Human Rights

In reports and resolutions, the United Nations expresses its concern over human rights in Iran

In Brief: 
  • The UN and its representatives have stated clearly and repeatedly over the last year that the human rights situation in Iran has not improved.
  • These expressions of concern come after Iranian officials tried to project a new tone of moderation and respect for the rights of its citizens since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
  • But Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed have found few improvements and voting by the General Assembly and Human Rights Council suggest the international community is unconvinced.
  • Concerns include the high rate of executions, the treatment of women, and discrimintion against ethnic and religious minorities, including the Bahá’ís.

NEW YORK — In a series of reports and resolutions issued from late 2013 through the end of 2014, the United Nations and its special representatives have made clear that the human rights situation in Iran has not improved, amounting to a collective call for Iran to take steps to meet international obligations to respect the rights of its citizens.

These expressions of concern stand in sharp contrast to the statements and promises made by Iranian officials, who have sought since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in mid-2013 to portray Iran has moderate and cooperative in the face of interntional concern over its human rights policies.

The most recent of such expressions of concern came in December 2014, with the passage in the General Assembly of a six-page resolution enumerating the violations made by Iran recently and calling for it to allow UN monitors to visit the country.

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 83 to 35, with 68 abstentions, expressed “deep concern at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations” in Iran, listing the high frequency of executions, torture, restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, the targeting of journalists, pervasive gender inequality, and religious discrimination — including against Iranian Bahá’ís — as among the Assembly’s concerns.

The resolution — the 27th such in the General Assembly since 1985 — followed strongly worded reports from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, who both expressed alarm over broad and continuing human rights violations in Iran.

Mr. Ban’s report, issued in September 2014, said there have been no improvements in the human rights situation for religious and ethnic minorities. “Religious minorities such as Bahá’ís and Christians face violations entrenched in law and in practice,” he wrote.

Dr. Shaheed, the UN’s special investigator on human rights in Iran, also issued a report in September 2014. It discussed a wide range of violations, from the lack of legal due process, especially for executions, and “continuing arbitrary arrests, detention and prosecutions of individuals for exercising their fundamental rights.”

Dr. Shaheed devoted several paragraphs to the ongoing persecution of Iranian Bahá’ís, noting that they face wide-ranging discrimination in education and work, and that more than 100 Bahá’ís are in prison.

Promises of moderation

In September 2013, Iranian President Rouhani, who had been elected just three months before, came to the United Nations with a message of tolerance and moderation. His UN speech mentioned those words frequently — leading to this headline in the New York Times: “Iran’s New President Preaches Tolerance in First UN Appearance.”

“Human society should be elevated from a state of mere tolerance to that of collective collaboration,” said President Rouhani on 24 September 2013. “We should not just tolerate others. We should rise above mere tolerance and dare to work together.”

In other speeches, President Rouhani promised to put forward a new “Charter of Citizen’s Rights” for Iranians that would, according to published reports, “call for equality for all citizens without discrimination based on race, religion or sex” as well as “greater freedom for political parties and minorities.”

October 2013 reports

In October 2013, however, Secretary-General Ban issued a report on the situation of human rights in Iran, expressing concern over a wide range of issues, including reports of torture, amputations, flogging, increased application of the death penalty, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.

Mr. Ban also said he continues to receive reports that ethnic and religious minorities continue to face discrimination, citing also reports of “widespread and entrenched discrimination faced by members of the Bahá’í community.”

Dr. Shaheed, in his October 2013 report, indicated that despite recent signals by Iran that it intends to improve on its human rights record, there had been little evidence of change.

Among other things, Dr. Shaheed expressed concern over Iran’s high level of executions, continuing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, poor prison conditions, and limits on freedom of expression and association.

He also said that religious minorities in Iran, including Bahá’ís, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others, “are increasingly subjected to various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”

He said, moreover, there “appears to be an escalating pattern of systematic human rights violations targeting members of the Bahá’í community, who face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, national security charges for active involvement in religious affairs, restrictions on religious practice, denial of higher education, obstacles to State employment and abuses within schools.”

2013 General Assembly Resolution

In December 2013, the General Assembly expressed “deep concern” over Iran’s continued use of torture and its high rate of executions, noting the “high frequency of the carrying out of the death penalty in the absence of internationally recognized safeguards.” It also noted “widespread and serious restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of association and of opinion and expression,” the “systematic targeting and harassment of human rights defenders,” and “pervasive gender inequality and violence against women.”

The 2013 resolution also expressed concern about discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, noting “severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” affecting “Christians, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Zoroastrians and their defenders.”

The resolution devoted three paragraphs tothe situation of Iranian Bahá’ís, noting their “continued persecution” including “targeted attacks and murders, without proper investigation to hold those responsible accountable, arbitrary arrests and detention, the restriction of access to higher education on the basis of religion, the continued imprisonment of the leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community, the closure of Bahá’í-owned businesses and the de facto criminalization of membership in the Bahá’í faith.”

2014 Human Rights Council

In March 2014, Mr. Ban and Dr. Shaheed again issued reports, this time to the Human Rights Council.

Dr. Shaheed’s report said President Rouhani’s draft Charter of Citizen’s Rights, which had been promulgated by the office of the President in November 2013, “falls short of strengthening protections for the equal enjoyment of human rights for women and members of the country’s religious and ethnic minority communities.”

“It also fails to address the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, including flogging, hanging, stoning and amputation.”

“The charter does not ban the execution of juveniles and also fails to address concerns about the use of capital punishment, in particular for offenses that do not meet the standards for most serious crimes under international law,” Dr. Shaheed said.

On 28 March, the Council voted to extend Dr. Shaheed’s mandate as its special investigator on Iran.