Interview with Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran

“I am concerned that the pattern is one of intensifying–or worsening–human rights abuses, with really no light at the tunnel,” said Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran.

Mr. Shaheed was in New York to deliver his latest report on human rights in Iran to the UN General Assembly. His report was based on hundreds of interviews with Iranians outside the country, and he has not been permitted to enter Iran. He discusses his methodology in depth, and his findings.

“The worry I have is that impunity appears to be an entrenched culture in Iran, there has been no accountability for actions meted to people in custody,” he said, adding that the pattern of abuse is focused on journalists,  human rights defenders, and other people who are subject to interrogation.

Iran’s comment on the report was to say that torture was forbidden in the Iranian system; that it’s anti-Islamic and against Iranian laws, and therefore shouldn’t happen. But, Mr. Shaheed said, “What exists on paper does not actually hold up in practice.”

Mr. Shaheed said his two broad concerns are rule of law and discrimination including faith-based discrimination, ethnicity-based discrimination, gender-based discrimination, and sexual orientation-based discrimination

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI SeniorAdviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Warren Hoge: Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. He was named for that post a year and a half ago by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and he’s in New York to formally deliver to the UN General Assembly his latest report compiled from interviews with hundreds of alleged human rights abuse victims outside of Iran, usually in places with large Iranian diaspora communities. He has had to do it that way because Iran has not granted his request to enter the country.

Dr. Shaheed, your past reports have uncovered evidence of widespread public executions, instances of capital punishment in juvenile cases, and the death penalty being meted out in for what would not be considered capital crimes in most countries. Does your new report find that these patterns continue?

Ahmed Shaheed: Yes, indeed. What disturbs me most is that the pattern that’s being observed over the past eighteen months or so is continuing and, if anything, is intensifying. And I’m not alone in reporting these cases. If you look at the UN Human Rights Committee, which sits in Geneva, their review last year around this time also showed serious concern about the matters highlighted about general executions, examples of capital punishment for offenses which are not deemed capital crimes, and also serious issues with judiciary, rule of law and discrimination, especially with regard to women. I am concerned that the pattern is one of intensifying – or worsening – human rights abuses, with really no light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, in terms of what will get the country to improve its human rights record.

WH: One hears also that these public executions tend to take place in a group. Is that the case?

AS: Sometimes, yes. Just this Monday, we had very grim news that ten people had been executed, all of whom were executed for drug offenses, despite a number of appeals by various human rights experts and various other bodies calling for a commutation of the sentence or for a stay of execution, and to review the cases. So yes, we are worried that sometimes there are what are called en masse executions, and are more frequent for crimes which would not warrant the death penalty under international law. That is, yes, in fact, the case.

WH: Another finding in past reports is that journalists, and human rights activists, and members of religious and ethnic minorities are subjected to beatings, mock executions, torture, and threats to their families, even including rape. What does your new report say about that?

AS: What I have found in my interviews for the current report is in fact a pattern of abuse of the sort you mention. This can be focused on journalists, or human rights defenders or other people who are subject to interrogation. The worry I have is that impunity appears to be an entrenched culture in Iran, there has been no accountability for actions meted to people in custody. I passed my report on for commentary to the government of Iran, and their comment on areas of torture was that torture was forbidden in the Iranian system, that it’s anti-Islamic and anti-Iranian laws, and therefore it shouldn’t happen in Iran. But they did not actually report to me of any cases where they have investigated allegations of torture and found perpetrators, or helped them to account for their actions. So I am concerned that there are no safeguards against torture in the country. What exists on paper does not actually hold up in practice.

WH: Is that because, though Iran has laws which forestall these kinds of activities, the Iranians charge people with national security violations, rather than with breaking these laws?

AS: There appears to be a practice in certain types of cases where the authorities are willing to actually bypass those safeguards that are built into the law. For example, in the case of journalists, the law requires that they be given a jury trial. But often, journalists are accused not of media offenses – as they have in Iran – but with national security offenses, which then take their cases outside the regular courts and into the revolutionary courts, where these safeguards are habitually violated. It is because those safeguards are not invoked – or allowed to be invoked – by referring these cases to the court system outside the regular courts.

WH: Tell me about the suppression of alternative faiths in Iran, and in particular the Christian and Baha’i communities.

