On Thursday 24 November 2022, the Human Rights Council convened a special session to address ‘the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially with respect to women and children’.
The Special Session was requested via an official letter dated 11 November signed by H.E. Katharina Stasch, Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva, and H.E. Einar Gunnarsson Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva. This letter, addressed to H.E. Federico Villegas, President of the Human Rights Council, was officially supported by 17 Member States of the Council, and 34 Observer States.
The draft resolution (A/HRC/S.35/L.1) presented and discussed at the special session sought to establish an independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate alleged human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran, collect and analyse evidence and engage with stakeholders to establish the facts around such allegations.
On 26 October 2022, a group of human rights experts, including several Special Procedures mandate-holders, issued a statement condemning the ‘killings and the crackdown by security forces in Iran on protesters following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini’ in September 2022, while in custody of Iranian security forces. The experts conveyed their deep concerns about the ‘excessive and lethal force’ against demonstrators in the protests that ensued Ms Amini’s death, including sexual violence against women and girls, intimidation and harassment against protesters, and ‘systemic impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations.’ In light of the seriousness of the situation, the experts called on the Human Rights Council ‘to urgently take necessary action to address the situation, including the organisation of a Special Session’ and expressed their support for ‘the establishment of an international investigative mechanism, to ensure accountability in Iran and to end the persistent impunity for grave human rights violations.’
In order for a special session to be convened, in conformity with operative paragraph 10 of the General Assembly resolution 60/251, the support of one-third of the membership of the Council (i.e., 16 Member States or more) is required. Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
Webcasts of statements delivered during the Session can be found here.
The Council’s action on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran
From the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006 to 2022, twelve resolutions have been adopted by the Council under Agenda Item 4 on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first resolution on the Islamic Republic of Iran was adopted at the 16th Regular Session in March 2011 with the most recent one being adopted at the 49th session in March 2022.
Iceland, North Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova, Sweden, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America have traditionally been the main sponsors of the resolutions. The twelve resolutions have had similar vote results with an average of 20 votes in favour, 9 votes against and 16 abstentions. The 2013 resolution received the most favourable vote result (26-2-17), while the least favourable result was obtained in 2022 (19-12-16). European countries have systematically voted in favour of the resolutions, while States voting against the resolutions have also largely remained the same, i.e. Bolivia (Plurinational State of), China, Cuba, India, Pakistan, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of). African and Middle-Eastern member States have tended to systematically abstain from the vote.
On 24 March 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution re-establishing the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose previous mandate had been terminated in 2002. The Special Rapporteur is mandated by the Human Rights Council to monitor and investigate alleged human rights violations, undertake country visits and engage with relevant stakeholders, submit reports to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and publicly engage in issues of concern.
As of November 2022, Special Rapporteurs had issued nine reports on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the latest of which, submitted to the General Assembly’s 77th session in September 2022, warned of the prevalence of arbitrary deprivation of life in the country and highlighted an increase in executions and use of lethal force with impunity. The Special Rapporteur also remarked the denial of access to the country –since the re-establishment of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in 2011, no country visits to Iran have taken place, and the Special Rapporteur has instead visited other countries, to engage with stakeholders, including Iranians.
General view of room XX of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo by Pierre Albouy
The Council and other UN mechanisms’ action on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran
Other Special Procedures mandate-holders have also requested to visit Iran as part of their mandate, however, they have often been denied access to the country by Iranian authorities despite Iran having issued a standing invitation to Special Procedures in 2002. In May 2022, the Special Rapporteur on the impact of unilateral coercive measures completed a visit to Iran, the first visit by a Special Rapporteur to the country in seventeen years. In her report after the visit, the Special Rapporteur invited the Government ‘to continue engaging with all relevant stakeholders, including with OHCHR and other UN entities and programmes, and with international human rights mechanisms, such as the Special Procedures, by extending invitations for official country visits.’
In terms of other UN mechanisms, Iran has participated in three cycles of the Universal Periodic Review (i.e., 2010, 2014, and 2019), through which it has received 808 recommendations, of which 132 concerned women and girls and 121 involved the rights of children. It has received 242 recommendations from Treaty Bodies, the most recent of which took place in the context of the 2016 concluding observations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child. ‘Women and girls’ and ‘children’ constitute the two main groups of rights-holders targeted out of all Special Procedures, Treaty Bodies and UPR recommendations, with 457 out of 1,099 recommendations focused on these groups.
When it comes to the General Assembly, the situation of human rights falls under the realm of the Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural issues. In November 2022, the Third Committee approved a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Iran expressing its alarm at the high rates of the death penalty and urging Iran to cease excessive force against protestors. The resolution, co-sponsored by a group of 41 countries, mostly European as well as Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and the United States, was adopted with a recorded vote of 79 in favour to 28 against, with 68 abstentions.
