The human rights world grieves for Mandela, must now bear his torch

Photo courtesy of the public domain

Just days before International Human Rights Day, the human rights world has lost one of its most treasured heroes.

I think it is fair to say that very few souls embody the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as wholly as Nelson Mandela did over the course of his career as an advocate for the rights; not only for his own nation, but for all of mankind.

In the struggle to end Apartheid — perhaps the most systematic form of discrimination known to man — in South Africa, Mandela and his colleagues paved the way for a new, free, and democratic nation.  They also set the tone for a whole continent — and perhaps the entire world — at a time when it was in dire need of guidance and inspiration.

South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive in the world in terms of human rights protections, enshrining most, if not all, of the tenets of the ICCPR and the ICESCR. Indeed, it has been said that Mandela was ahead of his time on some human rights issues, and insisted, in spite even of some of his own people’s opposition, to include in it a ban on the death penalty and rights for people of all sexual orientations.

As an activist, he and his movement harnessed and in turn echoed international human rights concerns, and as president and beyond, he became a voice for human rights globally.

May Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a Madiba not only to his countrymen but to our movement, rest in peace, and may the rest of us pick up where he left off and carry his mantle onward, so that his legacy will live and flourish well beyond this gloomy night.

General Assembly an important forum for dialogue on human rights

UN General Assembly

The substantive international dialogue with Iran on human rights at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) two weeks ago was a very important symbol and signal for international human rights support.

While I am not involved in intergovernmental discussions around the annual UNGA human rights resolution on Iran, I did follow the debate and noted that it featured many of the same vital issues as the interactive dialogue I held with States earlier in the month.

In particular, the debate and the resolution combined positive international reaction to recent human rights announcements from President Rouhani on issues such as eliminating discrimination against women, minority rights, and freedom of expression, with a strong call for demonstrable improvements as soon as possible.

The General Assembly, which brings together all UN member states, is undoubtedly an important platform for continued dialogue with Iran, and the annual debate and consideration of the resolution help reforms by maintaining a spotlight on the human rights challenges facing the country.

As I have repeatedly noted, now is not the time to focus less on Iran and its human rights record, but rather more, in order to support Government officials earnestly looking to improve the situation. For the most part, public statements have not translated into concrete action on the ground, and many victims of human rights violations continue to suffer.

It is therefore important for the international community — as a show of support for rights in Iran and for those in Government who are advocating for them — to keep talking about human rights in the country. The UNGA did just that in its debate two weeks ago.

UNGA committee passes resolution on human rights in Iran

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 12.52.49 PM

Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee passed a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. With 83 votes in favor, the Committee has decided to continue its examination of the promotion and protection of human rights in Iran.

The resolution welcomes pledges made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with regard to central human rights issues and encourages Iran to take concrete action to ensure that these pledges result in demonstrable improvements. Calling directly upon the Iranian Government, the resolution charges the Rouhani administration to effectively implement its obligations under those human rights treaties to which it is already a party.

While the resolution expresses deep concern for the persisting human rights violations in the country, it offers a constructive approach through its support for the Iranian government to collaborate with all special procedures mandate holders and to deepen its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms.

I hope for the opportunity to work alongside the Government of Iran to implement positive human rights recommendations contained in the resolution and beyond.

Censoring the Commons: Internet freedom curtailed on Wikipedia

Document2 copy

As I shared in my post last week, Iran’s culture minister, Ali Jannati has urged authorities to unblock social media networks in the country. As it stands, many popular sites – including Facebook and Twitter – are widely used by government officials but remain banned for Iranian citizens. Jannati is calling for all social media networks to be accessible and I couldn’t agree more.

In my latest report to the UN General Assembly, I referenced data that was released in a new report this week examining the extent of Internet censorship in Iran. “Citation Filtered: Iran’s Censorship of Wikipedia,” released by the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications and the Human Rights in Iran Unit at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, tackles the censorship of Persian-language articles on Wikipedia.

As I’ve noted, authorities block some five million websites in Iran. What makes censoring Wikipedia particularly interesting is the amazingly open nature of the website, where anyone can post or edit any article. This is an encyclopedia that is both a form of expression and source information. It’s also become a part of many peoples’ lives as a first-stop shop for information on almost anything, and that’s true for Iranians as much as anyone. In fact, with 360,000 users, Persian ranks sixteenth in use among the Wikipedia languages. So censoring it really speaks to the limits of Internet freedom in Iran.

Through an examination of this report, I learned that 963 Persian-language articles are effectively blocked in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Most troubling is that much of this censorship – ironically – removes criticism of Iran’s human rights record from Wikipedia.

Moreover, the vast majority of the 963 censored Wikipedia pages contain speech that is protected by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression and access to information through the Internet and other media. These article pages covered a broad range of topics including Wiki-entries about the Baha’i Faith, stoning in Iran, and a biography of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has a looming prison sentence.


