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Lies in the Face of the World: A Reflection on the UPR of Iran

Lies in the Face of the World: A Reflection on the UPR of Iran

Mohammad Nayyeri *

Translated from Persian

On October 31, 2014, the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Iran took place at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UPR is a mechanism under which the Human Rights Council (HRC) reviews the human rights records of all UN member states on a rotating basis every four-and-a-half years. At the heart of the review is a three-hour interactive dialogue in which members of the HRC and observer states are able participate by putting their names on a list and making statements which can include questions or recommendations to the member state being reviewed. Iranian civil society and human rights experts believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has implemented very few if any of the changes promised during the previous cycle in 2010. On various occasions, they called for other states to actively engage in the second cycle UPR and hold the IRI accountable. They also stressed that the IRI had misused the UPR as an excuse to refuse cooperation with other UN special mechanisms, including the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, and that the second cycle UPR was the appropriate time to hold them accountable for its distressing human rights record.

On the other hand, with lessons learned from the previous cycle and with a similar strategy in mind, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) relied heavily on their allies and friendly states such as Cuba, China, Syria, and Russia–none of which are known for their respect for human rights–to praise and congratulate the IRI for its improvement of human rights in Iran. Considering the very short slot given to each state to make their statement (one minute and five seconds), it was notable that the friendly states took a good portion of their time to welcome the Iranian delegation and its head, Mr. Larijani.

Using standard diplomatic phrases such as “continue your efforts” and “continue to improve…”, the friendly states praised the IRI for their achievements in very general terms and avoided all sensitive issues. Among such alleged achievements which were mentioned repeatedly, not necessarily by friendly states, were:

  • The establishment of the Office of Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs
  • The appointment of President’s Special Assistant for Ethnic Groups and Religious Minorities
  • The adoption of the Charter of Citizens’ Rights

The problem was that most if not all of these so-called strides were not real changes, but mainly window-dressing with little impact on the human rights situation. For instance, the Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs used to be an Advisor to the President who was already given a position equal to that of a Vice-President, including a seat in Cabinet meetings. Nothing significant in the duties and agenda of this office has changed other than its title. In addition, the newly appointed President’s Special Assistant for Ethnic Groups and Religious Minorities, a former Minister of Intelligence and Head of Military Courts does not  have a record that indicates that he will have a constructive impact on such discrimination, and at any rate his non-constitutional position does not give him the authority to do so. For instance, he recently expressed that he would only deal with religious minorities recognized in the Constitution (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians), thus excluding Sufis, Bahá’is, adherents of the Yarsan faith and others.

The adoption of the Charter of Citizens’ Rights is even more cosmetic as it can be described as a non-binding compilation of already-existing laws and regulations, which primarily repeat all the old discriminatory or unenforced rules. All of the provisions of the Charter already existed, inter alia, in the IRI Constitution and the Law of the Protection of Legitimate Freedoms and Citizenship Rights (2004). In short, these are not changes for which the IRI deserved congratulations. It must be stressed that it was not just out of bad taste that the friendly states found these excuses to praise the IRI; they were probably unable to find any better examples.

On the other hand, the IRI faced criticism of its laws and practices by many states, and received recommendations in a wide range of areas including:

  • Public executions, the imposition of the death penalty for offences that do not meet the standard of “the most serious crimes” as stipulated in the ICCPR, and the high rate of executions generally;
  • Corporal punishment and stoning to death in the new Penal Code;
  • Juvenile execution and imposition of death penalty for offences committed by persons under 18;
  • The execution of Reyhaneh Jabbari;
  • Torture and mistreatment of detainees;
  • Freedom of expression and assembly, censorship of the Internet;
  • Fair trial standards, due process of law, and the right to legal counsel in all stages of the legal process including pre-trial investigations;
  • The situation of lawyers and the independence of the judiciary and the Bar association;
  • Cooperation with UN special mechanisms including thematic Rapporteurs and the Special Rapporteur on Iran;
  • Gender inequality and discrimination against women;
  • The minimum age of marriage and the high number of marriages of girls under 15;
  • The recent acid attacks against women;
  • Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities;
  • The harassment and persecution of human rights defenders and journalists and the situation of political prisoners;
  • The situation of LGBT community and the criminalization of homosexual acts;
  • The ratification of CAT, CEDAW, and the Rome Statute and the removal of its reservations to the CRC

