Members of the Association of Iranian Academics demonstrate in The Hague on December 10 against the Islamic Republic's handling of recent anti-government unrest. (Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Call on UN Body to Act against Iran

Violations by Islamic Republic continue a month after anti-government unrest breaks out 

Twenty-three watchdog groups have called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to probe Iran, the focus being on Tehran’s handling of anti-government protests over price hikes on gasoline.

The unrest began on November 15, and Amnesty International, one of the organizations making the request, has set the minimum death toll at 304. Other groups say it is far higher.

The worst of the demonstrations were squelched within a week, although the abuses are believed to be continuing, with arrests in the thousands, including children.

Mansoureh Mills, an Iran researcher at Amnesty, says the joint request for action is due to the scope of the abuses.

“What has happened in Iran over the past month or so is unprecedented,” she told The Media Line.

“This can only happen in a situation where the authorities think they can get away with it because they think the international community will not hold them accountable. It’s therefore been essential for us in Amnesty International and other human rights organizations to call on the Human Rights Council to respond to this human rights crisis in a credible and decisive manner,” she explained.

“This longstanding pattern of impunity will continue,” Mills went on, “unless the Human Rights Council holds… urgent investigations, and those who committed violations in Iran are [brought to justice].”

Bijan Baharan, an Iran analyst with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), another of the groups, says the measures they are seeking are the sole avenue of recourse for holding Tehran accountable.

“This is the only channel available to us to engage with Iran,” he told The Media Line. “It’s not possible to pressure the Iranian government directly because they don’t listen to any calls from human rights defenders.”

The UNHRC can hold a special session in which Iranian officials have to respond to the allegations. It can also send UN personnel to inspect prisons. Yet experts disagree on how effective any of this would be.

“In practical terms, the UNHRC cannot do much to help the protestors in Iran,” Muhammad Sahimi, a University of Southern California professor with expertise on politics in the Islamic Republic, told The Media Line.

Tony Duheaume, a writer and Iran analyst, agrees.

“As far as the UNHRC is concerned, even if it enters dialogue with Iran over the present unrest and its treatment of protesters, the Iranian government will only give vague reassurances, using such contact to buy time, as it has done in other instances, such as the 2003 to 2005 nuclear negotiations with European states,” he told The Media Line.

A diplomatic source who spoke with The Media Line on the condition of anonymity says that international advocacy can occasionally make the situation more dangerous for people on the ground.

“In some cases, external support is… counterproductive, as there are groups inside the country that are ready to accuse the protesters of being ‘agents’ of external ‘enemies,’” the source told The Media Line.

Amnesty’s Mills is more optimistic.

“With enough international pressure, we think the Iranian authorities will be pushed into a situation where they will have no choice but to allow independent investigators into the country,” she said.

Sahimi says the unrest has been linked directly to the gasoline price hikes, but wider political concerns spurred it on.

“The increase in the gas prices was also an excuse for people to protest against systemic corruption, mismanagement of the economy and incompetence in the Rouhani administration,” he said.

“These [issues] are institutional. If they are to be addressed, the entire political system must be reformed deeply,” he continued. “In the short term, at least, this will not happen.”

Iranian political and human rights activist Heshmat Alavi concurs.

“The Iranian regime will definitely not meet any of the protesters’ demands,” Alavi told The Media Line. “This regime believes one step back will force it to take continuous steps back until the people overthrow the entire apparatus.”

Mills contends that as long as the mullahs fail to listen to the public, there will be more trouble.

“It isn’t a one-off protest. We are going to continue to see these types of [demonstrations] starting up regularly unless the Iranian authorities address peoples’ legitimate grievances about human rights violations and problems,” she said.

Dr. Borna Khiabani, an Iranian activist based in Paris, lost an uncle, cousin and, in the past decade, two friends at the hands of Iranian authorities, and contends that political advances in Iran are inherently impossible under the current leadership.

“It’s written [in] the regime’s constitution… that the aim of this regime is to ‘spread the Islamic revolution throughout the world via jihad,’ thus making us, our lives and our progress as a society impossible,” he told The Media Line.

If that is the case, the protests in Iran, along with human rights abuses, show no sign of stopping anytime soon.

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