Why Human Rights In Iran Are Getting Worse—and What To Do About It

Experts cite political turmoil in Iran and a preoccupation with nuclear weapons outside of it. But there's hope.

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Protesters at the Tehran University campus in 2009 / AP

The human rights situation in Iran has worsened since the government's crackdown on anti-government protests following the disputed June 2009 presidential election. Political activists, lawyers, journalists, students, women's rights activists, and ethnic and religious minorities have been increasingly targeted. A September 2011 report by a UN Special Rapporteur notes a sharp increase in executions. Prominent opposition political leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were put under house arrest in February 2011 after calling for protests in solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the region. Amid an increasingly repressive regime focused on survival amid internal strife and external pressures, experts say prospects for reform are bleak, and urge the international community to keep the spotlight on Iran's human rights violations.

Structural Obstacles

Iran has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights without reservations, committing itself to the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, and social rights including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. The Iranian Constitution also guarantees these freedoms.
But Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Mehrangiz Kar says several articles of the constitution guaranteeing specific liberties suffer from ambiguity and are often restricted by various conditions and provisions. For instance, Article 24 on press freedom states: "publications and the press are free to express their ideas unless these contravene the precepts of Islam or harm public rights. These conditions will be defined by laws."
Since the precepts of Islam and public rights are not clearly defined by legislated laws, Kar writes, the authorities are free to interpret the "article in support of their own political and factional interests."
In the aftermath of the June 2009 disputed presidential election and the ensuing mass protests, the Iranian government has severely limited citizens' rights to many of the freedoms it ratified under international covenants. In October 2009, even after security forces killed dozens of protesters, arrested and detained thousands of demonstrators and opposition figures, and reportedly tortured and mistreated detainees, Iran submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee claiming it was in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Independent group Human Rights Watch said the report "does not begin to adequately address allegations concerning violation of core civil and political rights." While the report makes references to legal provisions in the country's constitution and criminal and civil codes, the watchdog group said it fails to show how the authorities are complying with these provisions.

International organizations have accused several branches of the Iranian government of human rights abuses, particularly security forces like the elite Revolutionary Guards and the volunteer paramilitary force the Basij, as well as the judiciary. Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, writes that after the 2009 protests, the "judiciary has emerged as a key instrument to intimidate protestors and remove many leading activists and opinion makers, steps that were both critical to the regime's survival." The judiciary, he notes, also implements the Islamic penal code, including stoning, amputations and flogging, all considered torture under international law. Plus, Iran has separate Islamic revolutionary courts whose legal standing has been repeatedly questioned by rights groups. Formed after the 1979 revolution to prosecute government officials of the previous regime, they are primarily charged with trying offenses involving acts against national security, drug smuggling, and espionage.

Areas of Concern

Recent reports from international organizations and Western governments have slammed Iran's rights record. The 2010 U.S. State Department report notes the role of Iran's regular and paramilitary security forces in cracking down on protestors and how they have committed serious human rights abuses, including torture and murders, with impunity. Tehran rejects these claims. Rights groups point to some particular issues of concern:

  • Arbitrary arrest and detention: More than four thousand people were arrested in connection with protests over the disputed 2009 elections. Hundreds more were arrested following anti-government demonstrations in 2011. Rights groups say the government denies due process and fair trials to detainees and uses systematic torture in its prisons and detention facilities.
  • Capital punishment: Rights groups accuse the Iranian authorities of imposing the death penalty and using execution as a political tool. A 2011 report by the UN Special Rapporteur notes an increase in executions, both official and secret. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 177 people in 2006, and over three hundred every year since then. In 2010, according to the group, this number rose to 552 if secret executions were included. The UN report also notes more than 100 juveniles on death row in 2010, stressing that enforcement of the death penalty for those under the age of eighteen is incompatible with Iran's international obligations.
  • Women's rights: The Iranian constitution allows equal rights for men and women "in conformity with Islamic criteria." According to the World Economic Forum's 2010 Gender Gap report--which compared disparity between men and women on economic participation, access to education, health, and political empowerment--Iran ranked 123 out of 134 countries. This was better than most countries in the region, ahead of Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey.  However, the UN report notes that the application of certain laws is a barrier to gender equality in Iran.  For instance, a woman's worth and testimony in a court of law is regarded as half that of a man's. Women do not have equitable inheritance rights, nor can they be granted guardianship rights for their children, even upon the death of their husbands. The report says female activists who try to address gender equality issues are often targeted.
  • Religious, ethnic, and other minorities: There are widespread abuses against members of recognized and unrecognized religious and ethnic minorities such as Arabs, Azeris, Baloch, Kurds, Namatullahi Sufi Muslims, Sunnis, Baha'is, and Christians. Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Baha'i, has historically been discriminated against and continues to be denied jobs and educational opportunities, and face arbitrary detention and unfair trials. Human Rights Watch says Iran also engages in systematic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. "Iran is one of only seven countries with laws allowing executions for consensual same-sex conduct," it says.