Some nations made especially strong recommendations, including Austria, the UK, the Czech Republic, and Chile. Moreover some countries such as Burkina Faso and Lithuania made relatively forceful statements despite having small missions and limited resources in Geneva. There were, however, some cases of failure worth mentioning. The Netherlands, for instance, while making good recommendations on death penalty, juvenile execution, and freedom of expression, also recommended that the rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities be upheld “as guaranteed by the Iranian Constitution.” This literally negated the recommendation as far as religious and sexual minorities are concerned. Indeed the Iranian Constitution, which emphasizes Islamic Shari’a, does not provide freedom and equality for religious and sexual minorities.

Norway almost fell into the same trap despite its powerful statement when it urged the IRI to guarantee the rights and freedoms of citizens “awarded by the Iranian Constitution.” In fact, more than all the many limitations in lesser laws, the “compliance with Islamic Shari’a” catchall clause in Article 4 of the IRI Constitution has restricted all the rights and freedoms ensured elsewhere in the Constitution to a great degree and has instead turned them into conditional privileges that can be denied if seen by the authorities as not in compliance with Shari’a. A better formulation would have been to recommend that the IRI comply with international human rights instruments that guarantee the same rights and freedoms.

Another notable state was New Zealand, which made a general and almost empty statement aside from the exception of several words on women and minorities and simply urged the IRI to comply with their human rights obligations. It was also noteworthy that they used less than 50 seconds of their time, which in itself shows that they were not willing to intervene at full capacity. This reticence to take political risks would have been more understandable if the UPR of Iran was taking place before the UNGA’s voting for the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council, as New Zealand was a candidate for membership. However, Iran’s UPR occurred two weeks after New Zealand won its seat. In this light, the cautious and passive intervention of New Zealand did not satisfy the expectations of Iranian civil society.

On the other hand, the Iranian delegation’s statements were predominantly in the line with the IRI’s national report. More importantly, Mr. Larijani–who was less angry and more affable this time–remained adamant that the IRI was adhering to its human rights obligations and continued his seemingly everlasting orchestration of attacks on the principle of the universality of human rights and invented the self-contradictory phenomenon of “multi-cultural universalism.” In turn, he repeated previous accusations that critical nations had fallen prey to “mistaken presumptions” and “logical fallacies.” He strongly criticized “The West” for imposing its lifestyle on “The Rest” and misusing human rights as a vehicle to attack non-western lifestyles. Referring to the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was executed a few days prior to the event, he went even further and defended the rule of qisas (retribution in cases of murder or intentional bodily harm) and invited the West to look into it and realize that “good things” (like qisas, presumably) do not only emerge from the West.

Based on the responses of the Iranian delegation as well as their national report, it is reasonable to say that the IRI does not attend the UPR to respond to criticisms in good faith, but rather to play a game and close the file for the four-and-a-half years until its next UPR. At the same time, it cannot be denied that they take such matters seriously enough and try to use it to their own advantage for instance to repair their international image. However as with every other occasion when the human rights situation in Iran is under scrutiny their approach to the previous and current UPR has been to try to make mockery of the international community and divert attention from its poor record on human rights. By analyzing the statements and responses of the IRI delegation in the current and previous cycles of the UPR, some of the IRI delegation’s techniques for escaping from having to respond to criticism can be distinguished:

Silence and denial: The IRI often intentionally ignores some criticisms and denies many obvious cases of violations of human rights like torture, extrajudicial arrests, forced marriage, discrimination against women, and discrimination against Bahá’is.