At a press conference on the UN Security Council’s programme of work for November 2022, the President of the Human Rights Council stated that ‘Iran as a country is not in the Council’s file except in matters concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (the so-called ‘Iran nuclear deal’). Despite the situation not being on the Council’s agenda, on 2 November 2022, members of the Security Council held an ‘Arria formula’ meeting, co-hosted by the United States and Albania to discuss the repression of women and girls and members of religious and ethnic minorities and the use of force against peaceful protestors in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The meeting aimed to identify opportunities for ‘credible, international, independent investigations into the Iranian government’s human rights violations and abuses’. Iranian representatives condemned the meeting and rejected it as a politicisation of ‘human rights to pursue a political agenda’.
The 35th Special Session
After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Federico Villegas, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk; Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and Ms. Khadijeh Karim, Deputy of the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
H.E. Mr Volker Türk stated that the OHCHR has received multiple communications from the authorities of Iran on the events in the country, ‘including domestic investigations into Ms. Amini’s death’ but expressed concerns that ‘the investigations have failed to meet international standards of impartiality, independence and transparency.’
Mr. Türk highlighted his deep concerns for ‘the alarming increase in the number of executions’, remarking particularly the 85 individuals currently on death row who were children at the time of committing alleged offences. He further urged the Government of Iran to implement key recommendations stemming from the Universal Periodic Review in relation to the rights to a fair trial, access to justice, freedom from torture, and rights of detainees.
The High Commissioner underscored the outstanding challenge Iran faces in terms of ‘persistent impunity for human rights violations’ that further fuel ‘discontent and distrust’. He stressed the importance of accountability for the ‘pursuit of justice for human rights violations’, and called for ‘independent, impartial and transparent investigative processes into alleged violations of human rights, consistent with international standards.’
The High Commissioner ended his statement by calling on authorities to immediately ‘stop using violence and harassment against peaceful protesters’, ‘to release all those arrested for peacefully protesting’, and to ‘impose a moratorium on the death penalty’, thereby implementing ‘meaningful reforms’ that constitute ‘the way forward.’
Mr. Volker Türk, High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the 35th special session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UN Web TV
Mr. Javaid Rehman
Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran remarked Iranian authorities’ lack of ‘genuine willingness to engage in any discussion with demonstrators’, instead instructing security forces ‘to violently repress people at any cost to human life.’ Mr. Rehman decried the use of the death penalty ‘as a tool to squash protests’ and called for the immediate release of all peaceful protesters.
Mr. Rehman further remarked on the reprisals against human rights defenders both inside and outside the country, with reports of ‘smear campaigns, threats, surveillance, arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and ill-treatment in detention, including sexual abuse.’ He reiterated the conclusions made in his report to the Council at its 49th session, in which he underlined the ‘complete absence of accountability’. Once again, Mr. Rehman denounced the ‘structural impunity that prevails in Iran for serious human rights violations’ meriting ‘a forceful response from the international community.’ To that end, the Special Rapporteur called on the Council ‘to establish an international independent investigative mechanism in the events leading up and since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini.’
Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, speaks at the 35th special session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UN Web TV
Ms. Khadijeh Karim
Speaking on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the country concerned, Ms. Khadijeh Karim, Deputy of the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressed the country’s deep regret ‘that the Human Rights Council is abused once again by some arrogant States to antagonise a sovereign UN Member State that is fully committed to its obligation to promote and protect the human rights.’
Ms. Karim called the convening of the session a ‘politically motivated move’ and an ‘orchestrated ploy for ulterior motives which would lead nowhere, but to drive the Human Rights Council from its genuine mandate.’ She denounced the impact of unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and European countries, and denied these States’ ‘moral credibility to preach others on human rights.’
Ms. Karim stated that the Iranian Government had taken ‘necessary measures’ after the death of Mahsa Amini, including an independent parliamentary and forensic investigation that was undermined by ‘the biased and hasty reaction of a number of western authorities and their interventions in internal affairs of Iran’ that led to violent riots.
She pointed at ‘foreign interventions, violence, terrorist activities as well as media provocations’ sparked by disinformation and resulting in ‘the death of more than tens of law enforcement officers, injury of thousands of them, and destruction of thousands of public and private properties.’
Ms. Karim expressed that the Iranian Government prevails despite ‘foreign interventions and attempts to destabilise the country’, and cited a march that took place on 4 November 2022 as proof of the support for the Government.
She ended her statement by pointing out several statistics to show Iran’s strides towards the empowerment of women in the fields of education, health, industry, economy, sports, and politics –which, she claimed, demonstrates the agency of Iranian women ‘to decide on their own, without the need for the interference of external forces.’
During the special session, 21 member States, 25 observer States, and 17 international and civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ms. Khadijeh Karim, Deputy of the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, speaks at the 35th special session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UN Web TV
Germany, as one of the main co-sponsors of the resolution, intervened to explain the rationale behind the draft text, namely to hold to account those responsible for human rights violations through the establishment of an ‘independent and impartial UN mechanism’ to investigate them. Ms. Annalena Baerbock, the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, remarked that the violation of human rights is a violation of ‘the very values of the United Nations’ as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and highlighted that ‘what these rights are is not up to anyone’s interpretation.’
