Since 2013, when President Hassan Rouhani was elected based on his “moderate platform”, Iran has not seen a significant improvement in its human rights situation. In fact, various opposition groups have reported that his administration have not delivered on his campaign promises of greater political and civil rights.
Iran has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights without reservations, committing itself to the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic and social rights. This includes freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. This last one is particularly difficult in Iran, which is a ruling theocracy that follows Islam.
This leaves interpretation up to the authorities, and they have used that free hand to oppress the Iranian people. This includes torture, imprisonment and executions. The Human Rights Watch, in its 2017 World Report, noted that “executions, especially for drug-related offences, continued at a high rate.”
Rouhani is up for re-election in May, but while he continues to claim moderation, hardliners in the security and judiciary continue to crack down on citizens for exercising their rights and this is in disregard of domestic and international legal standards. Any dual citizens and nationals returning from abroad are at risk of arrest by intelligence authorities, after being accused of being agents of the West.
Prisoners are also at risk of horrible treatments while in prison, including a lack of food, water and medical care. “We are extremely concerned by this situation that precludes access to adequate medical care, a key human right which under international law and standards must not be adversely affected by imprisonment. Denying medical care amounts to ill treatments and can constitute a form of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that are unambiguously prohibited under international human rights law,” said the World Medical Association in a letter to the Iranian regime in January 2017.
But often being imprisoned in those conditions is still better than the alternative, especially for those that are convicted of non-violent crimes.
According to the World Report, many non-violent crimes, such as “insulting the Prophet”, apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, and drug-related offenses, are punishable by death. Despite attempts to change the law regarding drug-related offenses, the latest initiative in December 2015 did not move forward. The largest number of executions in the country are individuals convicted of drug charges.
Additionally, executions of children continue, despite new amendments to Iran’s penal code that allows judges to use their discretion regarding sentencing children to death. In March, the United Nations Children’s Rights Committee noted that flogging was still a lawful punishment for boys and girls convicted of specific crimes. For example, in May 2016, Iranian media reported that authorities had flogged 17 miners after their employer sued them for protesting the firing of fellow workers.
Free speech continues to be restricted, as hundreds of websites and social media platforms remain blocked by the Iranian regime. In June 2016, the country began to implement a political crime law that makes insulting or defaming public officials, when “committed to achieve reforms and not intended to target the system, are considered political crimes.” According to the law, these political prisoners have to be detained separately from ordinary criminals, be tried by a public jury trial. However, the authorities can deem that such a trial is detrimental to family disputes, national security, or religious and ethnic sentiment, thus taking a public jury trial off the table.
The IRGC is also monitoring the allowed social media platforms and individuals who have commented on controversial issues have been summoned or arrested. The result of this monitoring is a stifling of the voices of the Iranian people on a variety of topics.
What are the chances of reform in Iran? For many experts, the current prospects of reform are slim. They note that the current nuclear deal, with its focus on nuclear proliferation and no mention of human rights, was a lost opportunity to push for reforms in Iran. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Isabel Coleman said, “I don’t see a kinder, gentler Islamic republic happening anytime soon.” She noted that a change is doubtful, unless there is a fundamental change in the regime.
Amnesty International wrote in January 2017, “Iran’s persistent use of cruel and inhuman punishments, including floggings, amputations and forced blinding over the past year, exposes the authorities’ utterly brutal sense of justice.”
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has continued to report on a variety of human rights violations, highlighting the need for dramatic change in Iran. Part of their 10-point plan includes focusing on human rights, guaranteeing rights for women and religious freedom. The NCRI believe in a separation of church and state, a situation that does not currently exist in Iran at this time.
The situation in Iran is reaching a critical point, as the Iranian people grow weary of the oppression from the regime. Efforts by the international community need to continue to focus attention on these human rights violations and not just focus on how to restrict Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Restricting their nuclear ambitions with the latest nuclear agreement has come at a high price for the Iranian people in terms of human rights.
In October 2016, the EU Parliament adopted a report on EU strategy towards Iran after the nuclear agreement in which it expressed concerns about the alarming rate of executions in Iran and called for a release of all political prisoners. The question is will Iran heed the calls from the international community? Many human rights groups do not believe that it will happen without a major change in the Iranian government.