Logical fallacies: Another technique which has been used frequently by the IRI to avoid answering criticism is the use of logical fallacies to divert the debate and divert attention to instances outside the question. The following example may help explain the deployment of this distraction technique by the IRI delegation. In his final remarks, Mr. Larijani addressed the criticisms on the minimum age for marriage and the high number of early marriages under 15 which had been raised by a number of states. However, instead of speaking about the minimum age for marriage he referred to “the [average] age of marriage”, which he claimed to be between 25 and 30 years of age. He then diverted the debate even further and stated that he had recommended to his own daughters to marry around 20 years of age.

Telling part of the truth: In order to show progress, the IRI frequently highlights one part or aspect of an issue and draws incomplete conclusions. It only speaks about those parts of the issues that it assumes show its commitment to human rights. For example, when a member of the IRI delegation, was proudly speaking about there being public hearings for political crimes (Article 168 of the IRI Constitution), he knowingly refrained from stating that since “political crimes” have never been defined in Iran this article of the Constitution has never been enforced for political crimes.

Language games: The IRI commonly gives words meanings that differ from those intended in international instruments and shows a tendency to change the internationally-established definitions of words. In fact, its use of words usually takes the form of a game in which the delegates knowingly use specific words for which they have their own interpretations. They use this language game as a technique to mislead the international community and to obscure the reality. The two examples below from this UPR session illustrate this tactic:

(a)    Religious minorities: When the IRI delegation talked about “religious minorities,” or “non-Muslims” or “all faiths and religions”, in fact it was only referred to the three recognized religions in the Constitution: Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. According to international human rights norms, the term “religious minorities” covers all religions and beliefs held by minority groups in the Iranian population. However, the IRI has constitutionally limited the term “religious minorities” to the three above-mentioned religions and does not recognize the believers of other religions such as Bahá’ism, Sufism, Yarsan, etc. as religious minorities.

(b) Female judges: in his remarks, an IRI delegate mentioned “women judges” in order to show that there is no discrimination against women, including for employment in judicial positions. So-called female “judges”, however, are not decision-making judges. There are currently more than 1000 branches of Courts in Tehran and there is no single branch in which its presiding judge is a woman. The Process of Selecting Judges Act (1981) stipulated that judges should be chosen from among men and that women can be employed in counseling positions. This was because a woman cannot function as a sitting judge who issues verdicts according to Islamic law. If the reasons underlying this position were freely discussed it would expose the roots of discrimination against women in Islamic jurisprudence.


As it became clear once again in this UPR, the IRI does not believe in the aims behind human rights norms. Rather than implementing the spirit of human rights into its laws and practices, it only tries to escape from criticism and attacks the very foundations of human rights principles. What is clear now is that the IRI does not make any changes only on the basis of its international obligations. At the same time, it does its best to link all irrelevant and cosmetic changes to the performance of its obligations and its commitment to human rights. However most of these changes, even if real, lack depth and only serve as window-dressing.

The hands of the IRI delegation are full of tricks and games and it has no fear of lying in front of the whole world. They showed no commitment to truthfulness and did not come to the UPR with the intention of improving human rights in Iran. It is undeniable that the laws and practices of the IRI are in obvious contradiction with international human rights instruments, which the IRI delegation unsuccessfully tried to sweep under the carpet or, failing that, to justify under the cover of cultural diversity.

As far as other states are concerned, in comparison to the previous cycle the interventions made were more effective and complementary to one another. The recommendations were more meaningful, specific, and clear, and some states showed real care and knowledge about their statements and recommendations; this is partly the result of the relentless efforts of many civil society and human rights NGOs. It is also worth mentioning that although it was expected that the emphasis on human rights would suffer under the shadow of the nuclear issue and the negotiations with the IRI as well as the ongoing crisis in Iraq, these developments do not appear to have a significant effect on the UPR process.

This UPR was more successful than the previous one despite a number of distractions and ever-increasing restrictions on time and resources. That being said, it is still uncertain to what extent the UPR can have a meaningful impact on the situation of human rights in Iran. Civil society can only hope that the Iranian government will institute real changes in the coming years. Up to this point, the focus has been on the questions and recommendations of other member states. Now the focus must be shifted towards the IRI’s implementation of the international community’s recommendations.

[*] Iranian lawyer and Legal Advisor to Iran Human Rights Documentation Center

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