The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Reviews Iran’s Record

Human Rights Council

On January 12, 2015, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded its review of Iran’s third and fourth periodic reports on the implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For two days UN committee members reviewed information received and asked questions about a wide variety of important topics ranging from child marriage to health and educational opportunities for children, including Afghan refugees.

Iran is one of a handful of countries that still executes child offenders, or boys and girls under 18 years of age at the time they commit a crime. Iran’s judiciary continues to sentence child offenders to death, and carry out their execution by hanging, despite the fact that Iran adhered to the treaty in 1991 and its parliament ratified it three years later. In 2015 human rights groups documented at least three executions of child offenders, with at least 160 others awaiting the same fate on death row.

During their response, Iranian officials spent a significant portion of their time asserting that changes in the country’s penal and criminal procedure codes in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and initiatives like the National Action Plan for Children implemented in 2009, have allowed judges more discretion in replacing death sentences for child offenders with other measures. They noted, however, that more scientific studies conducted by experts and training are required to ensure that lawyers and judges consider the best interest of the child, acknowledged that change will not happen overnight, and cited their government’s decision to submit to committee review as proof of Iran’s willingness to constructively engage with UN human rights mechanisms.

Notwithstanding the fact that the number of child offenders executed in 2014-15 are actually higher than at any time during the past five years, Iran should recognize that on an issue as important as this, cooperation and piecemeal reform are not enough. Though Iranian officials may quibble with the numbers cited by rights groups, they simply cannot sidestep the fact that Iran’s laws, as written, allow for the execution of child offenders. The bottom line is that today Iranian judges can, and have, sentenced girls as young as nine lunar years and boys as young as 15 lunar years to death by hanging, in plain violation one of the most fundamental and sacrosanct rights recognized under international law.

This is why I join the members of the committee in calling on the government of Iran to take more drastic and immediate measures to ensure that from this day on no child offenders are executed in Iran, regardless of the nature of their crime. This requires issuing an immediate moratorium on all death sentences for child offenders. Ultimately, however, it means removing the general reservation that allows judges “the right not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect,” defining children as anyone under the age of 18, and raising the age of criminal responsibility.

As one committee member noted the UN had already waited “a long time”—since at least 2005, the last time Iran submitted to committee review—to see serious and fundamental change with regard to the execution of child offenders. Until and unless this happens, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that the Iranian government is truly concerned about the best interests of its children. 

A Few Thoughts on World Day Against the Death Penalty

Ahmed Shaheed public domain

Today is the 13th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This year the international community is paying greater attention to the application of the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Over 100 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, six for all crimes except the “most serious” ones, and 34 are abolitionists in practice. Fifty-eight countries, however, continue to use the death penalty, with 33 still issuing death sentences for drug-related crimes.

I share the sentiments recently expressed by my fellow colleagues, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and punishment, in a joint statement which called on all states to put an end to the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes. They noted that “[t]he imposition of death sentences and executions for drug offenses significantly increases the number of persons around the world caught in a system of punishment that is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights.”

This position is firmly supported by international law, which limits capital punishment to cases involving the “most serious crimes.” Several UN bodies, including the Human Rights Committee which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have clarified on several occasions that drug-related crimes do not meet the threshold for  “most serious crimes.” 

In March 2015 I presented the findings of my latest report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN Human Rights Council. I noted, with extreme concern, that the Islamic Republic of Iran retains the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Iran’s Anti-Narcotics law, which was amended in 2010, mandates a death sentence for 17 offenses and establishes a minimum threshold for possession of certain drugs above which the death penalty automatically applies.

In 2014 Iran reportedly executed 753 individuals, the highest rate in 10 years. Nearly half of these executions were for drug-related crimes. Just last month, the United Nations Secretary General raised concerns about the increased number of executions in the country and called on the Iranian government to “introduce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty”. Human rights groups continue to report an alarming number of executions in 2015, many of which are allegedly for drug-related crimes, and have raised serious questions regarding fair trial concerns in death penalty cases.

I urge the Iranian government to reevaluate its policies and ensure that drug-related crimes are no longer punishable by the death penalty. International agencies and states providing assistance to combatting drug trafficking should also ensure that their activities do not contribute to the execution of individuals for drug crimes. Lastly, I renew my call to the Islamic Republic of Iran to do its utmost to protect the right to life by establishing a moratorium on the death penalty with the intent of abolishing it altogether.

Human rights and Iran’s willingness to earn International trust

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In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28 Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, reached out to the international community in a renewed effort to demonstrate that Iran is ready to strengthen its engagement as a constructive  and reliable member of the international community. He cited favorable political, economic and social indicators of progress in Iran, despite years of multilateral and unilateral sanctions imposed on the country, and Tehran’s willingness to reach a respectable agreement with the P5+1 members on the resolution of the nuclear issue. President Rouhani’s speech did not, however, reference the human rights situation inside Iran.

To be sure, the nuclear agreement is a watershed moment for Iran and its international partners, a great achievement for President Rouhani and his administration, and an indicator of Tehran’s willingness to seek a peaceful resolution to a longstanding conflict. I have acknowledged this, and congratulated all parties to the negotiation, and especially Iran, for reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. I am particularly hopeful that the lifting of economic sanctions will have a beneficial “multiplier effect” on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in the country.

But I also firmly believe that in order to truly gain the trust of the international community, Iran must honor its human rights obligations. Respect for the rule of law requires not only diplomatic acumen in resolving international disputes, but it also necessitates addressing the most fundamental concerns of your citizenry. It requires not only transparency in allowing inspectors to visit nuclear sites in the country, but also increasing cooperation with UN rights bodies and experts. The agreement creates a golden opportunity for President Rouhani and Iran’s leaders to address the troubling human rights situation in the country. President Rouhani and his administration can play a key role in advancing the cause of human rights in Iran by taking concrete steps to fulfill his presidential campaign promises, including the enactment of a Citizen Rights Charter.

As I said on July 15 after the agreement was reached, “now comes the time to focus on human rights in Iran.” I urge the Iranian government, therefore, to also extend its efforts to advance improved protections for the human rights of the Iranian people. Protections that can only help to amplify the benefits gained from the lifting of sanctions in the coming months.   

Lauding Peace and Security, Recalling Human Rights


Overt the past few weeks, the preliminary deal reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other major world powers has captured the international community’s attention. The announcement of this framework was a testament to the potential power of diplomacy and dialogue to avert hostilities. If successful, the deal could also eventually lead to the lifting of sanctions facing Iran, which, as I have noted in my reports, have raised a number of human rights concerns.

I therefore join the chorus of supporters from around the world who hope that the deal will succeed and usher in a new era of international understanding and cooperation.

Just as the international community was working on and praising this deal, it also voted, through the UN Human Rights Council, to extend the UN special procedure mandate to investigate and report on the situation of human rights in the country. The message was clear: as we work toward peace and stability, we must also recall that human rights are an equally important requirement of international community membership.

The recent negotiations had little to do with human rights; both Iran and its negotiating partners publicly admitted as much. This is not to diminish the importance of the issues they addressed, since we cannot have the full realization of human rights without peace and security. But now that the most intense stage of the negotiations have passed, it is time for the Islamic Republic of Iran and other global powers to recall that the opposite is also true: genuine, lasting peace can never be attained at the expense of human rights.

I hope all parties will seize the momentum of this opportunity to redouble their commitment to serious human rights reforms. As always, I remain eager and ready to work with the Iranian Government as it moves forward.

On Human Rights Day, 2014

HR Day UN Image

Today, the United Nations marks Human Rights Day 2014, commemorating the date on which the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 66 years ago. This year’s slogan, Human Rights 365, acknowledges the idea that every day is Human Rights Day, and everyone, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights.

This year, I join UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in calling on states around the world to “honour their obligation to protect human rights every day of the year” and on people “to hold their governments to account.” I remain hopeful that 2015 will bring opportunities for meaningful cooperation between countries and the UN mechanisms to address ongoing concerns, and particularly to protect those around the world who speak out in defense of human rights. Human Rights Day offers us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the universal principles of human rights set forth more than six decades ago, including the freedom and equality of all before the law; freedom of all from arbitrary arrest and detainment; and freedom of all from torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments.

On 31 October, I presented the findings of my latest report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UNGA’s Third Committee. During my presentation and the  subsequent interactive dialogue, I recognized attempts by the Iranian Government to address international concerns regarding the human rights situation in Iran, but stressed that despite these efforts the situation in the country remains deeply disturbing.

Of particular concern is the situation of human rights defenders and political prisoners in Iran. My report called for the unconditional release of all those detained for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, conscience and political opinion; including journalists, human rights defenders, and adherents of recognized and unrecognized religions.

Despite the release on bail of Ghoncheh Ghavami late last month, many human rights defenders remain imprisoned. At least 35 journalists are currently in detention in Iran and many more continue to allege harassment, interrogations and surveillance, despite authorities’ public pledges to improve freedom of opinion and expression. Further, as of June 2014, at least 300 minority religious practitioners were reportedly imprisoned.

The role of Human Rights Council’s special procedure on the situation of human rights is to assess, encourage and assist Iran with efforts to improve its human rights situation and address compliance with its international obligations. I continue to believe that Iran possesses the basic tools necessary to address a wide range of recurrent human rights concerns raised by the international community, and I reiterate my call for human rights considerations to be a central part of the Government’s legislative and policy agenda. This Human Rights Day marks an occasion for Iran, along with the broader international community, to reaffirm its past commitments and to pledge to uphold human rights 365 days per year.

Attorneyship Bill Challenges the Independence of Lawyers


The Government’s recent decision to resume the process of adopting the Formal Attorneyship Bill, by presenting it to the parliament, has reignited concerns among Iranian lawyers and jurists over the potential impact of the proposed bill in further undermining the independence of lawyers in Iran.

In my October 2012 report to the UN General Assembly, I echoed the International Bar Association’s then-concern over the proposed bill’s increase of Government supervision over Iran’s Bar Association. In June 2013, when the Government suspended consideration of the bill, I welcomed the decision, and I encouraged the Government to fully withdraw the bill in my subsequent October 2013 report to the General Assembly.

Unfortunately, this June the cabinet of the current administration amended and adopted the judiciary’s draft of the bill, and submitted it to the parliament for approval in September. The judiciary, seemingly discontented with the administration’s changes to the bill, has also submitted its own version of the bill to the parliament.

Although the current administration has maintained that it recognizes the independence of lawyers as a principle, the current draft of the bill apparently undermines lawyers’ independence, as it envisions a Supervisory Board that would have the authority to issue and suspended attorneys’ licenses. In addition to reports and documentation submitted by the Bar Association, the Supervisory Board would consider appeals from various government officials – including the head of the judiciary and the Intelligence Ministry – and the Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges would be able to rule for license revocation. Moreover, under the existing draft, the Supervisory Board itself would consist of representatives from the executive and judiciary branches, and the Bar Association’s candidates would be required to have their “competence” established by another board, comprised of jurists from the Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges.

In March 2013, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) also issued a press release expressing “grave concern” over the draft bill and urging the Government to withdraw the bill. “An independent bar association and legal profession function as indispensable guarantees for the protection of human rights and access to justice. Lawyers cannot adequately and properly perform their duties while subject to external interference and controls over their ability to practice,” said Helena Kennedy, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI.

The head of the parliament’s Legal and Judicial Commission, Mr. Allahyar Malekshahi, recently acknowledged jurists’ and lawyers’ criticism of the draft bill. Mr. Malekshahi also maintained that once the Commission receives the bill, it would invite experts to weigh in, and would review their opinions and concerns.

In February 2014, while speaking to the Iranian Bar Association, President Rouhani stated that “a lawyer should be immune from any prosecution for carrying out its professional duty, and the investigative authority for the lawyers’ professional issues and problems is the Bar Association.” I also share this view and hope that authorities will take all necessary measures, including amending or withdrawing the current bill, to ensure that independence of the Bar Association and of lawyers is materialized in both law and practice.

Latest Report on Iran Examines Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Addition to Civil and Political Rights

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Next week, I will officially present to the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly my seventh official report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. My new report details developments since the release of my last report in March 2014. You will be able to watch my presentation to the UNGA on Tuesday, here on my website.

Among my findings:

  • Between July 2013 and June 2014, at least 852 individuals were reportedly executed, representing an alarming increase in the number of executions, even in relation to the already-high rates of previous years. The figure includes many individuals executed for crimes not meeting international standards of “most serious,” including sodomy and political and cultural expression or activism.
  • 66 per cent of Iranian women have reportedly experienced domestic violence, and Iran lacks a sufficient legislative framework to combat such offenses.
  • As at June 2014, at least 300 minority religious practitioners were reportedly imprisoned, including three active members of the Yarsan faith, in addition to Sunnis Christians, Bahai’is, Sufis, and members of newer spiritual movements.
  • The percentage of female students entering university has decreased from 62 per cent in 2007-2008 to just 48.2 per cent in 2012-2013, following the institution in 2012 of gender-rationing policies.

During its first review of its human rights record by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010, Iran accepted 13 recommendations regarding freedom of opinion and expression. However, as my report details, at least 35 journalists are currently in detention in the country and reports continue to allege the harassment, interrogation, surveillance of many others, including several who were arrested or sentenced over the past few months.

At this time, laws, policies and institutional practices in Iran continue to undermine the conditions needed for the realization of the fundamental rights guaranteed by international and national law. I believe that Iran possesses the basic tools necessary to address a wide range of recurrent human rights concerns raised by the international community and I encourage the Iranian government to take necessary measures to address the issues outlined in my report. In accordance with my UN mandate, while I continue to document human rights violations, I remain ready to work with Iranian authorities to improve the human rights situation.

Incorporating a Gender Perspective at the UN

Human Rights Council

This week, I was honored to speak at the Human Rights Council’s “Annual Discussion on Integration of a Gender Perspective.” The objective of this interactive discussion, held at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, was for officials, academics, and diplomats to share best practices, obstacles, and experiences related to gender and the Human Rights Council’s country-focused work.

While the Council and its Special Procedures have increasingly adopted gender perspectives in recent years, much work remains, and many obstacles litter the path to complete progress. I have encountered many such triumphs and obstacles over the course of my own work, and it was truly fascinating to hear about the experiences of others who negotiating similar issues in their research.

Check out the full conference, including my statement, here. I would love to hear your thoughts — on Facebook or Twitter — about ways in which a true gender perspective could better be integrated into my own work and the work of other UN officials and appointees.

Positive Signs and Increased Optimism

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I recently conducted an interview on a number of issues related to my work as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In addition to discussing certain aspects of my work, I also conveyed my optimistic views about prospects for cooperation with the Iranian Government. The interview itself, and the interest it has generated inside Iran since its publication has been very positive, which has reinforced my optimism.

Hopefully, more interviews like this one can continue to demonstrate the constructive opportunities this mandate presents for positive engagement between the Government, the Iranian people, and the international community.