AS: Well to step back a little bit, there are two broad issues of concern with me on Iran. One is the deficit in the rule of law that we just talked about, and then discrimination on a wide range of grounds, including faith-based discrimination, ethnicity-based discrimination, gender-based discrimination and sexual orientation-based discrimination. On faith-based discrimination, the worst situation is faced by the Baha’is because their faith is not recognized by the constitution, unlike Christians and Sunni Muslims, for example. And because they are not recognized, the government treats them as a cult, and they face a whole range of discrimination and persecution. A large number of them are in prison – over 100 are in prison – for various types of crimes, often to do with, again, national security or public-order offenses. In addition to that, the Baha’is are not allowed to practice their faith openly, and if they try to hold assemblies, for example, they can be dispersed and under the system called “gozinesh” in which people are screened for ideological commitment to the state of Iran, if you declare that one is of Baha’i faith then – reports I get is that they are discriminated against in access to educational services, access to other services, access to employment and so on and so forth. So Baha’is truly face a lot of discrimination and persecution in Iran.

The Christian community is also reporting increasing acts of violation of their rights and persecution. Over 300 people are reported to have been detained for the practice of the Christian faith over the past two and half years. This often relates to new converts from Islam to Christianity, for example, or house-based churches which often involve new convers. There are reports that assemblies can be raided, and people asked to identify who they are and what faith they belong to. And if they find new converts, as it were, they are often encouraged to return to their faith, and punished if they do not do so. There is a widespread persecution of the Christian community in Iran, especially targeting new converts, and those who evangelize or promote the Christian faith. Certain denominations, such as the Protestants in particular, find more discrimination against them by the authorities. This appears to be a trend that has intensified in recent years, certainly in the years following the election violence for example, and reflects a more intolerant attitude towards other faiths in Iran.

WH: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program may be affecting vulnerable populations in Iran and their access to medicine and food. Did you find any evidence of that?

AS: I have not been able to study extensively yet what the impact of sanctions on Iran has been, or is at the present time. But yes, there is anecdotal evidence, as it were, of people reporting that, in their case, they were not able to access certain medications and so on. So there is now growing concern that certain medicinal supplies may be declining in stock, or may not be accessible anymore, because of the devaluation of the rial. You can understand, of course, as a financial indicator, when the currency is devalued as it has been done in Iran recently, then the poor groups in the population will find it harder to meet their nutritional needs. So there is concern that if the current sanctions continue the way they are, there will be vulnerable groups in Iran who will be affected by them, to a degree that may not be acceptable. So I intend to ask the government of Iran to cooperate with me in studying the impact of sanctions, which will include a visit to the country to really see what the effects of it are. And I hope the international community will pay attention to the potential there is for a humanitarian crisis to emerge in Iran, if things continue in the way that they are going right now.

WH: What did you find about the state of women’s rights in Iran?

AS: Again, that’s a subject I’m very concerned about. There is institutional bias, discrimination again women – by constitution, by law they are seen as worth half a man. That is the case in terms of testimony and inheritance and so on. Of course there’s been a lot of progress over the years, in terms of women’s education: In the past three decades there has been a very significant rise of women enrolled in universities. There is concern about the very low economic participation of women in the workforce, something below 15%, or going down to 12.5% in the last report. So there is concern about access to employment, access in equality of services for women in society. There also appears to be an active policy of Iran of encouraging women to stay home. But I must also concede on this point, that there are a number of measures being taken in Iran to actually empower women in that sense, through laws and policies designed to protect women’s interests. But there is no concession of equality between the sexes, and that is a point of concern.

And more recently I have heard reports of a number of faculties – some 36 universities and 77 faculties – banning women from certain courses. That is a concern. This comes after a year or two of quotas being imposed that, again, limited women’s access to universities. So even in the case of higher education, there is now concern that women may be barred from access to this at a level unreasonable in terms of equality. There is a continuing bias in terms of their legal status in society. I am very concerned about that. Also, I am concerned about the question of girls being married off very early, although in practice, the average age of marriage appears to be rising for marriages in Iran, the practice of young girls being married still exists. And I am concerned that at age nine, a father or grandfather could write to court to get the daughter married off with the court’s consent – certainly by the age of 13, girls can be married. At that age, they can also become criminally culpable. There is concern about the difference in age for boys and girls in criminal culpability and the age of marriage, and in any case, those ages have been far lower than what is set up by the Child Rights Convention, to which Iran is a party.

WH: There are highly-publicized releases of prisoners, particularly at times like Ramadan. Does that mean that the situation of prisoners, overall, in Iran is improving?

AS: No. I don’t think that the pattern of abuse of due process rights–in terms of arbitrary arrests, treatment in detention through lengthy confinement periods, torture during investigations, denial of fair trial standards and then vague charges and lengthy sentences with summary trials–that pattern hasn’t changed. Nor has the fact that large numbers of people remain on death row – that hasn’t changed. The fact that people are given pardons, I think is something done, I suppose, through custom, maybe. Pardons are often linked with an Islamic festival or holy occasion like Ramadan, for example, or Eid. I have not been able to really gather what kind of criteria are applied, in determining who was eligible for a pardon at these times, or whether or not certain categories of people are denied a pardon during these times. So I don’t think the fact that hundreds have been released from prison at a time like Eid festival or Ramadan is an indicator that the criminal system in Iran in improving.

