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Candid Discussions: Gissou Nia on Iran’s Human Rights in 2014


Gissou Nia is the Deputy Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), an independent human rights organization based in New York City. She is an expert on human rights in Iran and on international law. Ms. Nia previously served as Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC). Under her leadership, IHRDC produced comprehensive human rights reports and documentations on political prisoners, violation of rights of women as well as those of marginalized groups such as religious and ethnic minorities.

Prior to her tenure at IHRDC, Ms. Nia worked on war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where she represented former government ministers from Bosnia and Kosovo in pre-trial, trial, and appellate proceedings. Ms. Nia also assisted in proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) related to allegations of crimes against humanity committed during the 2007–08 post-election violence in the Republic of Kenya.

Ms. Nia lectures and publishes frequently on human rights developments in Iran as well as the rule of law in post-conflict and transitional societies. Her work has been profiled by NPR, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Forbes, FPA Blogs, and other major media outlets. Ms. Nia sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss Iran’s human rights record in 2014 and share her perspectives on the challenges the Iranian society faces in greater recognition of human rights.


How would you describe the state of human rights in Iran in 2014?

The state of human rights in Iran in 2014 is, rather unfortunately, not where we envisioned we would be when we started out the year. Shortly after the inauguration of President Rouhani in August 2013, the [sic] Iran human rights community had some cause to be optimistic with the release of more than a dozen prominent political prisoners in September 2013, the publication of a draft Citizenship Rights’ Charter in November 2013 and a general feeling that the authorities’ tight grip on personal freedoms might be loosening somewhat.

However, fast forward a year later, and it seems that instead of improvements in line with President Rouhani’s campaign pledges to bring civil and social reforms to the country there has actually been regression along a number of human rights indicators. An ongoing power struggle between the Rouhani administration and the hardliner-controlled intelligence ministry and judiciary has resulted in new detentions of journalists and activists, with a rising number of individuals arrested for online activities. Women’s rights have deteriorated with a series of acid splashing attacks targeting women in Isfahan followed by widely believed to be insufficient response from the authorities to the attacks. The number of executions in the country, particularly for drug-related offenses, has increased since the year prior — placing the Islamic Republic among the world’s leaders in death sentences per capita. Additionally, the leaders of the Green Movement and other civil society actors, who were jailed for their role in events following the disputed June 2009 presidential election, remain imprisoned.

This lack of improvement has not been lost on the international community. Indeed, this lack of improvement in human rights condition was noted in November at Iran’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) — a process that examines the human rights performance of all 193 U.N. member states. At the UPR, Iran’s country peers expressed concern that many of the recommendations made to Iran, which were accepted by the Iranian authorities in the last UPR process four years ago, had yet to be implemented. These recommendations addressed a whole range of issues such as Iran’s high rate of executions; practice of public and juvenile executions; stoning; restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly; torture; mistreatment of detainees; lack of fair trial standards; due process of law; and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.

Rouhani’s presidency has consistently come under fire for its lack of progress on the human rights front. The worsening of this situation has been widely interpreted as a demonstration of power plays by Iran’s hardliners who are determined to dash Iranians’ hopes for more moderate and liberal socio-political and cultural policies. What do you attribute to the worsening of human rights conditions in Iran over the past year?

Certainly the desire of Iran’s hardliners in the judiciary and the intelligence ministry to undermine the Rouhani government has been a factor in the decline of human rights over the past year.

A specific example of this is the pattern we see emerging in the rise of violence against women in Iran. Right around the time that Rouhani took office, hardliners increasingly espoused anti-women rhetoric, for example, calling for women to adhere to strict Islamic dress codes and remain confined to the domestic sphere. This language has not been without consequence—in the past few months, there have been a series of acid attacks against women in Isfahan, with strong indications that these attacks are linked to vigilante justice aimed at punishing “improper” hijab and encouraged by the Iranian Parliament’s proposed “Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.” Shortly thereafter in November, there was a spate of stabbings of women in the Province of Fars perpetrated in what has been alleged to be a continuation of violence against women inspired by the aforementioned Parliamentary “virtue” plan.

What happened to these women is tragic, and the politics leading to these events sadly all too predictable. We have observed this pattern before under the Khatami presidency — when the hardliners sensed they could be losing their grip on key levers of power, so they decided to exert their influence through other means; here again women became a convenient and vulnerable target.

