March 29, 2024

UN Must Extend Mandates of Special Rapporteur on Iran

Iran is prone to human rights abuses, but the details of those abuses are often obscured.

Over the course of about three months in 1988, authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran systematically executed 30,000 people, mainly targeting members and supporters of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The current president, Ebrahim Raisi, was a leading participant in the massacre.

With the sole exception of a former prison official who was prosecuted after being arrested in Sweden in 2019, no one has ever been held accountable for that crime against humanity. Few people outside of Iran and the Iranian diaspora are even aware of the 1988 massacre, and Tehran has made concerted efforts to make sure that this ignorance persists, as by destroying the sites of mass graves in which many victims were interred.

It is common knowledge that Iran is prone to human rights abuses, but the details of those abuses are often obscured by the clerical regime’s vast propaganda network and the general absence of international institutions that are prepared to counter that propaganda. The 1988 massacre is not the only blind spot in the world’s understanding of how the Iranian people have suffered at the hands of the regime. Even the most recent abuses might have slipped away from the world’s consciousness after other regional crises began to emerge in the aftermath of Iran’s September 2022 nationwide uprising.

Fortunately, this loss of perspective seems to have been avoided thanks to an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFMI), which was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the crackdown on dissent that followed the “morality police” killing of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman. The mission’s first report on March 19 confirmed that Amini’s death was the “unlawful” result of authoritarian violence and that it was only the first in a long series of similarly unlawful killings.

The MEK offered reports on the crackdown, which placed the number of those killed during the uprising at 750. More than 30,000 people were arrested in the midst of that uprising, even according to the regime’s own reporting. At least nine individuals have been executed for their part in it, while dozens of other death sentences are believed to still be pending.

There was a time when the world’s attention was rather closely fixed on the uprising. But as the regime gradually pushed public dissent back underground, that attention began to drift. It is very likely that if this trend had continued uninterrupted, Tehran would have moved to begin implementing the other death sentences much more quickly. The regime might also have stepped up the surrounding crackdown and public terror campaign to an even greater extent if it believed that the world was no longer watching.

Fortunately, the FFMI prevented this from happening. The enduring public attention has predictably become a source of aggravation for Iranian authorities, who were quick to condemn the mission’s report as politically biased, albeit without citing any flaws in its methodology. The report and the mission’s very existence represent serious challenges to the regime’s effort to exert control over its public image on the international level. These challenges are long overdue and much needed in order to safeguard against Tehran accelerating its crackdowns.

Interestingly, the report referred to cases where the regime has tried to attribute its crimes to the MEK. Paragraph 74 states, “A witness said that in Ward 209 of Evin, he was pressured and promised a reduced sentence if he would say that his eye injuries had not been caused by the Islamic Republic of Iran but by ‘the hypocrites’ [—] a word they used to refer to Mojahedin Organization.”

If the world even begins to look away from Iran’s human rights record now, it will be sending a message that the regime still enjoys impunity, at least where its domestic affairs are concerned. This would not only create even greater danger for the Iranian people but would also have knock-on effects upon Western interests and global stability, since the violent suppression of dissent at home is what makes it possible for Iran to project force, relatively unchallenged, throughout the surrounding, conflict-wracked region.

For our own sakes and for the sake of Iran’s innocent civilians and pro-democracy activists, Western governments must take steps to make sure that Iran’s human rights abuses remain in the spotlight. That means pushing for the extension of the fact-finding mission’s mandate at the UNHRC, and perhaps also for the expansion of that mandate to include the prior crackdowns on dissent, including the 1988 massacre. It also means granting a similar extension to the mandate of the UN’s special rapporteur on the overall situation of human rights in Iran.

Both of these institutions have brought vital awareness to the threats that Iranian activists have faced while pushing to unseat the theocratic dictatorship and establish a democratic system in its place. They have weathered those threats heroically so far, but it is more imperative than ever for the world to be prepared to hold leading Iranian officials accountable for crimes against humanity.

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