WH: I want to ask you about the research you conduct and how you do it. As I said at the outset, you have not been able to go inside of Iran – as I understand it, Iran has not denied you access, they simply have not permitted you access. How do you conduct the research? Why should we trust it? In other words, how can you assure us your information is solid?

AS: I rely on a number of sources for my information. One of course is individual victims, first-hand accounts of their plight, how they have suffered at the hands of authorities of Iran. So a large number of them are in Iran and have left the country as well. About 25% of my evidence in the reports come from people still inside Iran, who I can access through Skype, and sometimes there have been people brave enough to telephone me. And of course I make sure that those who take a risk in doing so, understand the risk that they are exposed to and are willing to suffer that risk. But by and large, I am happy that the people who have spoken to me have not exposed themselves to any risk by doing so. I also speak to people who have left Iran, as recently as a week before they speak to me, or to several months and a few years. There is a huge diaspora of Iranians in Western Europe and North America and elsewhere who are willing to speak to me, who give testimonies of what has happened to them. And I make sure I only use accounts that I can trust, which are independently corroborated and at least have multiple source of verification as to the event. There are ways to know this from the account themselves – and some of the interviews can take up to several hours, so through the interviews you can determine whether or not the person is making a credible claim. This can be corroborated by other independent testimonies, confirming that the person who was saying that had actually gone through that experience. Or information comes from people who know that it was a family member who was the victim. Then I also look at state reports, information published by the state–in its own official media–information published to various UN bodies, information published by Iranian NGOs in the county, by Iranian NGOs outside the country, by international organizations monitoring Iran over the long term–only using that information which I believe is verifiable from multiple sources, and actually holds water. And I’m very happy to say that so far, there has not been a factual issue with matters I have reported on, and accounts that I have reported on actually have held up to be valid accounts.

WH: You’ve been talking this morning about a lot of conditions which persist, even though you have reported on them in the past. And that prompts me to ask you: Do the Iranians care what the outside word thinks of their human rights record? Are your reports read within Iran? Do Iranians know about you, and do victims try to communicate with you? And finally–along the same lines–I know the Iranians have filed a response to your report. What are the points they make in that response?

AS: First of all, Iran does care about what is said about Iran by others. Those comments coming from the UN bodies–whether it is charter bodies like the one I represent, or treaty bodies–Iran does care, and this is seen by the fact that they have taken pains to respond in some way to these statements. And that’s because Iran seeks to be a leader in the world, it seeks election to UN bodies, and therefore seeks friends and influence in the international community. Therefore, it does want to be seen in a positive light, it does want to be seen to at least account for what is happening in the country. Now, whether or not they will move from there to doing something about it is a different story.

In terms of the response that I got from my current report–my report is about 23 pages and the Iran commentary report is 66 pages, which is quite heartening at the start. But if you look at it closely, there are three or four points repeated throughout. They keep insisting that my mandate is not a legitimate mandate, because the Council had singled Iran out on political motivation on the inspiration of the United States. It doesn’t regard my mandate as a valid mandate. That’s the first point that they make. The second point is that they say for a lot of things that I point out in Iran–torture or depressed rights–they have laws in their constitution and in the legal framework to prohibit those practices. So they put that as evidence to nullify actual incidences of these violations. I don’t think that the two actually are consistent. Many countries have laws, in all countries they are broken, the real test comes is whether or not there is a legal sanction for breaking that law. Iran has a culture of impunity–they don’t actually tell me that those who violate those laws are held to account, and therefore there are no mechanisms to uphold those laws. The other point they make about my report, is that they say I am talking to elements that are hostile to Iran. They mean by that critics within the country, dissidents who have left the country, and ethnic groups who may be outside with NGOs trying to promote their cause. It all boiled down to three or four types of complaints. And of course the fourth one was that I should respect Iran’s laws, because my code of conduct with the UN requires me to observe and respect laws of the country while I am on mission. So it’s like saying, if I was in New York, I must respect US laws because I am here on UN business. The same if I was in Iran: I must respect their laws while I am in Iran. It does not prevent me from criticizing or commenting on the human rights content of those laws. So rather than engage in a substantive dialogue with me on the matters I raise, they made these general, if you like, comments on why the matters I raise should not be in the report.

WH: Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, thank you very much for talking to the Global Observatory.

AS: It’s my pleasure.