Why we shouldn’t use Iran’s human rights record as an excuse for war

26 March 2012

Iran’s record on human rights is dreadful, but we must not allow it to become an excuse for war.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing at first hand the findings of the UN’s top representative on human rights in Iran.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s ‘Special Rapporteur’, had submitted his first report to the Human Rights Council on 6 March and was speaking at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy in London to help fulfil one of the other parts of his remit – to publicise his findings.

What he found wasn’t pretty.

Systematic abuse

He reported a “pattern of systematic abuse of human rights or a deficit in adherence to human rights” – and he backed this up with some disturbing statistics.

Taking into account the size of its population, Iran has the highest execution rate in the world. In terms of the total number of people executed, it is second only to China. And it is the only country in the world still to allow stoning.

Death sentences are often “arrived at without respect for due process,” said Shaheed, with insufficient time given to trials and defendants denied legal representation.

According to Shaheed’s report, 421 executions were officially announced in 2011, along with another 249 secret executions of which he is aware. What’s more, the death penalty is being used more and more: the number of executions has increased every year since 2005, when it was less than 100.

The figures on stoning are just as shocking.

Until earlier this year, stoning was mandatory under the Iranian Penal Code in cases of “adultery while married”. According to a report by Amnesty International in December 2010, at least 77 people have been killed by stoning since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

A moratorium on death by stoning seems to have had little impact. According to Amnesty, at least five men and one woman have been stoned to death since 2002 (along with another three sentenced to stoning but hanged instead). At the time the report was published there were at least 10 women and four men believed to be “at risk” of death by stoning.

In January, Iran’s Guardian Council removed stoning from the new Islamic penal code, but it remains to be seen whether this will have any impact in practice. Shaheed expressed concern in his speech that stoning might still be carried out under the authority of a fatwa – an Islamic decree on a specific matter.

Iran is a signatory of a number of international treaties on human rights, and if it adhered even to its own legal system then the number of abuses would be cut dramatically, said Shaheed.

But the special rapporteur found abuses of and restrictions to civil rights in almost every area, from freedom of speech and assembly to the rights of women and children and the treatment of detainees.

According to Shaheed’s report, Iran has more journalists in detention than any other country, with 42 currently imprisoned and at least 150 having fled the country following the presidential election of 2009, the results of which were disputed by the opposition Green Movement.

Shaheed also reported the lack of a proper investigation into allegations that since 1980 the government has executed, abused or tortured somewhere in the region of 20,000 individuals affiliated with the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation.

Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, reveals shocking details of executions, stoning and suppression of civil and political rights in a speech at the London Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, following the submission of his first report to the Human Rights Council (Richard Nield)

Much criticised

Just hours before his speech in London, Shaheed had his mandate extended by a further year by the UN’s Human Rights Council. So far, the Iranian government has been resistant to his efforts at engagement, but they haven’t shut the door completely, he said.

The work of the Special Rapporteur has been much criticised. He is constantly having to defend himself against the charge that he is an agent of the Western powers, working to a Western agenda to undermine the Islamic Republic as part of a general hate campaign against the country.

This criticism is unwarranted. Shaheed’s mission is to improve human rights, and it is carried out along strict guidelines and with little interference from the UN (almost too little, in fact, when it comes to funding and support for the mission).

There will be those who argue that Iran is being unfairly singled out, and that there are other countries that are equally worthy of such attention. But even if this were the case, it is no reason to neglect investigating a country where there is evidence of such widespread abuses.

Sabre rattling

The timing of Shaheed’s report, however, is unfortunate to say the least.

Iran is currently being assailed on all sides by the international community for a reluctance to conform to outside ideas of how far it should take its nuclear development programme.

It is getting a battering in the Republican leadership race in the US as the candidates try not only to prove themselves to be stronger than their rivals on so-called terror, but to make President Obama look weak in the process.

And it is getting a battering from Israel, which is telling the US that it should shape up and take out Iran’s nuclear installations – or at some point it will just have to do it itself.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is chivvying the rest of the world to co-operate in imposing some of the most ruinous economic sanctions ever imposed on Iran – to the point where the US government has said it will stop trading even with its own allies if they continue to buy Iranian oil (unless they can come up with a good excuse).

Be very careful

Now none of this is reason to be soft on Iran’s human rights record. But it does mean that we have to be very careful not to confuse the human rights issue with the nuclear issue.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was at another talk – at the Frontline Club, a London-based journalists’ network – at which a senior Israeli diplomat suggested that Iran’s poor human rights record meant that it couldn’t possibly be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

Even leaving aside the still more tenuous conclusion that this justifies the bombing of the country, this kind of thinking is as dangerous as it is lazy.

We can probably all agree that Iran’s human rights record is dreadful. It’s likely that we can also agree that finding a way to do something about it would be a good thing. And we might even agree that in an ideal world we don’t really fancy a nuclear-armed Iran.

But if we have learned anything in the past 10 years about the pitfalls of going to war on the basis of half-truths, then we must make absolutely sure that we don’t start believing – or even pretending to believe – that a government’s record on domestic human rights can be used to accurately predict its strategy on the international stage.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.