided by UN bodies since the early 1980s for it to meet its international human rights obligations. For instance, while Iran accepted 126 specific human rights recommendations by the UN Human Rights Council's universal periodic review in 2010, it has done little to implement in earnest any of them. It has failed to allow any of the UN's independent experts mandated to monitor human rights around the world to visit the country since 2005.

Some positive steps however have been taken by the Rouhani administration in recent weeks, for instance the release of several prisoners of conscience including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights advocate and lawyer. Still, there is no indication that these steps represent concrete, irreversible changes in Iran's policies toward its citizenry. No legal reforms or guarantees have yet been provided to ensure that citizens and victims will receive the protections and remedies they have thus far been denied. Absent legal reforms, the concern exists that positive steps may have more to do with improving Iran's public image as the country negotiates on its nuclear program.

The reality in Iran is still grim. The country continues to be the world's leading per capita executioner. Between January 2012 and June 2013, the state took the lives of 724 citizens, and most for crimes that did not meet the international standard for capital punishment. Human rights organizations have noted that the rate of executions has actually accelerated in recent weeks with 125 persons being to death since Rouhani's election. Iranian courts recently declared plans to re-execute a man after he survived his first hanging.

The plight of journalists remains a serious source of concern, with 40 journalists currently serving prison sentences, convicted for either national security crimes or crimes of a political nature, with 18 being convicted for "spreading propaganda against the State." Over 500 human rights defenders remain detained. Iranian human rights activists estimate the total number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Iran to be around 1,000. Prison conditions are deplorable with reports of overcrowding, limited access to sanitation, and inadequate provisions of food, water, and medical treatments. And discrimination against women in law and practice continues unabated. Women's access to decision-making roles and higher education remains restricted, with women banned from 77 fields of study and hundreds of courses. And, just last month, a disturbing new law was passed allowing men to marry a foster or adopted daughter as young as 13.

President Rouhani has pledged to actively pursue the passage of citizen's rights legislation in the Iranian Parliament. This is a crucially important effort to ensure that the internationally guaranteed rights of Iranians are nationally codified, legally binding, and in accordance with international human rights law. The president should use all of his power to build a case for the debate and passage of these laws. But no Iranian government can move this difficult agenda forward on its own. Progress requires both political courage by the Rouhani administration as well as robust investment and partnership by the international community.

Iran's situation will be considered by UN member states in November and again in March. This provides a good timeframe for all nations to engage in substantive discussions with the Iranian Government about its specific plans to usher in human rights and democratic reforms. UN member states should make it crystal clear now that attention to human rights will not be horse-traded for nuclear concessions from Iran. Quite the opposite, the international community has the responsibility to elevate the human rights portfolio on par with other issues, and to induce Iran's cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council and its appointed mandate holder. If Iran seizes this opportunity, it will come closer to achieving long overdue progress on human rights and democratization in the country.

Dokhi Fassihian is an international human rights expert. Since 2003, she has led three non-governmental organizations working in the areas of human rights, democracy, and Iranian affairs.

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