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UNGA committee passes resolution on human rights in Iran

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Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee passed a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. With 83 votes in favor, the Committee has decided to continue its examination of the promotion and protection of human rights in Iran.

The resolution welcomes pledges made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with regard to central human rights issues and encourages Iran to take concrete action to ensure that these pledges result in demonstrable improvements. Calling directly upon the Iranian Government, the resolution charges the Rouhani administration to effectively implement its obligations under those human rights treaties to which it is already a party.

While the resolution expresses deep concern for the persisting human rights violations in the country, it offers a constructive approach through its support for the Iranian government to collaborate with all special procedures mandate holders and to deepen its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms.

I hope for the opportunity to work alongside the Government of Iran to implement positive human rights recommendations contained in the resolution and beyond.

Censoring the Commons: Internet freedom curtailed on Wikipedia

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As I shared in my post last week, Iran’s culture minister, Ali Jannati has urged authorities to unblock social media networks in the country. As it stands, many popular sites – including Facebook and Twitter – are widely used by government officials but remain banned for Iranian citizens. Jannati is calling for all social media networks to be accessible and I couldn’t agree more.

In my latest report to the UN General Assembly, I referenced data that was released in a new report this week examining the extent of Internet censorship in Iran. “Citation Filtered: Iran’s Censorship of Wikipedia,” released by the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications and the Human Rights in Iran Unit at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, tackles the censorship of Persian-language articles on Wikipedia.

As I’ve noted, authorities block some five million websites in Iran. What makes censoring Wikipedia particularly interesting is the amazingly open nature of the website, where anyone can post or edit any article. This is an encyclopedia that is both a form of expression and source information. It’s also become a part of many peoples’ lives as a first-stop shop for information on almost anything, and that’s true for Iranians as much as anyone. In fact, with 360,000 users, Persian ranks sixteenth in use among the Wikipedia languages. So censoring it really speaks to the limits of Internet freedom in Iran.

Through an examination of this report, I learned that 963 Persian-language articles are effectively blocked in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Most troubling is that much of this censorship – ironically – removes criticism of Iran’s human rights record from Wikipedia.

Moreover, the vast majority of the 963 censored Wikipedia pages contain speech that is protected by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression and access to information through the Internet and other media. These article pages covered a broad range of topics including Wiki-entries about the Baha’i Faith, stoning in Iran, and a biography of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has a looming prison sentence.

 

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All the right signals, now time to stop the filtering

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On November 12, Iran’s Culture Minister called for social media networks, and specifically Facebook, to be unblocked. This is reminiscent of the recent exchanges between the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey, where after being prompted by Mr. Dorsey the President tweeted that his government was working on making social media accessible to all. In case you missed it the tweet read:

“Evening, @Jack. As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.”

These public pronouncements in favor of Internet freedom and access to online information have been both fascinating and reassuring.

Fascinating because there is still something wonderfully refreshing about Twitter’s ability to directly connect people from different walks of life and different countries, a novelty made even more profound when one considers that in this case the two people involved were an American CEO and an Iranian President.

Fascinating also because an Iranian Culture Minister is calling for access to social media, once thought of as something only for teenagers, for all the country’s residents, in part because top officials, including the Supreme Leader, already use these platforms. President Rouhani is active on Twitter while his administration has embraced social networks, particularly the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

I hope that these positive noises and clear enthusiasm are rapidly translated into action – action that is desperately needed in a country where access to the world wide web is strictly curtailed. As outlined in my recent report, Twitter and Facebook are among at least 5 million sites blocked in Iran, including many dedicated to news, politics, music, women’s rights, human rights, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. So I wish to join Mr. Dorsey in his reply tweet to the president:

“@HassanRouhani thank you. Please let us know how we can make it a reality.”

Meditating on religious freedom at the UN

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Last Monday, I participated as a panelist in a fascinating UN side event on religious freedom, alongside Ms. Rita Izsák, the UN Independent Expert on minority issues and Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief.

Both Ms. Izsák and Mr. Belielfeldt, as well as several participants in the open discussion, made some fascinating points, but I would just like to highlight here one common-thread theme throughout the discussion: that Governments’ specific obligation in protecting religious freedom as well as the rights of religious minorities is to provide the space for a free-flow of ideas and for the free expression of those ideas.

This means that Governments should protect the space for the free practice and expression of both majority and minority religions, and the rights of religious groups and individuals subject to potential discrimination. Governments should not, however: a) enforce their own ideas upon individuals or groups; or b) favor one religious group over another, except with legislation protecting minorities from potential individual or collective persecution.

One participant asked the panelists how one could reconcile seemingly exclusivist types of religious belief with the need for inclusiveness. All of the panelists pointed out that inclusiveness is a primary tenet of most religious faiths, and that tolerance and co-existence should be the norm, whereas religious chauvinism itself is usually a mis-reading of religious prescriptions.

