15/09/2014 Statements

Shaheed’s Speech on Gender Perspective at the Human Rights Council, September 15

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran

This month during the Human Rights Council’s annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed explained the shared challenges for country mandate holders to advance gender equity. Specifically, the Special Rapporteur outlines current issues to be addressed as well as makes direct recommendations to better incorporate gender perspective into the work of mandate holders. To achieve this, Dr. Shaheed notes the particular importance for Member States to continue to promote a culture of cooperation and dialogue with special mandate holders, advancing the view that mandate holders can serve as an opportunity for promote equity in national laws and policies.

Please see below to learn more and read the entire speech.


Statement by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed
UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran
At the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva

I believe that all country mandate holders place great emphasis on integrating a gender perspective into our work. I also believe that this work enjoys the support of thematic mandate holders and OHCHR, which contributes to the coordination of our efforts.

Our experiences somewhat differ, but I think we face similar challenges in advancing gender equity — the foremost of which is working in the absence of State cooperation.

Country cooperation

The view that country-specific mandates represent a punitive measure has a profound impact on our ability to both adequately monitor human rights developments, and to establish productive relationships that result in substantive progress on the ground.

To help offset this lack of country access and government cooperation, many of us have resorted to the power of the Internet; cheap, easily accessible and safe communications technologies, like Skype; reports produced by news outlets in countries of concern; and government documents and statements. I am particularly keen on examining the documentation and the dialogue in the context of treaty body reviews, and the UPR, as well as the exchanges between the government and the wider UN system. Of course, these methods may improve our access to information, but they do not equate to the relationships necessary for real and sustained progress.

Weak civil society & improved information sharing

In Iran’s case, this situation is partially offset by the emigration of hundreds of Iranian journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and academics that form an international Iranian civil society, of sorts. These actors have also taken advantage of the power of communications technologies to document the situation at home, raise awareness, and to advocate for remedy. The Council’s work, including that of my mandate, has greatly benefitted from their work and support.

However, this work, and the work of country-teams in Iran, can also benefit from strengthened support for field research and improved models for information-sharing across the UN-system.

Impact of culture, religion, and tradition; and the gulf between law and practice

I have also found that challenges to gender norms can take on the role of a threatening import to culture, religion, and tradition, which results in resistance to the policy of gender mainstreaming.

Last year, I joined my colleague, Ms. Farida Shaheed, in asserting that while the tendency to view culture as an impediment to women’s rights is “both over simplistic and problematic”, “many practices and norms that discriminate against women are justified by reference to culture, religion and tradition”. In this respect, I maintained that the Iranian government’s emphasis on its perceptions of Islamic criteria to define gender roles severely limits its obligation to minimize impediments to women’s full enjoyment of civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights.

Furthermore, these principles, based on the distinctions between women and men, and the gender analysis on which they are based, have been challenged more recently by social movements for sexual rights, in particular the LGBTI movement. These movements have prompted us to be more inclusive and to recognize sexual and gender orientation as an important source of discrimination, violence, and challenges to health. Social movements for sexual rights, globally, move beyond the challenge to patriarchal norms that are the sources of discrimination and bias, to the social and ideational sphere where sexuality and gender are defined, negotiated and expressed.

As you might expect, the space for these principles is quite difficult for country-mandate holders, who continue to face intransigent views about gender roles rooted in traditional and legal frameworks that marginalize and even condone violence against those that challenge gender norms.

My experiences have also confirmed what we all know; a profound gulf between laws and practices continues to pose significant obstacles to the advancement of international initiatives meant to address the impact of gender on economic opportunities, social roles and interactions of women on-the-ground.

My mandate has borne witness to the impact of laws and policies that result in gender discrimination masquerading as responses to ‘natural’ biological differences. These laws pose grave implications for addressing the concerns and experiences of women, as well as of men, in advancing gender equity in all political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally.

Methodological challenges; principled positions and universality

Six decades after UDHR, the focus is shifting towards the operationalization of human rights. However, there is little agreement on how to best advance culturally-sensitive and gender-responsive methodologies for the promotion of universal principles of human rights. It is therefore imperative that we continue to advance human rights-based approaches grounded in the principles of universality, indivisibility, equality, participation, inclusion, and accountability, which in-turn will encourage cultural sensitivity and gender-responsiveness in our work to narrow the gap between international norms and standards, and the human rights situation in countries globally.


1. Defining gender as power relations requires us to focus systematically on the forms that discrimination and bias take, and the resulting inequalities and injustice. It is important that support for field-research and analysis on-the-ground is strengthened. It is also equally important that fieldwork outputs are shared across the UN-system, particularly with those tasked with monitoring and reporting on country situations.

2. Of course, we must continue to work to strengthen protections for human rights defenders and members of civil society against punitive measures, and we must continue to strengthen the access and interaction with those that work to develop homegrown solutions.

3. Member States must also continue to promote a culture of cooperation and dialogue with country-mandate holders by advancing the view that mandate holders can serve as an opportunity for advancing equity in national laws and policies in a holistic and incremental approach towards advancing the economic and social opportunities for everyone.

4. Finally, attention must be given to strengthening methods for the effective operationalisation of human rights, and on assessing the real impact of policies, especially those in vulnerable situations, and we must continue to insist on taking principled positions that uphold the universality of human rights.