IMP_Wiki_censorship_final copy

All the right signals, now time to stop the filtering

Twitter Rouhani and Jack copy

On November 12, Iran’s Culture Minister called for social media networks, and specifically Facebook, to be unblocked. This is reminiscent of the recent exchanges between the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey, where after being prompted by Mr. Dorsey the President tweeted that his government was working on making social media accessible to all. In case you missed it the tweet read:

“Evening, @Jack. As I told @camanpour, my efforts geared 2 ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.”

These public pronouncements in favor of Internet freedom and access to online information have been both fascinating and reassuring.

Fascinating because there is still something wonderfully refreshing about Twitter’s ability to directly connect people from different walks of life and different countries, a novelty made even more profound when one considers that in this case the two people involved were an American CEO and an Iranian President.

Fascinating also because an Iranian Culture Minister is calling for access to social media, once thought of as something only for teenagers, for all the country’s residents, in part because top officials, including the Supreme Leader, already use these platforms. President Rouhani is active on Twitter while his administration has embraced social networks, particularly the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

I hope that these positive noises and clear enthusiasm are rapidly translated into action – action that is desperately needed in a country where access to the world wide web is strictly curtailed. As outlined in my recent report, Twitter and Facebook are among at least 5 million sites blocked in Iran, including many dedicated to news, politics, music, women’s rights, human rights, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. So I wish to join Mr. Dorsey in his reply tweet to the president:

“@HassanRouhani thank you. Please let us know how we can make it a reality.”

Meditating on religious freedom at the UN


Last Monday, I participated as a panelist in a fascinating UN side event on religious freedom, alongside Ms. Rita Izsák, the UN Independent Expert on minority issues and Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief.

Both Ms. Izsák and Mr. Belielfeldt, as well as several participants in the open discussion, made some fascinating points, but I would just like to highlight here one common-thread theme throughout the discussion: that Governments’ specific obligation in protecting religious freedom as well as the rights of religious minorities is to provide the space for a free-flow of ideas and for the free expression of those ideas.

This means that Governments should protect the space for the free practice and expression of both majority and minority religions, and the rights of religious groups and individuals subject to potential discrimination. Governments should not, however: a) enforce their own ideas upon individuals or groups; or b) favor one religious group over another, except with legislation protecting minorities from potential individual or collective persecution.

One participant asked the panelists how one could reconcile seemingly exclusivist types of religious belief with the need for inclusiveness. All of the panelists pointed out that inclusiveness is a primary tenet of most religious faiths, and that tolerance and co-existence should be the norm, whereas religious chauvinism itself is usually a mis-reading of religious prescriptions.

Islam in particular forbids compulsion in religion, and contains numerous exhortations to tolerance and coexistence. May we soon live in a world where all Governments — and individuals — heed this important call.

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


On October 23, I officially presented my third official report on the situation of human rights in Iran to the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee.  Let me first begin by noting an important difference this year compared to last.  I am encouraged by the meetings I have had both in Geneva and in New York recently with the Iranian government.  This is an important step in fulfilling the mandate given to me by member States of the Human Rights Council. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with government representatives and eventually to be invited into Iran to conduct my UN-mandated work. I am also encouraged by recent steps such as the release of several prisoners of conscience.

These positive signals of change are undoubtedly welcome. However, much remains to be done. As my report shows, there continue to be significant human rights challenges in Iran and widespread human rights violations. Specifically, my research reveals details about: executions, arbitrary detentions, prison conditions, religious freedom, minority rights and women’s rights. You can read the full report to learn more.

During the General Assembly interactive dialogue several member states asked me to state whether President Rouhani’s government has made progress on the human rights front. What I told them is that the Rouahni administration will need more time to produce measurable and sustainable reforms. Many of Iran’s human rights violation are deeply rooted in law and state practice.

In all of this, the international community has a vital role to play. Dialogue and cooperation with Iran must have human rights as a central component. All of us have a responsibility to support steps to strengthen human rights promotion and protection in the country.

On October 24, I held a press conference to further discuss my findings with the UN press core. During this press conference, (more…)

New guidance on arbitrary detention coming


The Human Rights Committee is discussing a draft General Comment on liberty and security of person. These are rights protected by article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Sadly, arbitrary detention, which is an unjustifiable deprivation of liberty, is a common abuse in the world today and a recurring theme for my mandate. This General Comment looks to be an important addition to the Committee’s clarifications of the ICCPR. Here’s a valuable bit from the draft:

Arrest or detention as punishment for exercising certain rights protected by the [ICCPR] may also be arbitrary, including freedom of opinion and expression (article 19), freedom of assembly (article 21), freedom of association (article 22), freedom of religion (article 18), and the right to privacy (article 17).

Currently it seems like the Committee is most focused on fine-tuning the language in paragraphs 37 and 38 about pretrial detentions and remand. Looking forward to the final Committee’s version. I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Live Tweeting from the UNGA and my new Twitter Handle

twitter-logo resized

Hi everyone. Wanted to let you know I’ve established a new Twitter handle for my position as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some of you might follow my personal Twitter account but if you’re interested in my work on the Iran mandate I encourage you to follow @shaheedsr.

I am also excited to announce that my 3pm presentation this Wednesday, October 23, to the UN General Assembly will be live tweeted from this new account.  Join me then.