This is not to say that Rouhani is wholly without blame or influence here. At least in his first year, it seems his government has prioritized foreign policy and economic concerns over ushering in greater personal freedoms at home. However, Rouhani’s apparent strategy of investing all his capital into the foreign policy portfolio can backfire if hardliners, who are successfully perpetuating domestic repression, become further emboldened to challenge more aggressively Rouhani’s efforts to engage the international community on the nuclear and other issues of international significance. For that reason it is important to continue to demand that Rouhani deliver on his campaign promises and enact much-needed civil and political reforms.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is signatory to most U.N. human rights conventions. What do you think makes human rights issues in Iran such a sensitive topic?

While the Islamic Republic of Iran has signed and ratified U.N. conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it has yet to ratify other important conventions like CAT (Convention against Torture) and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). Iran has ratified other conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) with significant reservations. Indeed, the recommendation that the Islamic Republic ratify CAT and CEDAW and remove its reservations to the CRC was a point of discussion at the November UPR.

As to what makes human rights issues such a sensitive topic in Iran, I think we should frame the discussion specifically with regards to civil and political rights. When it comes to discussion of economic rights, or any rights tied to economic development, Iranian authorities are more relaxed as such covenants are seen as less threatening and potentially destabilizing to the Islamic Republic and the ruling elite’s hold on power.

Thus it should be no surprise that the last time the Islamic Republic of Iran let a U.N. thematic rapporteur into the country — nearly a decade ago — it was not for a mandate related to freedom of expression or extrajudicial executions or torture, but rather the invitation was extended to the special rapporteur on adequate housing.

There appears to be a tug-of-war between Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, and Iranian officials over a range of issues related to human rights in Iran. Dr. Shaheed has been repeatedly denied entry into Iran by Iranian officials. Can you put in context this acrimonious relationship between Dr. Shaheed and Iranian officials?  

I don’t think the issues here can be reduced to a personal issue that Iranian officials may have with Dr. Shaheed. Rather, the ad hominem attacks on Dr. Shaheed appear to be part of a larger strategy to undermine the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran.

Let’s not forget that Iranian authorities have not permitted any mandate holder—country or thematic—to visit Iran since 2005. And while in November an Iranian official announced an intention to allow two United Nations special procedure mandate holders to visit the country, an official invitation has yet to be extended.

Although Iranian officials may decry the mandate, it has prompted a change in rhetoric on their part. It was the Islamic Republic’s lack of compliance with U.N. mechanisms since 2005, along with the authorities’ brutal crackdown on protesters in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections in Iran that led to the creation of the Iran mandate in 2011 by the U.N. Human Rights Council in the first place. Countries from all regions, including Asia, Africa and South America, voted favorably in support of its creation. Only following the establishment of the mandate did Iranian officials begin to make statements indicating willingness to cooperate with thematic mandates, as well as the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Yet, despite all this talk, Iranian officials have not managed to produce an official invite. Nor has Tehran granted the requests of the six special procedures that have made requests for a country visit prior to the creation of the current country mandate.

In November of this year, your organization released a report on internet censorship in Iran, in which it outlined technological initiatives, policies, and practices aimed at suppressing access to free online information in Iran. Do you consider these restrictions a form of human rights violation? How successful have these measures been in keeping Iranians from gaining access to the information they seek online?

In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression at the time, Frank La Rue, declared that disconnecting people from the internet is a violation of human rights and against international law. In that report, La Rue went on to detail specific practices that were violative, including arbitrary blocking or filtering of content; criminalization of legitimate expression; denying users Internet access; and other methods, almost all of which the Iranian authorities are currently implementing to restrict Iranian web users online.

Until now Iranians have gotten around online restrictions by using VPNs and other circumventive software technologies. However, this will become  more difficult as the Iranian government has gotten savvier in its approach to online censorship. Currently, the authorities are focusing on developing an IT infrastructure to effectively control online access inside the country and covertly monitor its use, primarily through the creation of a “national Internet”, or intranet, that will essentially build a virtual electronic wall, allowing the authorities to serve as the sole gatekeeper with full access to the accounts of domestic users of Internet.

If the Iranian state doesn’t backtrack on this program and stop formulation of online policies by its intelligence and security agencies, then the global technology community should step in and assist the Iranian civil society in the development of tools to counter this online state repression. Governments, private sector and other actors all can play a role in ensuring that Iranians continue to gain access to the information that the state denies them.