In an unexpected move, the Iranian government has agreed to allow United Nations human rights observers to visit the country.
In a press conference on November 11, senior cultural affairs official Hadi Sadeghi said that two human rights observers from the UN would be allowed in to the country. Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, has appealed to the government for a UN visit to the country since he took up his post in 2010, and there have been repeated calls from human rights groups, including Amnesty International, for observers to enter the country to monitor trials. Tasnin, Fars and Alef news agencies all reported Sadeghi's announcement.
This week’s decision followed the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Iran — one of the key tools used by the UN to assess human rights conditions — in late October. Sadeghi accompanied Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the human rights council and one of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s chief advisors, to Geneva for the review, which was carried out by the UN’s Human Rights Council. Iran’s own human rights council and the cultural affairs office both operate under the auspices of Iran’s judiciary.
Talking to Tasnim News Agency, Sadeghi dismissed Dr Shaheed’s claims of human rights violations in Iran, which were published in the rapporteur’s October 2014 report. Mohammad Javad Larijani has also refused to accept Shaheed’s findings, and has in the past referred to the human rights expert as a“wicked fool and an awkward clown.” But despite these criticisms, during meetings in Geneva with the UN Human Rights Council president, Sadeghi agreed to allow two human rights experts visit the country.
The government has refused UN entry to the country for a decade, so this week’s announcement is a small but significant sign, a hint that the government is listening to international debate.
It can also be chalked up as a victory of sorts for President Hassan Rouhani.
Over the past year, the Rouhani administration — and in particular Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — has said it is willing to talk about human rights issues on a number of occasions. Rouhani and his allies have worked hard to persuade the country’s judiciary to change tack when dealing with the thorny issue of human rights and how it is perceived by the international community.
And now they have their way, or so it would appear.
A History of Conflict
Iran has a decades-long history of butting heads with international human rights organizations, often showing open hostility to their appeals. In the 1980s, when Zarif was a member of the Iranian delegation to the UN, he and other Iranian officials tried to put a positive spin on the country’s human rights record — without much success. In 1984, when the UN Human Rights Council elected Andrés Aguilar as its special representative to Iran, the Islamic Republic refused to engage with him, ignoring repeated attempts at communication. Aguilar eventually resigned, unable to persuade Iranian officials to cooperate with him in any way.
Aguilar’s replacement was Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, who met with Zarif a number of times, and was invited to Iran on three occasions. For the most part, Zarif approved of Pohl’s reports about the human rights situation in Iran, even showing signs of frustration with Iran’s refusal to engage at the UN. Writing about those years, Zarif said, “Certain people in Iran considered some of his demands against their convictions and stopped cooperating with him. After that the UN resolutions [about Iran] started again and went on for quite a while.”
From 1994 to 2002, Maurice Copithorne was the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran. He visited the country in 1996. The Iranian government was critical about these reports, but the government under reformist president Mohammad Khatami tried to adopt a new strategy, appealing to Copithorne to acknowledge some of the steps the administration had taken had to improve the country’s human rights record. This discussions were somewhat fruitful, and Copithorne’s tenure ended on a relatively high note.
At the same time, Iran looked to the European Union, agreeing to talks. By doing this, officials sought to minimize the importance of the UN — demonstrating that it was actively engaged in human rights discussion meant that its wrangling with the UN might be less prominent.
This week’s show of openness may signal a return to this kind of tactic. Authorities have agreed to visits by two separate observers reporting on different aspects of the human rights arena. At the same time, they can continue their campaign to discredit Ahmed Shaheed — or at least detract from his importance.
And with this, a new chapter has begun. Expect to see a more assertive Islamic Republic in the coming months, ready to position itself on a newly-defined playing field. Iran is ready to defend its human rights record, and with confidence.
Read the latest report by Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran