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UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Asks States to “Stop Condemning Torture while Accepting its Products”

Juan Mendez, Special Rapporter on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, (c) UN Photo, Jean Marc-Ferre

In an important contribution to the understanding of the actions states must take to prevent human rights violations, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has urged governments to stop condemning torture committed at the international level while condoning them at the national level.

During the presentation of his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, Mr. Méndez emphasized the importance of “removing any incentive to undertake torture anywhere in the world” as the clear objective. He further warned that “the use of torture-tainted information is considered an act of acquiescence” since it may lead to complicity in cases of torture and other ill-treatment.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur highlights that by allowing the collection, sharing and receiving of torture-tainted information to take place between States during intelligence gathering or covert operations, “some states have diluted cardinal principals necessary for preventing and suppressing torture and ill-treatment.” He firmly regrets the refusal of States to “subject the work of their intelligence and security agencies to scrutiny or international oversight” since such refusal has led to the erroneous impression that those actions are not subject to international law.

In a crucial effort to clarify misconceptions, he notes it is simply not enough to ensure that the judicial process be free from the taint of torture. To effectively prevent torture, Mr. Méndez highlights three key rules States must follow: (1) States must not condemn torture committed by others while accepting its products; (2) States must refrain from allowing torture-tainted evidence in judicial proceedings; and (3) torture must not be encouraged, condoned, or accepted in any of the branches of power.

I thank Mr. Méndez for this groundbreaking and important information, and ask the international community to further codify these rules and incentivize States to abide by those key principals.

International Mother Language Day: Lessons for Iran

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The international community today celebrates UNESCO International Mother Language Day. On this occasion UNESCO aims to raise awareness of the benefits of multilingual education, particularly in the early years of childhood development. Studies, research, and UNESCO reports demonstrate the importance of mother and local language instruction in building strong foundations for reading comprehension in national languages, and even increased performance in mathematics. For example, children taught in a local language in Cameroon scored twice as high on mathematics tests at the end of grade three.

Another dimension to this issue is that of diversity and cultural rights. The general conference of UNESCO has affirmed the indispensability of the rights of all persons to disseminate publications in the language(s) of their choice, particularly their mother tongue, for the sake of cultural diversity and for the full realization of rights enshrined in the UDHR and ICESCR.

The recognition by UN member states and UNESCO of the importance of mother tongue language education has unfortunately not translated to the inclusion of mother tongue curricula in many countries, including in Iran. While non-discrimination — including on the basis of ethnic or tribal origin — is enshrined in Iranian law, there are no official primary school curricula in local languages, such as Kurdish, Azeri-Turkish, or Arabic, and, as I mentioned in my 2012 report to the UNGA, dropout rates remain high in provinces like Khuzestan, where schools can not teach in Arabic, the mother tongue of most of the province’s inhabitants.

Encouragingly, Government officials in the Rouhani administration have recently made clear their desire to find ways to include mother tongue education in schools across Iran. It is my hope that the Government will continue to push for—and enact—such reforms, as Iran, as a truly multi-cultural nation, only stands to gain culturally, economically, and politically from extending such rights to minority populations.

On this 15th International Mother Language Day, let us celebrate all cultures and languages, and take steps to universally educate the next generation with an eye to preserving the beauty of our collective diversity.

“Free and Equal,” and As Simple As That

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The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has launched a campaign called “Born Free and Equal,” calling on Governments and individuals around the world to respect the life, liberty, and dignity of LGBT individuals, as part of their international human rights obligations (watch this compelling video from OHCHR).

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) recently translated OHCHR’s 2012 report “Born Free and Equal” Into Farsi, and created five Persian-language fact-sheets to complement the report’s contents.

While translations of human rights-related documents for maximum accessibility is always to be encouraged, this translation is particularly important given the sound human rights framework of the report’s findings and recommendations.

As “Born Free and Equal” notes, “The protection of people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity does not require the creation of new rights or special rights for LGBT people. Rather, it requires enforcement of the universally applicable guarantee of nondiscrimination in the enjoyment of all rights” [emphasis added].

Whereas issues of sexual orientation sometimes becomes confusingly entangled with religious, cultural, or social discourse, “Born Free and Equal” notes that the protection of LGBTI individuals from violence and torture, the safeguarding of their basic human rights to life and security of person, and the prohibition and prevention of violence and discrimination against them are simply clear and logical consequences of Governments’ obligations to protect all individuals.

Freedom from violence, torture, and social or institutional discrimination are guaranteed by everything from the most basic human rights treaties to recent Human Rights Council resolutions. While communities may appropriately conduct philosophical, religious, and legal debates on issues relating to family life and social structures, no Government or individual has the right in any case to derogate from the provision of these rights to any individual or group.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay points out: “The case for extension of rights to LGBT persons “is neither radical nor complicated. It rests on two fundamental principles that underpin international human rights law: equality and non-discrimination.”

Indeed, when these words are understood to apply to all groups, at all times, and in all places, we will be closer to the achievement of universal human rights promotion.

Check out the Farsi version of the report “Born Free and Equal,” from OHCHR’s website

“Born Free and Equal” accompanying fact-sheets in Farsi, also from OHCHR’s website:

Homophobic and Transphobic Violence
Criminalization
Equality
International Human Rights Law and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Frequently Asked Questions

Dialogue on rights Charter valuable for human rights reform

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In November 2013 the Government of Iran published a draft of the Citizenship Rights Charter, which outlines certain human rights for Iranian citizens. The document has become a recent focal point of human rights dialogue concerning Iran and is a key component of attempts to address human rights concerns by President Rouhani’s administration.

The Charter was made public soon after being drafted so that civil society could comment on its contents and suggest improvements. Many Iran human rights groups have already expressed some initial thoughts and concerns related to the Charter.

As with all human rights-related matters in all places, I think it’s imperative that the international community and human rights experts continue to engage the Iranian government on the Charter. To that end, I wanted to share an English translation of the draft that will hopefully allow a wider breadth of stakeholders, UN institutions, member states, and NGOs the opportunity to engage in this conversation.

In the coming months I also hope to be able to share my own thoughts on the Charter with the government. Until then I am happy to hear yours. Please leave a comment on my blog page.

“Cautiously optimistic, but worried Iran will soon slide back into darkness”

Since 2011 I have made numerous requests to visit Iran to investigate the situation of human rights personally, all of which have been denied. My engagement with Iran has improved in other ways though, most importantly through meeting with Iran’s UN representative in Geneva. I welcome such engagement and am hopeful to visit the country personally.

Yet, despite improved engagement and positive developments between Iran and the international community, I continue to receive seriously disturbing reports of human rights abuses inside the country. It is in this context that I announced last week my fact-finding efforts in the Iranian community in diaspora in Europe.

After speaking this week with dozens of victims of human rights abuses from Iran in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris, I feel as strongly as ever that the international community must continue to urgently shine a spotlight on human right issues in Iran. The country’s leadership has a rare opportunity to affect positive change in the lives of all Iranians. Rhetoric on change must be supported by concrete action or the opportunity will be missed. As an Iranian woman in Berlin described, “[we are] cautiously optimistic, but worried Iran will soon slide back into darkness.”

I sense that many Iranians are optimistic—albeit cautiously—that the new administration does wish to improve the situation, and with enough support, will be able to do so in time. But time is not unlimited, and given the recent arrests of netizens for free expression, the alarming executions of Kurdish and Ahwazi political prisoners, and the ongoing unacceptably high rate of executions in general in the country, it is time for the Government to take concrete action.

I look forward to the development of the Citizen’s Rights Charter, however, in the absence of meaningful international pressure, political momentum in this regard may quickly dissipate. For my part, I remain ready and willing to work with authorities to implement concrete changes that will allow for increased freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and for judicial and prison reform in the near-term.

If this were to occur, I would be the first to compliment the Government on positive progress.

Incarceration and violence against women linked in Iran

Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence against women. (c) UN Photo, Devra Berkowitz

Recently Professor Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, introduced an important report to the UN General Assembly. The report, Pathways to, conditions and consequences of incarcerations of women, illustrates that across the globe there is a strong link between the incarceration of women and violence against women, with violence often taking place prior to, during, and/or after incarceration. This link results in certain sentencing patterns having disproportionately negative effects on women, and in specific forms of violence, including in Iran. The report cited an urgent appeal from July 2008 in the case of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery when the man who murdered her husband served only a prison term:

…the case of an incarcerated woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran clearly illustrates the link between prior violence and crime, and also the disproportionate punishment often meted out to women. The woman was a victim of domestic violence and was forced into prostitution by her husband. One of her clients killed her husband, and the woman was convicted of adultery and of being an accomplice to murder. The male client was sentenced to an eight-year prison term and the woman was sentenced to death by stoning.

I was very interested to see Professor Manjoo’s report also highlight the plight of women in Iranian prisons. She raises concern over the arrest of women activists and the torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of incarcerated women in detention. She notes the use of violence, including sexual violence, in women’s detention centers. Her report included the case of a female prisoner in Iran who committed suicide in July 2011 after being violently beaten in detention, including with electric batons.

In addition to urging that states address the structural causes that contribute to women’s incarceration—through social, economic, health, educational and justice policies—Dr. Manjoo implored states to act with due diligence in response to all forms of gender-based violence. She also called upon member states to uphold the Tokyo Rules on the treatment of prisoners and to “develop gender-specific sentencing alternatives” as part of the Bangkok Rules for the treatment of women prisoners.

These recommendations should be heeded by all countries, including Iran.

Right to education for all university students should be Iran’s “action plan”

Tehran University Gates

The Joint Plan of Action nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 has dominated media coverage of Iran, and not without reason.

I am encouraged to see that some of the sanctions relief embedded in the plan, if properly administered, would likely have a positive impact on the enjoyment of economic and social rights in Iran. In my reports I have repeatedly urged that sanctions-imposing countries and the Iranian government must take steps to ensure sanctions do not undermine human rights. In part, I raise concerns that humanitarian waivers seem to be falling short of their aim, likely because of financial sanctions. So I am also pleased that the agreement indicates that parties are taking steps to establishing a financial channel designated to facilitating humanitarian trade. This could alleviate some of the right-to-health challenges and other hardships referenced in my reports.

It is noteworthy that another component of the proposed sanctions relief—sanctions exceptions to help overseas students—is well timed, as December 7th is Iran’s Day of the Student. I welcome this exception which will allow the Iranian government to provide tuition assistance to Iranian students studying abroad. This is an important gain in the protection of the right to education, but must also be linked with steps by the government itself to end policies that deny the right to education.

I have outlined in the past how students have been routinely barred from Iranian universities—even after admission—for being politically active or being members of religions not explicitly recognized in the Constitution. In my March 2013 report, I noted that since 2005 at least 945 students have been barred for at least one semester for being politically active. Baha’i students are officially barred from attending university and in the very few cases where Baha’is manage admission, once their faith is discovered they are offered continued enrollment only if they pledge to deny or abandon their religious beliefs.

I welcome promises and steps taken by President Rouhani and his administration to address the right to education. Some student activists barred in the last two years have been allowed to re-enroll. Other student activists, however, seem to have been so far excluded from this new policy or required to undergo additional steps before gaining admission. I have yet to see any indication that admission discrimination against Baha’is is being addressed.

Positive steps have indeed been taken by the government to loosen restrictions on young Iranians applying to university both through the agreed upon sanctions relief plan and allowing re-enrollment of a number of students. I encourage the Government to build on this momentum and remove all restrictions on higher education based on political activity or religious belief.

The human rights world grieves for Mandela, must now bear his torch

Photo courtesy of the public domain

Just days before International Human Rights Day, the human rights world has lost one of its most treasured heroes.

I think it is fair to say that very few souls embody the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as wholly as Nelson Mandela did over the course of his career as an advocate for the rights; not only for his own nation, but for all of mankind.

In the struggle to end Apartheid — perhaps the most systematic form of discrimination known to man — in South Africa, Mandela and his colleagues paved the way for a new, free, and democratic nation.  They also set the tone for a whole continent — and perhaps the entire world — at a time when it was in dire need of guidance and inspiration.

South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive in the world in terms of human rights protections, enshrining most, if not all, of the tenets of the ICCPR and the ICESCR. Indeed, it has been said that Mandela was ahead of his time on some human rights issues, and insisted, in spite even of some of his own people’s opposition, to include in it a ban on the death penalty and rights for people of all sexual orientations.

As an activist, he and his movement harnessed and in turn echoed international human rights concerns, and as president and beyond, he became a voice for human rights globally.

May Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a Madiba not only to his countrymen but to our movement, rest in peace, and may the rest of us pick up where he left off and carry his mantle onward, so that his legacy will live and flourish well beyond this gloomy night.

General Assembly an important forum for dialogue on human rights

UN General Assembly

The substantive international dialogue with Iran on human rights at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) two weeks ago was a very important symbol and signal for international human rights support.

While I am not involved in intergovernmental discussions around the annual UNGA human rights resolution on Iran, I did follow the debate and noted that it featured many of the same vital issues as the interactive dialogue I held with States earlier in the month.

In particular, the debate and the resolution combined positive international reaction to recent human rights announcements from President Rouhani on issues such as eliminating discrimination against women, minority rights, and freedom of expression, with a strong call for demonstrable improvements as soon as possible.

The General Assembly, which brings together all UN member states, is undoubtedly an important platform for continued dialogue with Iran, and the annual debate and consideration of the resolution help reforms by maintaining a spotlight on the human rights challenges facing the country.

As I have repeatedly noted, now is not the time to focus less on Iran and its human rights record, but rather more, in order to support Government officials earnestly looking to improve the situation. For the most part, public statements have not translated into concrete action on the ground, and many victims of human rights violations continue to suffer.

It is therefore important for the international community — as a show of support for rights in Iran and for those in Government who are advocating for them — to keep talking about human rights in the country. The UNGA did just that in its debate two weeks ago.