Washington remains silent as rights situation worsens in Iran

Rohani abandoned the human rights platform and, as a result, is facing widespread protests but only limited international condemnation.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Activists hold a protest to highlight human rights abuses and call for  democratic change in Iran, outside the UN headquarters in New York, last September. (AP)
A voice to the unheard. Activists hold a protest to highlight human rights abuses and call for democratic change in Iran, outside the UN headquarters in New York, last September. (AP)

WASHINGTON - The Iranian regime’s human rights violations worsened in recent months and are exacerbated by US President Donald Trump as he reimposes sanctions and remains silent about abuses, Iran experts said.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani abandoned the human rights platform that helped propel him to office in 2013 and win re-election in 2017 and, as a result, is facing widespread protests but only limited international condemnation.

“The human rights situation in Iran is in a crisis,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran said. Although Rohani had inspired hope that he would reverse human rights abuses that flourished under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “he sat pretty quietly for four years as judiciary and intelligence forces reinforced their security state.”

Since Trump took office in 2017, Ghaemi said, Rohani “has sided with human rights violators” who have imprisoned political dissidents and human rights lawyers and executed religious minorities on dubious charges.

On September 8, Iran executed three Kurdish men accused of participating in a militant group and in attacks on civilians. UN officials and human rights groups denounced the executions, saying the men had been tortured into confessing for crimes they did not commit and had been denied access to their lawyers.

Speaking September 13 at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, the Iran experts said the Trump administration’s pledges of support for the Iranian people were hollow and did nothing to improve human rights. Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said they stand with Iranians but have not made any demands about human rights as they laid down conditions Iran must meet to avoid US economic sanctions.

“Trump’s comments could be helpful if they were backed by an authentic set of ideas [about human rights]. I just don’t think there is that set of authentic ideas,” said Dokhi Fassihian, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Freedom House, a Washington non-profit organisation that monitors human rights.

Fassihian was particularly critical of Pompeo’s demands on the Iranian regime, which he enumerated in May as Trump announced the United States would reimpose sanctions that had been suspended or waived under the 2015 nuclear deal. “There’s nothing on the list that even if the Iranian government met would help the Iranian people — not one thing,” she said. “That just smacks of inauthenticity.”

The United States has never put together a “coherent human rights agenda towards Iran,” Fassihian added but focuses its policy on neutralising Iran as a strategic threat to America and its Middle East allies, such as Israel.

UN efforts to improve human rights in Iran also have failed, the panellists said. Each year, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council approves a resolution condemning Iran’s abuses and it reappoints a special rapporteur to oversee Iran. However, the resolutions — the latest of which was approved in March — do not list Iran’s human rights violations or specify what the regime must do, Fassihian said.

Only persistent international pressure would improve human rights in Iran, Ghaemi said. Iran stopped executing people — many of whom were poor and illiterate — for drug violations 18 months ago in response to international outrage.

“That is an example of where you got countries from Japan to Brazil to the European Union protesting and it worked,” Ghaemi said.

As the regime continued its crackdown, Iranian women have made substantial social gains through a powerful women’s movement, said Sussan Tahmasebi, an Iranian-American women’s rights activist. Women born after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 are more educated than their male counterparts and participate widely in the workforce, holding jobs ranging from doctors and lawyers to taxi drivers and bus drivers.

“While women face incredibly legal discrimination in Iran, the social gains have been considerable,” Tahmasebi said.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, recalled that, during her first trip to Iran 20 years ago, she had to wear clothing that covered her entire body. On her latest trip, five years ago, Slavin said she wore only a small headscarf that left her face exposed.

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