In the coming days, the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a human rights resolution passed last month by its humanitarian committee aimed at improving the lives of Iran’s citizens. The human rights conditions of Iranians have been abysmal for three decades now.
This includes entrenched political repression, state-sanctioned gender and religious discrimination, and institutionalised violence and torture of government critics. Today, nearly a thousand political prisoners and prisoners of conscience languish in Iranian prisons due to the exercise of their guaranteed rights to expression, conscience, and religion.
While newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has provided hope to Iranians who voted him in on a platform of citizens’ rights, limits to presidential power are already undercutting his administration’s ability to usher in the human rights reforms he promised during his campaign for president. Policymaking in Iran also rests with unelected officials, so for Rouhani to advance his reform agenda, support from Iran’s Supreme Leader is necessary. What the Iranian people desperately need, therefore, and what President Rouhani can benefit from, is sustained and elevated attention to their situation. This will help Iran’s entire leadership understand that episodic or cosmetic steps will not be accepted as a substitute for genuine, broad-based democratic human rights reforms.
Yet, when the vote on this issue was called at the United Nations in November, the Maldives’ seat was empty. This is all the more astonishing since the Maldives, itself, recently emerged from authoritarianism following its first multi-party elections in 2008. Meanwhile, the Maldives asked the UN General Assembly not once, but twice, to be elected to the Human Rights Council. It was the UN that called attention to a lack of gender equality in the Maldives’ judicial appointments, which helped the Maldives end gender discrimination within the judiciary, leading to the appointments of the country’s first-ever female judges. In Iran, female judges were unjustly removed from the bench after the 1979 revolution. They should be returned to their rightful posts.
Remembering the role of the international community
It was just eight years ago when in 2005, the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and human rights defenders sent an urgent appeal to the government of the Maldives concerning the now-defunct Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs’ declared ban on the possession of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The government responded within a week affirming its support for the UDHR and explaining that the Council’s statement was not legally binding. Moreover, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs responded a month later to confirm the initial response and to inform the UN experts that the government notified the Council to desist from such pronouncements without prior consultation. For these reasons, and more, the Maldivian people understand firsthand the vital role played by the international community in assisting nations to make human rights progress.
The Iranian people deserve the same support from the international community. They certainly deserve the backing of the Maldivian people who have faced similar challenges and benefitted from the UN’s attention.
The Iran human rights resolution focuses on many critical issues, such as the lack of freedom of expression and assembly in the country – as well as the need to release the hundreds of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and opposition members in prison. It catalogues how women and religious minorities continue to face severe discrimination in law and practice, sometimes amounting to persecution. It discusses the country’s exorbitant execution rate, the highest per capita in the world. It requests Iran to end the practice of juvenile executions, public executions and other executions carried out in the absence of respect for internationally recognized safeguards, as well as to end inhumane and degrading forms of punishment, including amputation.
Despite President Rouhani’s election, more than 254 hangings have been carried out by Iran’s judiciary since his inauguration in August. The government has surpassed last year’s record by executing 529 people as of the end of November. Finally, the resolution calls on Iran to cooperate with UN human rights special procedures, including the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, who has not been allowed to visit the country since 2005.
The Maldives has the ability again this week to be present when the vote on the human rights of the Iranian people is called at the UN General Assembly. It has another opportunity to honor its own painful and inspirational history, and to honor the hundreds of prisoners of conscience in Iran who continue to fight for their freedom and for their human dignity. The Maldives should vote yes for its own people and for the people of Iran.
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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