Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held its annual Social Forum. Established in 2006 by the General Assembly, the UNHRC plays a crucial role in fortifying the promotion and safeguarding of human rights globally. 

As such, it is perplexing that the position of chair at its recent forum was held by Iran, a country governed by an oppressive theocratic dictatorship since 1979.

Indeed, the Iranian regime has gained notoriety for its human rights abuses, particularly targeting its own citizens, including women, minorities, and political opponents. 

This paradoxical situation, where a country ruled by a regime with a long and well-documented track record of violating human rights presides over a forum dedicated to advancing those rights, should be a major concern for the international community and all people who care about preserving human rights.

Iran is notorious for its human rights abuses

One of the most glaring human rights violations in Iran is the compulsory enforcement of the veils or hijabs for women. Under Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, approved in 1996, failing to wear such a garment can lead to a woman facing jail time, or a fine at the very least.

This is a blatant violation of women’s rights as it robs women of their choice and infringes on their freedom of expression.

Many women who have protested against the mandatory veiling, such as Nasrin Sotoudeh and Yasaman Aryani, have been imprisoned by the Iranian government. Furthermore, Soutoudeh’s trial was described by prominent human rights organizations as grossly unfair.

In September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a woman in her early 20s, died in the custody of Iran’s morality police who had arrested her over “improper” clothing. This tragedy sparked protests across Iran, but the authorities responded with brutal repression that included arresting hundreds of protesters and, in particular, female journalists.

The Iranian government’s oppressive stance on the rights of women must certainly render it unsuitable for chairing discussions on social issues within the UNHRC.

Child marriages and religious persecution show the regime for what it is

Iran has a very poor track record when it comes to child marriages. To start with, the regime sets the legal age of marriage for women at just 13 years old. From March 2021 to March 2022, more than 30,000 marriages were registered in Iran involving girls aged 10 to 14.

Moreover, Iran also has a dismal record when it comes to religious freedom.

According to Amnesty International, since July 31, 2022, agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence have raided and confiscated dozens of Baha’i properties and arrested at least 30 members of the Baha’i community on account of their faith in various cities across the country. 

Iranian authorities have subjected many more to interrogations and/or forced them to wear electronic ankle bracelets.

Even experts from the United Nations itself are alarmed by the Iranian regime’s violations of religious rights, as they observed severe persecution of Baha’is and Christians. They also reported that over 90 Baha’i students were barred from enrolling in Iranian universities.

Another report by the United Nations highlighted the increase in executions being carried out by the Iranian government. Executions have increased by 30 percent, and 419 people were put to death in just the first seven months of 2023.

Iran also has numerous other oppressive laws, such as the death penalty for homosexuals. Moreover, the Iranian penal code approves of primitive and inhumane methods of punishment including stoning, amputations and crucifixion.

The regime limits free speech, suppresses protests, forces women to conform to specific dress codes, limits their participation in public life, and sentences people to death for consensual same-sex activity.

It is abundantly clear that Iran’s oppressive policies, in clear violation of human rights and religious freedom, stand in stark contrast to the values of inclusivity and equal rights of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The cornerstone of human rights is the protection and promotion of freedom of expression. However, Iran’s track record reveals severe restrictions on free speech, censorship, and even imprisonment of journalists and ordinary citizens for expressing dissenting views. 

A government that quashes open discourse and stifles diverse perspectives is ill-suited to lead discussions on social issues and human rights on the international stage.

Furthermore a dictatorial government, like Iran’s, by its very nature, operates in contradiction to the principles and values that underpin the UNHRC’s mission. 

Iran’s governance model, characterized by limited political freedoms, suppression of dissent, and restricted civic participation, is inherently incompatible with the democratic ideals that should guide discussions on human rights issues within the Council.

The appointment of Iran to a leadership position within the UNHRC sends a disconcerting message for all who care about protecting human rights. For the Council to serve its purpose, it must be led by nations that actively embody the democratic values, transparency, and accountability that underpin the global commitment to human rights.

In conclusion, the decision to have Iran chair the UNHRC Social Forum contradicts the values and purpose of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

The international community must be vigilant in ensuring that leadership roles within critical forums like the UNHRC are entrusted only to those genuinely committed to upholding the democratic ideals and human rights principles that are at the core of the Council’s mission.

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