Over the past year, the Obama Administration has missed successive opportunities to bring real international pressure on the Iranian government to address the severe human rights crisis gripping the country. Instead, it has focused its political muscle on the singular objective of convincing Iran’s leadership to stop nuclear enrichment. The result has been an almost cruel disregard for the plight of the Iranian people and their urgent need for international attention to their human rights situation.
Since joining the UN Human Rights Council in June 2009, the United States has worked to address crises in places as diverse as Haiti, Honduras, Burma, Sudan, Guinea, Kyrgysztan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet, since the Green uprising started last summer, not a single resolution has been presented by the United States or European states on the brutal repression taking place in Iran.
By November 2009, five thousand Iranians were in prison, hundreds tortured and raped, and dozens put on show trials and sentenced to death or long prison terms solely for their peaceful demands for free and fair elections. Iran’s leading human rights defenders, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, and over a hundred human rights organizations from each corner of the world, called urgently for the UN to increase its attention on the human rights situation in Iran.
These fervent pleas went unheeded as the United States focused solely on securing nuclear concessions through its new engagement policy with Tehran. The idea of including human rights as an additional issue on the P5+1 agenda was also rejected for fear of compromising the negotiations. The lack of a strong international response served as a green light to Iran’s leaders that there would be no serious consequences for more brutality against its population.
The Iranian people made two more attempts to show the world that they were ready to fight for their rights — in December during the Ashoura protests and in February during the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. They were met with deafening silence abroad and more repression at home. More calls for a UN special session were disregarded despite more deaths, detentions and executions of political prisoners. This time, Iran’s imprisoned youth were told they should wait for the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review, a new UN mechanism designed to examine the records of all states on a four-year cycle, but not equipped to deal with human rights emergencies.
At its review in February, the head of Iran’s delegation, Mohammad Larijani, told the Human Rights Council that universal human rights standards such as equality under the law were Western concepts not in line with Iranian values and inconsistent with international law. He also stated that torture did not exist in Iran despite the fact that torture victims were sitting in the UN hall.
Unsurprisingly, Iran rejected 45 critical recommendations based on international law, including: to end discrimination against women; to end juvenile executions; to investigate torture in prison, including rape; to amend its penal code to remove vague "national security" crimes against dissidents; and to ensure the independence of its judiciary. At the same time, Iran lobbied governments to win a seat on the Human Rights Council to promote and protect human rights. In March, another session of the Council came and went with little to show for it. While the United States deserves credit for forcing Iran’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council elections in April, this tactical victory against abusive governments did nothing to afford protection for the Iranian people.
In June, another effort to secure a UN mandate on Iran to investigate abuses was rebuffed. This time, the United States worked with the government of Norway to deliver a statement on the anniversary of the elections crackdown. Withstanding intense pressure from the human rights community, the Obama administration decided not to pursue stronger international action that would jeopardize its campaign to build support for another round of UN sanctions. Yet most observers, including Iran’s embattled opposition, believe the policy of broad sanctions to punish Iran solely for its nuclear program — without any mention of abuses against its citizens — is, in fact, helping the Ahmadinejad government win support at home, not hurting it.
We know the pattern. Strong, consistent international pressure on the Iranian government to improve its record on human rights works. From 1984 to 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights mandated a special representative on human rights for Iran. Toward the end of that period, the country saw modest and gradual improvement, particularly under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Ever since that mandate was discontinued by a slim margin in 2002, conditions have dramatically deteriorated.
Today, over five hundred political prisoners languish in Iranian prisons, including three American hikers held unjustly for over a year. Iran executes more people per capita than any country in the world — a number which has increased four-fold under Ahmadinejad. Iran leads the world in jailing journalists, and leads Saudi Arabia by a wide margin as one of two countries left in the world that still executes juvenile offenders. Persecution of religious minorities and women’s rights activists have worsened so significantly that punishments include virtual life imprisonment and possible death sentences, and inhumane punishments such as stoning, flogging, and amputation continue to be sanctioned by the state.
What is lacking today is the moral resolve to elevate the rights of Iranian citizens as a matter of international priority. But this is not just a moral issue; it is a legal issue. Iran has legal obligations to uphold the rights of its citizens, and states have an international obligation to address their conditions appropriately. The Obama administration’s single-minded focus on the nuclear issue has come at a very high cost for Iranians who risked their lives to attain their democratic rights. Iran’s theocracy, seemingly the only beneficiary, has gotten a free ticket to punish them viciously.
On June 20, 2009, the day Neda Agha Soltan was gunned down on a Tehran street, President Obama quoted Martin Luther King when he said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The first step to attaining justice is to build recognition of injustice. The Iranian people need the UN’s help — as did the citizens of Chile, South Africa, and Hungary — to attain justice. At the UN General Assembly meeting this fall, the United States has another opportunity to help them by ensuring the establishment of a UN mandate that will investigate abuses and encourage accountability for those perpetrating crimes in Iran. We should not miss it again.
Dokhi Fassihian is the executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project.