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
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
- 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.
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
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.