Toward a Human Rights and Democracy Agenda for Iran

Executive Summary
October 2012 – In contrast to the global attention and investment to the democratic transitions of the “Arab Spring” and Burma, the world’s response to Iran’s 2009 pro-democracy uprising was feeble at best. Over the past decade, the international community has been largely focused on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the expense of critical support for human rights and freedoms in the country. In particular, the timing of the mass protests in 2009 coincided with a new US Administration and renewed efforts to engage the Iranian regime on its nuclear program.

The concern in some quarters that international backing for the “Green Movement” could harm the legitimacy of Iran’s indigenous opposition complicated a more vigorous response to the legitimate democratic demands of the Iranian people. It took two years—and after Iranian authorities had essentially crushed the pro-democracy opposition—for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to reestablish a reporting mandate on the country. Three such mandates have existed since the early 1980s to monitor the precarious human rights situation in Iran.

Yet, the international community invested little additional diplomatic resources to ensure Iran’s cooperation. In 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights prematurely discontinued the last mandate of the UN Special Representative on the situation of human rights in Iran by a margin of only one vote—well before Iran had made concrete improvements in governance, human rights, or accountability. In the absence of sustained, high level engagement from the international community, and clear democratic benchmarks, Iran’s unelected leaders have consolidated power in undemocratic institutions and increased repression of a broad range of human and civil rights, culminating in the 2009 protests.

Among the 16 key states studied in this report, only European states and the United States questioned the results of Iran’s fraudulent 2009 election and offered clear condemnation of the violent crackdown by the government. With few exceptions, states outside the traditional Western bloc shirked their responsibility to speak out against the tragic events unfolding in Iran. It took Mexico six months after the crackdown began to condemn the violence against protesters, and Japan’s expression of concern failed to assign responsibility for the abuses carried out by the Iranian government against its citizens.

The ten remaining states—despite their growing global stature—either ignored the historic events in Iran, or rushed to support the Iranian government. Argentina, South Africa, South Korea, India, and Nigeria failed to condemn the violence or support the rights of the protesters; while Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia congratulated the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and disturbingly, praised Iran’s “democratic” elections despite their inherently un-free nature. Among the states analyzed in this report, only the European states, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, and Japan supported the annual human rights resolutions on Iran adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). With the exception of Japan, no state outside the Western bloc has cosponsored these critical initiatives despite support for similar international initiatives on other countries.

In 2011, South Korea finally shifted its traditional abstention to voting in favor, while South Africa, Nigeria, and Indonesia shifted from voting against the resolutions to abstaining on them. Brazil’s voting remains inconsistent across UN bodies and initiatives; in 2011, it chose to support the UNHRC resolution establishing a mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, but it has since, maintained its abstention on the companion UNGA resolution. Unfortunately, while India also changed its position from voting against the resolution in 2009 to an abstention in 2010, it reverted back to opposing the initiative in 2011, revealing the absence of human rights considerations in India’s policies toward Iran.

During Iran’s 2010 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the United States and European states offered the highest quality of recommendations to Iran, followed by Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, which also provided strong, targeted recommendations aimed at improving Iran’s human rights situation. South Korea, Turkey, and South Africa regrettably failed to take part in the UPR process altogether, while Nigeria and India participated, but made weak recommendations. China, Russia, and Indonesia, which, in theory, support the UPR as a legitimate human rights mechanism, misused the process to make insincere recommendations that not only failed to reflect the human rights situation in the country, but seemed to shield the Iranian government rather than help improve conditions.

For Iran to make progress on human rights and begin the process of democratization, countries around the world, including states that enjoy close ties to Iran, must demonstrate a clear commitment to advance the legitimate democratic demands of the Iranian people. Global powers have a responsibility to hold the Iranian government accountable to its international human rights obligations. They should actively support the rights and abilities of Iranian citizens to hold their own government accountable to the policies it pursues. It took two years for these countries to even begin thinking about addressing the human rights crisis through a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.

These states should advance an international human rights agenda vis-à-vis Iran and ensure that any progress on nuclear negotiations with the Iranian government does not compromise the international community’s political will to protect and advance human rights in the country. Emerging democratic powers such as South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia have a unique moral responsibility, based on their own histories, to support the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy by bolstering human rights initiatives, including resolutions at the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council.

India, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, and Turkey—democracies that are among Iran’s closest economic and regional allies—have critically important roles to play in promoting human rights as they pursue economic profit in their foreign policies toward Iran. Mexico, Argentina, and Nigeria—states that have taken leading positions on other human rights crises, particularly in their own regions—should demonstrate similar leadership at the global level on Iran. Russia and China should also recognize that an Iran which is less repressive and more globally integrated is inherently more stable, and thus better suited to their long term national and economic interests.

The states analyzed in this report should support the extension of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur until the Iranian government meets specific measurable human rights benchmarks. The UN Secretary General should invite states to participate in an intergovernmental working group to regularly and directly engage with the Government of Iran in pursuit of the following benchmarks and objectives:

  • A verifiable commitment to provide full investigative access to, and cooperate with, UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • The release of political prisoners
  • A moratorium on the death penalty until Iran’s laws and practices meet international standards at a minimum
  • An end to restrictions on the media, free expression, and assembly
  • The conduct of genuine, democratic elections, free from vetting and subject to international observation, and reforms to achieve accountable, democratic governance
  • The establishment of a National Human Rights Institute that meets the Paris Principles outlined in UN General Assembly Resolution 48/134 of 1993

[Read the full report here]