Attention on Arrest of Artists Should Lead to Greater Engagement

pharrell happy video

The arrest of six individuals in Iran last week for creating a dance video to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” garnered international attention. The individuals were arrested after posting a video to YouTube in April and were forced to express remorse on national television. A Twitter and Facebook campaign, #FreeHappyIranians, was trending on Facebook a day after the group’s arrest. All members of the group, with the exception of the video’s director, were released on May 21. While this case is certainly an example of restrictions on freedom of expression in Iran, the situation of human rights in the country on the whole requires more sustained attention.

As I outline in my most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, there are many human rights concerns in Iran. Outside of freedom of expression—including the shutdown of newspapers, targeting of journalists and bloggers, and Internet censorship—I express concern about the independence of judges and lawyers, the intimidation, arrest and sentencing of ethnic and religious minorities, due process and fair trial standards, and the startling number of executions, many for crimes not meeting international standards of “most serious.”

These issues are complex and require consistent investigation, reporting, and reform efforts on the part of the Government, civil society, UN member states, the international community, and ordinary citizens in the country. I am encouraged by public statements made by members of the Government within the past year to investigate violations of human rights and uphold international standards to which Iran is a party and look forward to progress made in this regard, but remain concerned that pledges have yet to be transformed into action.

On my part, I aim to continue reporting on human rights concerns, working with the Iranian Government in areas of common concern, and raising awareness. The case of the six individuals is of course a great help in drawing attention to certain areas of human rights concern. However, I hope that the broader population now aware of the human rights situation in the country will remain engaged and continue to support the people of Iran on multiple human rights fronts, even when the specific incidents involved are not quite as catchy!

Voices of Support for Iran’s Baha’is


Political, social, or cultural circumstances produce challenging obstacles to implementing human rights commitments in every country.

One such issue in Iran is that of the persecuted Baha’i minority. Adherents of the Baha’i Faith are typically denied the right to publicly or privately manifest their beliefs. Members of the community also often report discrimination in employment, denial of the right to higher education, imprisonment, and desecration of their cemeteries.

The targeting of Baha’is is not news for those engaged in human rights issues in Iran, but in many ways, the rise in the diversity of voices in Iran in recognition of the plight of the Baha’i community is a new and welcomed development.

Over the past year, there have been some alarming actions taken against Baha’is, accompanied by concerning state-sponsored media initiatives appearing to target the group. Ataollah Rezvani, a Baha’i, was murdered in Bandar Abbas in August 2013 in an apparently religiously-motivated crime, and members of a Baha’i family were attacked and stabbed in their home in February 2014 by a masked intruder. In December 2013, state TV broadcasted nationally a six-part documentary about the Baha’i community entitled “Meet the Darkness”, detailing the alleged “relationship between the misguided sect of Baha’ism and Israel, and the influence of the Baha’is on the sinister Pahlavi [former Shah’s] family.”

This apparent resurgence in incitement by authorities to targeting the Baha’i community has been accompanied, however, by a promising increase in the frequency of statements and expressions of solidarity with Baha’is by other Iranians. For example, last month Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani presented artwork featuring sacred Baha’i passages as “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens”. Just last week, a group of prominent rights activists, journalists, and clerics met in a publicized group meeting to sign declarations and give statements in support of the imprisoned Baha’i leadership, known as the Yaren, who have been detained since 2008.

The significance of these developments cannot be overstated. These acts, carried out in a context where Baha’is are still often labeled as “impure” by state officials, have created a new space for dialogue. As prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh said at the aforementioned meeting, “We are here together because the Baha’i community was oppressed and our mothers and fathers did not pay attention to this matter.” Mohammad Nourizad, a former journalist for the semi-official Kayhan newspaper, said in the meeting that, “Before I went to prison, I was weighed down by prejudice. But after I was freed from prison, the heavy weight of prejudice was lifted from me and my outlook has changed.”