  • Prospects for Reform

    Most human rights abuses are political in nature and closely linked with establishing the regime's control over its population. The regime's crackdown since the 2009 protests and its growing insecurities in the wake of the Arab uprisings have made many experts skeptical of prospects for reform within the current political system. "The government realizes the potential for such uprisings in Iran" says Ghaemi, "and it has made the regime and the security apparatus even more repressive and intolerant."

    "I don't see a kinder, gentler Islamic republic happening anytime soon," says CFR's Isobel Coleman. Iran experienced a period of reforms and relative improvement in human rights under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2004. But Coleman says she is doubtful of another period of reforms under an elected official, saying the human rights situation will remain "grim" unless there is a fundamental change in the regime. Kar says there must be separation between the state and Islam in politics and governance.

    The reform movement suffers from its own weaknesses. Ghaemi says it lacks leadership and a political vision. In this video for CFR's Iran Crisis Guide, Vali Nasr of Tufts University says that for the Green Movement to become a regime-changing factor, it will have to build coalitions among a broad spectrum of the Iranian public "and, in a way, that can defy regime pressure and suppression."

    The ongoing power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made prospects for reform even more uncertain. Speaking at an academic gathering in October 2011, Khamenei went as far as proposing the possibility of eliminating the position of the president and moving toward a parliamentary system. Eliminating the presidency will enhance the powers of the supreme leader, but either way, Khamenei will seek to ensure that the next president or prime minister is under his control, experts say. The tipping point, Ghaemi says, could be the 2013 presidential elections, which may allow Khamenei to reshape the political landscape in his vision or he may face greater resistance from competing centers of power in Tehran.

    "Many Iranians would like a more progressive and democratic government," says Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who spent four months in the notorious Evin prison in Iran in 2009. But she says it is not clear how many of them prefer an Islamic or a secular government. A March 2011 paper in Political Research Quarterly based on a 2005 and a 2008 survey in Iran argued that popular discontent with the regime's performance had a strong and positive correlation to greater support for democracy.

    Kar says for any meaningful change, there must be reforms in election laws that grant the Guardian Council of twelve Islamic jurists, six of them appointed by the supreme leader, the right to veto parliamentary and presidential candidates. Ghaemi calls for reform of the judiciary and greater accountability for the country's security forces.

    Policy Options

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    Rights activists in and outside Iran have repeatedly said the international focus on Iran's nuclear program--which many Western states believe is cover for a weapons program-- has hampered efforts to advance human rights reforms. Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, says "unfortunately, the nuclear energy issue has stalemated many issues in Iran, the most important being the issue of human rights."

    But global attention to Iranian human rights has been on the rise. In March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur for Iran to investigate the country's human rights violations, the first since 2002.

    The United States imposed the first sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses in September 2010. Ten Iranian officials were barred from travel to the United States, and financial restrictions were imposed. The European Union also sanctioned thirty-two Iranian officials in April 2011 and another twenty-nine in October. These include senior members of security forces and the judiciary.

    While the impact of sanctions remain uncertain, experts say targeted sanctions are effective tools for naming and shaming Iranian authorities and keeping the spotlight on human rights abuses. "It's the best way to show that the international community cares," says Ghaemi, urging for sanctions that target private sector and government companies that enable repression, such as those that censor mobile, satellite, and Internet communications. Coleman says the United States must be more consistent on human rights in Iran.

    Some experts have also called for the United States to support greater openness in Iran by providing Iranians with improved access to technology. The U.S. State Department will continue efforts to train and provide tools to Iran's civil society activists to counter the government's widespread Internet surveillance and censorship efforts. In a May 2011 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee, Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner said the State Department plans to "support more advanced counter-censorship technologies, including circumvention tools in Farsi, secure mobile communications, and technologies to enable activists to post their own content online and protect against cyberattacks."

    Some Iranians have also questioned what they see as lack of adequate U.S. support for the Green Movement in 2009. Others caution any direct U.S. involvement, arguing it would delegitimize the opposition movement. In an October 2011 interview with BBC Persia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said if the Green Movement or some other opposition movement gained strength and decided that they wanted U.S. support, they should ask for it more directly.

    Saberi says the international community should also find a way to "help exiled journalists and human rights defenders who have fled Iran to continue their education and their work, and lead by example by observing human rights ourselves." There are efforts by the U.S. State Department to expand cooperation with the Iranian people. Clinton said by the end of 2011, Washington will have a "virtual embassy in Tehran." It will be aimed at connecting with the Iranian people by answering their questions on the web, such as how to travel or apply for studying in the United States.

    This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.