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Will Iran's Human Rights Case End Up at the Security Council?

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Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, believes that if Tehran does not cooperate with his mandate and continues on the current path in ignoring international mechanisms to monitor the worsening human rights crisis in the country, Iran's human rights case might eventually end up at the Security Council by UN member-states.

In an interview I conducted with him in New York, he responded to my questions on his interactions with the Iranian officials, the reason a special rapporteur was designated to Iran, and different scenarios ahead of the Iranian government if it decides to pursue its current path.

Mr. Shaheed is currently working on a comprehensive report on the country's human rights situation to be presented this March before members of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Iranian authorities have consistently rejected Mr. Shaheed's requests to enter the country and have not responded to any of the issues that were raised in his interim report to the General Assembly last month.

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Excerpts from the interview follow:

Have you received any positive signals from any Iranian officials over the past few weeks?

Well, no. There was a very public statement made by the Iranian delegation in the 3rd Committee before the eyes of the entire world that Iran was willing to cooperate by providing the information that was needed for my report. That is a very positive statement, and I'm hoping that Iran's concerns that the mandate is politicized against them are addressed. It is up to me to convince them that this is not the case. I'm looking at ways to demonstrate that to the Iranian authorities, and if I can perhaps do that, maybe they will move towards more cooperation.

What if the Iranian government decides to continue its current path and refuses any communications with you? How will you then pursue writing your report?

Well, I think if Iran does not communicate with me again, there will again be a situation where I will be presenting a report based on the information that I was able to gather, in a very objective, transparent, and rigorous fashion, which I am sure the world community would find as objective, sound and balanced. But then it would lack the space for Iran to communicate its views to me. Therefore it would be a missed opportunity for Iran to have their views reflected in my report.

My work will continue. I will be able to produce a report, because many among the Iranian diaspora and the Iranian NGO network are actually very active in documenting issues and cases, and presenting the material that are addressed in the mandate with very sound evidence. So, I am not basing my work on hearsay, I am basing my work on first-hand testimonies, established evidence, and things that can be scientifically proven to be logical research on the subject.

What would be missing from my report would be my representation of the perspective from the Iranian government in its own words as to why things are the way they are. In the absence of this cooperation, the pressure on Iran will mount to respond to this, and it would perhaps become far more difficult to come back later and try to explain it. It is far easier and more productive for them to explain this as we go along, and to work with me to try and find the confidence that things in Iran will start to improve.

What is the next step? Does Iran have the capacity to be introduced to the Security Council in the months to come, regarding the dire human rights situation the Iranians are facing now?

The rapporteurs do not report to the Security Council. The rapporteurs only have the capacity to report to the Human Rights Council. Members of the Council will determine what happens to Iran as it concerns its conduct vis a vis the mandate. Member states' concern about Iran will only increase and heighten if Iran does not cooperate. If Iran is cooperative, then the confidence that the processes in place are working will stop the next [escalation] steps.

What's your personal opinion on this?

For me, it is still premature to talk about what will happen afterwards. I think we must be careful. I know the frustration is out there. But we must be careful to give this mandate time to work. I must say that I do not regard the country mandate as a punitive measure, therefore these are not a series of measures against Iran. This is the start of a process that we can hopefully work through peacefully and collaboratively. If that ends and there is a further deterioration in the situation in Iran, then it's up to the members of the world body what other steps to take. But as a mandate holder, my view is that the most effective mechanism of this lies in working with the government of Iran.

So, there is a potential, technically and in terms of procedures, that if the Iranian government does not cooperate, it has the capacity...

It is not up to the rapporteur to go the General Assembly on that. It will be up to member states to determine if, and only if, there are no more options left. I do believe that having a rapporteur, having a monitoring body for Iran, having visits to bring forth communications, if there is substantial cooperation from Iran, there will be sufficient grounds to believe that things can improve. But if Iran undertakes other measures, then there is a whole different scenario. Between now and March is a very long time. I would like to show people that I do not begin my work with the threat of tentative measures at the end of it.

Not a threat, but the other scenario.

Speculation about that other scenario should not come from me, because I should remain focused on trying to work with the government. But I think this is something for the Human Rights Commissioner or the Human Rights Council to see what options they would be willing to explore if this current metrology does not work. It is not appropriate for me to determine when my work ends; that would be self-defeating.

Some in Iran ask why the Human Rights Council does not assign a special rapporteur for the U.S.? After all, we have seen a lot of human rights violations in this country.

There are countries that have self-correcting mechanisms that do occur. If there is sufficient faith that the Judiciary of a country is independent, then a lot of concerns of the human rights activists are alleviated. The ultimate safeguard for human rights abuse is a professional, independent, and sound Judiciary. Now, if there are serious questions about the U.S. Judiciary, then, yes, we begin to have worries about that, because it means that the mechanism of redress is not there. If countries have their own, built-in redress mechanisms, then a lot of the concerns disappear. If you look at the indices on different bodies on their freedom, you can look at where U.S. is, it isn't at the top, but it is among the top.

There are many countries at the bottom that invite rapporteurs into their countries. Countries at the bottom usually have rapporteurs assigned to them. So, there are certain indicators that show you whether this country has a self-correcting mechanism to address grievances or is the country really in the grip of the situation where there is no knowledge about the abuses, there are no records available of them to address the issues, and then you have a concern.