I hope the brave outspokenness of these individuals will inspire other like-minded individuals to raise their voices in support of their fellow citizens of Iran. While important efforts outside of Iran are ensuring that member states are aware of the human rights situation, the Government and citizens of Iran will ultimately have to take ownership of any new way forward, and the first step in this process is creating a space for dialogue. After all, Baha’is are one of many religious and ethnic groups comprising the extraordinarily rich tapestry that is Iranian culture and history.

Layers of Internet Censorship in Iran

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This past March I attended the Munk School of Global Affairs’ 2014 annual Cyber Dialogue in Toronto, where government representatives and members of civil society, academia and the private sector discussed cyber security and governance. We talked about ways to support governments, including Iran’s, in their efforts to advance protections for privacy, expression, opinion, and association and in their efforts to improve Internet speed and access to content deemed protected under international law.

These are issues of importance in every country, and particularly in Iran, where access to material deemed offensive or subversive is legally restricted, and where media entities and journalists, bloggers, and other netizens are often prosecuted for publishing or managing online content viewed as “propagating against” the Government. Some 37 journalists and netizens are currently detained in Iran, including 16 netizens arrested late last year who managed a tech-gadget news website.

Millions of websites are blocked in Iran. In 2013, a study found that a wide range of websites, including sites related to health, science, sports, news, and even shopping are blocked. Almost 50% of the top five-hundred visited websites in the world are blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

A separate study concluded that Internet speed is intentionally reduced to frustrate users and limit communication. For example, Internet traffic and speeds dropped significantly in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in the weeks leading up to the 2013 election. Throttling has also been noticeable during times of international political upheaval, including during the Arab Spring.

The employment of blocking, filtering and throttling technologies by governments frequently occurs in violation of their obligation to guarantee the right to freedom of expression. As the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank LaRue, notes in his May 2011 report:

“…blocking measures constitute an unnecessary or disproportionate means to achieve the purported aim, as they are often not sufficiently targeted and render a wide range of content inaccessible beyond that which has been deemed illegal..[and] Lastly, content is frequently blocked without the intervention of or possibility for review by a judicial or independent body.”

With this in mind, I regularly encourage authorities to ease restrictions on online media and access for Iranian citizens. I hope that the Government will recognize that access to information, which should only be subject to very narrow limitations permissible under international law, is an asset to democratic societies, and that ideal aims of maintaining security and providing open access are in no way mutually exclusive.

The Real Victims of Personal Attacks

It’s no secret that personal attacks hurled by some Iranian officials and media outlets in the run-up to the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council this past March reached new heights – or, rather, depths. 

People frequently ask me if these attacks, which often include crude insults and defamatory remarks, affect me or my work. My answer is that while I of course find such tactics disappointing, I find their distractive nature to be more disturbing.

The presentation of my reports and the interactive dialogue about the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic that takes place among members of the Human Rights Council presents a opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss pressing issues and cases of abuse. Insults and inflammatory statements only serve to detract from this opportunity, and delays the much needed solutions necessary for the most vulnerable in Iranian society; solutions that often emanate from substantive and open discourse.

Besides, the attacks against me and other UN officials pale in comparison to those often reported by Iranians who exercise their fundamental rights to free expression, belief, assembly, and association.

At the end of each working day, I can turn off my computer and switch off my phone. Human rights defenders and those who express dissenting views inside the country apparently don’t have this luxury. Individuals who express dissent from officially-sanctioned views reportedly face prison sentences for the vaguely-defined and overly-broad “crimes” of “propaganda against the system,” “acting against national security,” or “dissemination of false information.” In some cases, they face capital punishment for mofsed fil-arz (corruption on Earth), or moharebeh (translated either as enmity with God, or as holding a weapon to the populace with intent to frighten).

As I documented in my last report to the Human Rights Council, there are around 900 political prisoners in Iran, many of whom are in prison for expressing the same types of international protected forms of criticism that I convey in my reports. The individuals punished come from all walks of life — ethnic, religious, and gender communities, geographical regions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And there are many more hundreds of individuals who, while not necessarily in prison, reportedly face harassment and persecution for non-violent forms of dissent.