Iceland, the other State that had requested the Council to hold a special session, added that ‘the Human Rights Council must respond to the grave human rights violations by the Iranian authorities.’
Among other States that intervened to support the draft resolution, Czechia, on behalf of the European Union, welcomed the convening of the session and called the ‘widespread and disproportionate use of force by the security forces against nonviolent protesters, incarceration of children at “psychological centers” and “preventative” detentions of civil society activists is unjustifiable and unacceptable.’ The statement called on Iran to ‘stop the violent crackdown on protests and ensure access to information, including unrestricted internet access’ and to ‘uphold its international obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.’
The Islamic Republic of Iran, as the country concerned, intervened again to express its rejection of the resolution and the ‘misuse of human rights’ as a tool to achieve the goals of certain States. The Iranian representative called the draft resolution ‘biased in nature and substance’ and expressed that any mandate was set for failure, as Iran would not recognise it.
H.E. Ms. Foroozandeh Vadiati, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Helsinki, speaks at the 35th special session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UN Web TV
Cuba took the floor to express its rejection of special sessions that point at specific countries and punitive debates, resolutions and mandates imposed against the will of the States concerned. The Cuban delegate rejected the session as an example of ‘discriminatory and politicised practices and double standards imposed on the Council by Western States and their allies.’
Along the same lines, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela took the floor to express its ‘deep concern in the face of the growing selectivity and double standards that have become the hallmark of the convening of the special sessions of the Council against countries of the global South.’ This practice, the Venezuelan delegate expressed, paves the way for the ‘instrumentalisation of the noble cause of human rights for the sake of other types of interests, in particular political ones.’
China intervened to reiterate its calls for dialogue and cooperation as the ‘right approach to promote and protect human rights’, thereby avoiding ‘turning human rights into a tool to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs.’ China further took note of the ‘efforts taken by Iran to address this issue’ and expressed confidence in their ability to address the situation. The delegate from China reiterated that the Council ‘should be guided by principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and mass activity and constructive international cooperation and dialogue’ and called for ‘national or regional specificities to be taken into account […] as well as different historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.’ In light of China’s views that the draft resolution ‘is not universal, impartial, objective, non-selective or non-politicised, nor does it allow for problem-solving through dialogue and cooperation’, it announced the introduction of an oral amendment to remove the creation of a fact-finding mission.
Mr. Jiang Yingfeng speaks on behalf of the People’s Republic of China to introduce an oral amendment to draft resolution A/HRC/S-35/L.1 Deteriorating situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UN Web TV
The amendment introduced by China was met with rejection from the resolution’s main sponsors: Germany claimed that the operative paragraph establishing the fact-finding mission was the ‘heart of the resolution’; the United Kingdom stated that it denied the rights ‘of the survivors, the families, the victims’; the United States reiterated the creation of a fact-finding mission as a necessary step to establish accountability.
Civil society also had the opportunity to take the floor. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center expressed its support for the resolution, stating that ‘the Iranian people are seeking justice’ and that the ‘Iranian government has repeatedly ignored resolutions by the UN bodies urging Iran to uphold its international human rights obligations.’ Likewise, the Baháʼí International Community, a non-governmental organisation representing the members of the Baháʼí Faith, joined in supporting the text, claiming that ‘an independent fact-finding mission for the situation in Iran will reinforce this Council’s urgent call – that Iran’s government must abide by its human rights commitments.’ Article 19, an organisation focused on freedom of expression, added its support for the establishment of the fact-finding mission in light of the authorities’ continuing ‘grave violations and international crimes’, ‘emboldened by historical and systemic impunity.’
Voting and adoption of texts
The oral amendment introduced by China was rejected by vote, with 6 in favour, 25 against and 15 abstentions.
Subsequently, draft resolution A/HRC/S-35/1 was adopted as orally revised with 25 voting in favour, 6 against, and 16 abstaining.
In favour: (25): Argentina, Benin, Czechia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Germany, Honduras, Japan, Libya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Somalia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States.
Against (6): Armenia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, and Venezuela.
Abstentions (16): Bolivia; Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Namibia, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan.
With the adoption of resolution S-35/L.1, the Council decided to establish an independent international fact-finding mission, until the end of the 55th session of the Human Rights Council, with the mandate to:
- thoroughly and independently investigate alleged human rights violations in Iran related to the protests that began on 16 September 2022, with respect to women and children;
- establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations;
- collect, consolidate and analyse evidence of such violations and preserve evidence, including in view of cooperation in any legal proceedings; and to
- engage with all relevant stakeholders, including the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, relevant United Nations entities, human rights organisations, and civil society.
With the adoption of resolution S-35/1, the Council also requests the fact-finding mission to present an oral update during an interactive dialogue at the Council’s fifty-third session, which will be held in June 2023, and to present to the Council a comprehensive report on its findings during an interactive dialogue at its fifth-fifth session.
Webcasts of those statements can be found here.
The full text of HRC resolution S35/L.1 can be read here.
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