Islam in particular forbids compulsion in religion, and contains numerous exhortations to tolerance and coexistence. May we soon live in a world where all Governments — and individuals — heed this important call.

Week in Review: Catching up on what you might have missed at the UN

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On October 23, I officially presented my third official report on the situation of human rights in Iran to the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee.  Let me first begin by noting an important difference this year compared to last.  I am encouraged by the meetings I have had both in Geneva and in New York recently with the Iranian government.  This is an important step in fulfilling the mandate given to me by member States of the Human Rights Council. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with government representatives and eventually to be invited into Iran to conduct my UN-mandated work. I am also encouraged by recent steps such as the release of several prisoners of conscience.

These positive signals of change are undoubtedly welcome. However, much remains to be done. As my report shows, there continue to be significant human rights challenges in Iran and widespread human rights violations. Specifically, my research reveals details about: executions, arbitrary detentions, prison conditions, religious freedom, minority rights and women’s rights. You can read the full report to learn more.

During the General Assembly interactive dialogue several member states asked me to state whether President Rouhani’s government has made progress on the human rights front. What I told them is that the Rouahni administration will need more time to produce measurable and sustainable reforms. Many of Iran’s human rights violation are deeply rooted in law and state practice.

In all of this, the international community has a vital role to play. Dialogue and cooperation with Iran must have human rights as a central component. All of us have a responsibility to support steps to strengthen human rights promotion and protection in the country.

On October 24, I held a press conference to further discuss my findings with the UN press core. During this press conference, (more…)

New guidance on arbitrary detention coming

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The Human Rights Committee is discussing a draft General Comment on liberty and security of person. These are rights protected by article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Sadly, arbitrary detention, which is an unjustifiable deprivation of liberty, is a common abuse in the world today and a recurring theme for my mandate. This General Comment looks to be an important addition to the Committee’s clarifications of the ICCPR. Here’s a valuable bit from the draft:

Arrest or detention as punishment for exercising certain rights protected by the [ICCPR] may also be arbitrary, including freedom of opinion and expression (article 19), freedom of assembly (article 21), freedom of association (article 22), freedom of religion (article 18), and the right to privacy (article 17).

Currently it seems like the Committee is most focused on fine-tuning the language in paragraphs 37 and 38 about pretrial detentions and remand. Looking forward to the final Committee’s version. I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Live Tweeting from the UNGA and my new Twitter Handle

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Hi everyone. Wanted to let you know I’ve established a new Twitter handle for my position as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some of you might follow my personal Twitter account but if you’re interested in my work on the Iran mandate I encourage you to follow @shaheedsr.

I am also excited to announce that my 3pm presentation this Wednesday, October 23, to the UN General Assembly will be live tweeted from this new account.  Join me then.

Correcting Torture in Iran

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In August the Canadian-Iranian website Shahrvand News ran a story on a lecture I gave at the Munk School at the University of Toronto. It seemed that some of my statements at Munk were misrepresented and taken out of context, so I contacted the journalist who wrote the piece and she graciously made the necessary correction. I appreciate Shahrvand’s help and I thought I would also note the correction here, on my blog.

The original article quoted me as saying that 85% of women and 25% of male inmates in Iranian prisons are raped. These numbers are both inaccurately high and were presented without the necessary background context.

At the Munk school I referenced a study by a UK based health and legal support NGO called Freedom from Torture (FFT), which I also cited in my March 2013 UN report. This was not a study of all inmates or prisons in Iran but specifically of self-reported torture victims who had left Iran for the UK. All of these victims had reported being detained and tortured after the 2009 elections. Of this group of alleged torture victims 60% of women and 23% of men reported rape (which the study defines as penetration by another person’s body part or an object such as a baton).

So while those numbers might still seem high, remember they cover self-reported torture victims that displayed forensic and psychological signs of torture and sexual torture. These were likely some of the worst cases during a time period of significant political unrest and state violence.

To know whether or not rape continues to be a form of torture experienced by political detainees and at what rate requires more research. It is important to note however that torture of any kind is one of the worst forms of human rights violation and that all States, including Iran, must take all measures necessary both to prevent it happening and to help victims.

International Peace and Domestic Rights: Intertwined

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Last week at the United Nations Iran’s President Rouhani was widely commended—and rightly so—for bearing a message of international tolerance, peace, and stability. The international community took notice, and no doubt will continue to watch closely as events unfold.

But just before Mr. Rouhani’s trip to New York his Government quietly did something even more important: it released over 90 political prisoners from jail.

Truly meaningful international peace first requires a foundational respect for human rights by all parties involved. I warmly welcome this step and will look for the Islamic Republic on Iran to continue this positive trend by releasing all political prisoners in the very near future.