So when people ask me how I feel when officials attack me or the Secretary-General, I can only respond: I am far from a victim. The real victims of these personal attacks are those that live in fear of airing their beliefs, those whose grievances continue to be ignored, and those who continue wait in silence for remedy.

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

UN Broken Chair public domain

On March 11, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, submitted his interim report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Human Rights Council. His report addressed growing concerns surrounding the situation in the county and demanded that the Iran respect its human rights obligations. He criticized the persistent reports of abuses in the country, including arbitrary detentions, unfair trials, and condemned the sharp increase in the use of the death penalty, in contravention of international law.

On March 12, in line with the Secretary-General’s report, I, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, on torture, and on violence against women issued a statement expressing our alarm at the ongoing spike in executions in Iran. As it stands, at least 176 persons have been reportedly hanged in Iran in 2014 alone.

In our joint comment, We stated that the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, stressed that “the Government continues to execute individuals at a staggering rate, despite serious questions about fair trial standards”.

the Government continues to execute individuals at a staggering rate, despite serious questions about fair trial standards

Then, on March 17, I officially presented my sixth report on the situation of human rights to the Human Rights Council. Among my findings was that an estimated 1,539 individuals in Iran have been executed since the establishment of my mandate in 2011. What’s more, an estimated 624 people were executed in 2013 alone. You can read my full report to learn more.

During my interactive dialogue to the Council, I stressed my desire to engage with the Iranian Government and the Iranian people. Throughout my mandate, I have made countless requests to visit Iran. And while I have been encouraged by several conversations with Iranian officials over the past twelve months, I still have not been granted a visit.

To be sure, as with other international mechanisms, the Council’s Special Procedures are most effective when all stakeholders can work together through cooperation and constructive dialogue. Moving forward, it is my hope to work alongside a ready and willing Iranian government to advance efforts to recognize the rights of all Iranians, without distinction.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Asks States to “Stop Condemning Torture while Accepting its Products”

Juan Mendez, Special Rapporter on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, (c) UN Photo, Jean Marc-Ferre

In an important contribution to the understanding of the actions states must take to prevent human rights violations, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has urged governments to stop condemning torture committed at the international level while condoning them at the national level.

During the presentation of his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, Mr. Méndez emphasized the importance of “removing any incentive to undertake torture anywhere in the world” as the clear objective. He further warned that “the use of torture-tainted information is considered an act of acquiescence” since it may lead to complicity in cases of torture and other ill-treatment.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur highlights that by allowing the collection, sharing and receiving of torture-tainted information to take place between States during intelligence gathering or covert operations, “some states have diluted cardinal principals necessary for preventing and suppressing torture and ill-treatment.” He firmly regrets the refusal of States to “subject the work of their intelligence and security agencies to scrutiny or international oversight” since such refusal has led to the erroneous impression that those actions are not subject to international law.

In a crucial effort to clarify misconceptions, he notes it is simply not enough to ensure that the judicial process be free from the taint of torture. To effectively prevent torture, Mr. Méndez highlights three key rules States must follow: (1) States must not condemn torture committed by others while accepting its products; (2) States must refrain from allowing torture-tainted evidence in judicial proceedings; and (3) torture must not be encouraged, condoned, or accepted in any of the branches of power.

I thank Mr. Méndez for this groundbreaking and important information, and ask the international community to further codify these rules and incentivize States to abide by those key principals.

International Mother Language Day: Lessons for Iran


The international community today celebrates UNESCO International Mother Language Day. On this occasion UNESCO aims to raise awareness of the benefits of multilingual education, particularly in the early years of childhood development. Studies, research, and UNESCO reports demonstrate the importance of mother and local language instruction in building strong foundations for reading comprehension in national languages, and even increased performance in mathematics. For example, children taught in a local language in Cameroon scored twice as high on mathematics tests at the end of grade three.

Another dimension to this issue is that of diversity and cultural rights. The general conference of UNESCO has affirmed the indispensability of the rights of all persons to disseminate publications in the language(s) of their choice, particularly their mother tongue, for the sake of cultural diversity and for the full realization of rights enshrined in the UDHR and ICESCR.