What kind of self-correcting mechanisms?

For example, an independent Judiciary -- a Judiciary that is effective and is professional and people have faith in the way it works. Often times the faith in the Iranian Judiciary is very low. There is a widespread belief that there is no independence of the Judiciary, and that there are many problems with the appeals processes. Another would be a national human rights institution, national watchdogs on human rights.

You mean non-governmental?

No, this would be government watchdog that are independent. There is something that is called the Paris Principle that sets out the structure of such bodies, the most important thing is that they should be independent. They should have sufficient funding. They should have the ability to look into a case and even bring about prosecutions. So, if these mechanisms are working, then you don't need to have an extra mechanism. And there are also international mechanisms, which can again support this.

Now, in Iran there are allegations of torture in prisons. There is a mechanism to address this. Iran could participate in the Convention Against Torture, and under that, participate in the Optional Protocol to the CAP Convention that has a voluntary UN special mechanism. It is called the SPT, Subcommittee of Prevention of Torture. The Subcommittee sits in Geneva. That Subcommittee is mandated to visit countries of their concern. They will come to a country that has signed that Convention and has already agreed. They can come when they want to. They can go to any prison they choose to visit, they can meet with people, and have their recommendations implemented.

If this was done, you would have a non-politicized, free-standing mechanism. Another self-correcting mechanism is free and fair elections that enable people to hold governments accountable on their practices. If a government is repressive, oppressive, and it is violating people's rights, then you won't reelect it.

Your mandate was created through a resolution at the Human Rights Council with a vote of 22 in favor and only 7 countries against. Yet, the Iranian government keeps insisting that this is a western plot, and that western countries drive your mandate. What is your response to the Iranian allegation?

Well, other countries have not articulated Iran's position. I presented the report on Iran to the 3rd Committee of the Assembly, where there are 193 members. It was a very chilling report, a hard-hitting report in many aspects. Of course, the Iran delegation had issues with it, and they accused me of being selective, outdated, and partial, and they did point out that it did not include the points of view of the government, because they didn't give it to me. I was surprised that no other delegation echoed those words. If this was a politicized, western, or geographic or cultural tool against Iran, there is still a very large number of groups within the world body who would point that out. The western group is a very small group. Why didn't the entire body pick up against this? This is because many believe there is a legitimate case for Iran to talk about. I think it is an easy argument to make in Tehran to accuse the accountability demands as a western demand, but I think in human rights cases, it would be important to move beyond that mindset and look at issues as they are presented.

There are multiple crises involving Iran at the UN level. How will you make sure your mandates remain independent and are not repeated by political conflicts at the UN level, such as the nuclear issue and for example the assassination plot?

Well I believe that this other noise is in fact a distraction. It does impede the focus on Iran's human rights situation. I would be very careful in not joining these agendas. In my work, I am not concerned about the nuclear issue. The question about the plot, again, this is not about human rights in Iran and my work must stay clear of these issues because my focus is to look at the situation of Iranian nationals and see how their situation can be improved in relation to human rights.

What does Iran have to gain by cooperating with your mandate and letting you into the country?

What Iran can gain by cooperating with me is being able to represent their views in my reports. See, if you only speak to one part of the picture, then the other part will be under-represented. I can only project the other parts with great difficulty. It will not be as accurate as it could be. So if the Iranian government cooperates with me, they would have a bigger opportunity to have their views and concerns reflected in my report.

By talking to me I will get more familiar with their perspective and concerns and I will reflect them in my further report. I will not ignore the government's perspective in the reports I produce. By letting me into their country, first of all, they are sending a very strong signal to the world that the government has nothing to hide; that the government is committed to investigating things that are going wrong.

No country has a perfect record. No country is free from criticism. No country is beyond reproach, but those countries that admit to their issues have a better chance of addressing them than those who deny those issues. So, by cooperating with me, the government of Iran will have a better chance to have their perspective reflected; they can have a better chance of convincing others that Iran is serious about addressing the difficulties it has on the international front.

Another argument by the Iranian Government is that Iran has been picked selectively to have a special mechanism. In your evaluation, why does the situation in Iran require a special mechanism for a special rapporteur?

The first thing to remember is that we should not consider the establishment of a special rapporteur to be a penalty to a state. Not every country regards it that way.

There was a time when countries regarded a review of their case to be a penalty. There was a time when the countries regarded a proposal for a visit by a human rights reporter to be a penalty. But it no longer is the case. All countries are reviewed in the UPR process and now when a Special rapporteur visits, it is no longer seen as a sign of trouble.

A field rapporteur cannot pay too much attention to a country's peculiarities because they are looking at the global trends, but a country's mandate holder will have the time, the space, and the interest in understanding and looking at the country's cultural and social contours and see the solutions in that framework.

Iran did say at the UPR review last year, that they will voluntarily implement over 100 recommendations. That means Iran is a country willing to work. Now, to give credence to their willingness, [they should] work with the rapporteur. So, where are they on this? And if this mission comes through me, I'm sure many will gain confidence that, yes, Iran is serious about working towards implementing them.