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The Call for Free and Fair Elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran

(c) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas (c) UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

BBC Persian Op-ed

22 March 2013

This month marks the 37th anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  This treaty was adopted in March 1976 and has been ratified by 167 countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Core principles promulgated by this document relate to individual liberties, such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the rights to freedom of religion and belief.  It is arguable that when governments resist encroaching on these fundamental rights, a given society will be better equipped with the tools for promoting free and fair elections and for advancing social, economic, and cultural rights.  This anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of these basic human rights in the Islamic Republic, especially as the country prepares for Presidential elections on 14 June. 

(Colchester, England)  Elections provide periodic opportunities for the citizens of a country to take stock of the direction in which they are heading and to freely decide whether to change course.  Free and fair elections lend legitimacy and accountability to a democracy by preventing any one individual or a small group in a society from imposing certain vested interests on the general population. For any election to be truly free and fair and to represent the will, freely expressed, of the electorate, it is vital for people to be given the space and protection they need to wholly enjoy the full range of civil and political rights, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, as well as the rights to vote and to participate in public life, free from intimidation or threat to personal security.
Furthermore, the electoral process requires a permissive political environment and must be driven by equity, transparency, and political tolerance. Minority groups and women must benefit equitably from the election process, which should be supervised, monitored, and carried out by a neutral body.  People must be free to share ideas and opinions, organize rallies and protests, and debate policy.  They must also be free to participate in civil society, and form political parties. Civil society and political parties constitute the primary vehicles for the development and promotion of a variety of ideas and norms for good governance from which citizens may choose, and therefore should be included in, rather than marginalized from the process. 

Unfortunately, in Iran, the 2009 presidential election and violent post-election events demonstrate that rather than offering an opportunity for people to assert their basic civil and political rights, elections in Iran have seemingly become a time when rights are subdued and choices imposed. All of us who wish Iran and its people well, hope that this year things will be different. That the country will engage in an open and considered debate about its future. And yet, as one surveys the situation of human rights in Iran in 2013, it is difficult to foresee that things will be better than they were four years ago. In fact, for a range of reasons, not least the response of the Iranian authorities to the revolutions taking place elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, it is possible that they could be worse.

It is therefore of great concern that the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to place significant and unreasonable limitations on the right of Iranian citizens to stand for Presidential office. The Iranian authorities have made clear that, under the Constitution, candidates for the office of President must be “political-religious men” and faithful believers in “foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and official religion of the country.” Women, as well as anyone who holds political opinions contrary to that of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the country's official religion, are therefore deprived of their basic democratic rights as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

As I make clear in my most recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the  conditions for free and fair elections are sadly not present in Iran. Since the start of my mandate, I have conducted over four hundred interviews with human rights defenders and victims, and have received vast numbers of reports from human rights NGOs. The picture which emerges from the information received is one of widespread and systemic human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Patterns of abuse range from severe restrictions on free speech and a continued crackdown on human rights defenders and activists, to an extensive use of the death penalty, torture, amputations, and violence and discrimination against women and minorities. The seriousness of the violations are spelt out in a recent letter by 16 leading international human rights NGOs to Members of the Human Rights Council.

On 4 February, I joined a number of other UN human rights Special Procedures in calling for Iran to immediately halt the recent spate of arrests of journalists and release those already detained, most of whom work for independent news outlets. We expressed our fear that the arrests were part of a broader crackdown on the press and that “the arrests may serve to reinforce self-censorship and severely constrict freedom of opinion and expression”.   On 11 February, I also joined the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in expressing our concern about the ongoing house arrest of two key opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi and called for their immediate release, noting that the free expression of political activists is a precondition of free and fair elections. 

Human rights defenders also continue to face harassment, arrest, interrogation and torture, and are frequently charged with vaguely-defined national security crimes. A preponderance of those I have been able to interview offered deeply-disturbing reports of being subjected to physical and psychological duress during interrogations with the purpose of soliciting signed and televised confessions, were not given access to legal counsel or afforded a fair trial, and in many cases were subjected to severe mental and physical torture. For example, in June 2012 an appeal court sentenced human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani to 13 years in prison for establishing the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. In April, an appeals court informed defense lawyer Mohamed Ali Dadkhah that it had upheld his 9 year sentence on charges related to his interviews with foreign media.

These are just a handful of the widespread and systematic violations that are catalogued, in detail, in my report. Each of those cases represents the story of an individual who has suffered or is suffering merely because he or she is has asserted their inalienable rights to participate in the political and social life of his/her country.

As I have done many times, I call on the Iranian authorities to halt all such human rights violations, to hold the perpetrators to account, and to offer remedy and redress to the victims. It is vital for the country's future that the ongoing crackdown against dissenting voices stop and that, instead, the State allows those voices to play their rightful part in choosing the country's next government.

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