The recognition by UN member states and UNESCO of the importance of mother tongue language education has unfortunately not translated to the inclusion of mother tongue curricula in many countries, including in Iran. While non-discrimination — including on the basis of ethnic or tribal origin — is enshrined in Iranian law, there are no official primary school curricula in local languages, such as Kurdish, Azeri-Turkish, or Arabic, and, as I mentioned in my 2012 report to the UNGA, dropout rates remain high in provinces like Khuzestan, where schools can not teach in Arabic, the mother tongue of most of the province’s inhabitants.

Encouragingly, Government officials in the Rouhani administration have recently made clear their desire to find ways to include mother tongue education in schools across Iran. It is my hope that the Government will continue to push for—and enact—such reforms, as Iran, as a truly multi-cultural nation, only stands to gain culturally, economically, and politically from extending such rights to minority populations.

On this 15th International Mother Language Day, let us celebrate all cultures and languages, and take steps to universally educate the next generation with an eye to preserving the beauty of our collective diversity.

“Free and Equal,” and As Simple As That

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The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has launched a campaign called “Born Free and Equal,” calling on Governments and individuals around the world to respect the life, liberty, and dignity of LGBT individuals, as part of their international human rights obligations (watch this compelling video from OHCHR).

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) recently translated OHCHR’s 2012 report “Born Free and Equal” Into Farsi, and created five Persian-language fact-sheets to complement the report’s contents.

While translations of human rights-related documents for maximum accessibility is always to be encouraged, this translation is particularly important given the sound human rights framework of the report’s findings and recommendations.

As “Born Free and Equal” notes, “The protection of people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity does not require the creation of new rights or special rights for LGBT people. Rather, it requires enforcement of the universally applicable guarantee of nondiscrimination in the enjoyment of all rights” [emphasis added].

Whereas issues of sexual orientation sometimes becomes confusingly entangled with religious, cultural, or social discourse, “Born Free and Equal” notes that the protection of LGBTI individuals from violence and torture, the safeguarding of their basic human rights to life and security of person, and the prohibition and prevention of violence and discrimination against them are simply clear and logical consequences of Governments’ obligations to protect all individuals.

Freedom from violence, torture, and social or institutional discrimination are guaranteed by everything from the most basic human rights treaties to recent Human Rights Council resolutions. While communities may appropriately conduct philosophical, religious, and legal debates on issues relating to family life and social structures, no Government or individual has the right in any case to derogate from the provision of these rights to any individual or group.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay points out: “The case for extension of rights to LGBT persons “is neither radical nor complicated. It rests on two fundamental principles that underpin international human rights law: equality and non-discrimination.”

Indeed, when these words are understood to apply to all groups, at all times, and in all places, we will be closer to the achievement of universal human rights promotion.

Check out the Farsi version of the report “Born Free and Equal,” from OHCHR’s website

“Born Free and Equal” accompanying fact-sheets in Farsi, also from OHCHR’s website:

Homophobic and Transphobic Violence
International Human Rights Law and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Frequently Asked Questions

Dialogue on rights Charter valuable for human rights reform


In November 2013 the Government of Iran published a draft of the Citizenship Rights Charter, which outlines certain human rights for Iranian citizens. The document has become a recent focal point of human rights dialogue concerning Iran and is a key component of attempts to address human rights concerns by President Rouhani’s administration.

The Charter was made public soon after being drafted so that civil society could comment on its contents and suggest improvements. Many Iran human rights groups have already expressed some initial thoughts and concerns related to the Charter.

As with all human rights-related matters in all places, I think it’s imperative that the international community and human rights experts continue to engage the Iranian government on the Charter. To that end, I wanted to share an English translation of the draft that will hopefully allow a wider breadth of stakeholders, UN institutions, member states, and NGOs the opportunity to engage in this conversation.

In the coming months I also hope to be able to share my own thoughts on the Charter with the government. Until then I am happy to hear yours. Please leave a comment on my blog page.