Applause broke out at the Human Rights Council on Thursday after members voted in favour of launching an investigation into the deadly crackdown on mass protests taking place across Iran.
The resolution, requested by Germany and Iceland, was backed by 25 countries and allows the UN’s top rights body to create an independent fact-finding mission to probe alleged rights violations, particularly against women and children.
Sixteen countries abstained while six – including China, Venezuela, Cuba, Pakistan, Eritrea and Armenia – voted against.
Thursday’s special session in Geneva marks the latest effort by the international community to pressurise Iran over its increasingly harsh response to the protests, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody on 16 September for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly.
Since then, more than 300 people have been killed, including more than 40 children, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) while conceding this is likely to be a “conservative” estimate.
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The organisation Iran Human Rights has estimated the death toll to be more than 378 people. Around 14,000 people have so far been arrested in the context of the protests, of which at least 21 face the death penalty.
In a forceful and emotive plea at the beginning of the special session, Volker Turk, the UN’s human rights chief, urged Iranian authorities to “immediately to stop using violence and harassment” and release all those arrested for peacefully protesting.
“It pains me to see what is happening in the country,” he said. “We have seen waves of protests over the past years, calling for justice, equality, dignity and respect for human rights. They have been met with violence and repression. The unnecessary and disproportionate use of force must come to an end.”
However, a defiant Iran, represented by its vice president for women and family affairs Khadijeh Karimi, said it remained “fully committed” to protecting human rights and accused western countries, led by Germany, of being politically motivated.
“Reducing the common cause of human rights to a tool for political purposes of specific groups of western countries, is appalling and disgraceful,” Karimi said.
She continued that following the “unfortunate decease” of Mahsa Amini, “necessary measures were undertaken”, including the creation of an independent parliamentary investigation commission. She accused western authorities of turning peaceful assemblies into riots by reacting hastily and before their probe had concluded.
Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, highlighted Iran’s “continuing refusal” to give the UN’s special rapporteur, Javaid Rehman, access to the country.
“On many occasions, we have called upon Iran to respect these rights, to stop the violent crackdown on protesters, the bloodshed, the arbitrary killing, the mass arrests, the death penalties. The only answer we received was more violence, more deaths,” she continued.
Speaking to journalists during a break in session on Thursday, Turk said that since taking office in September, he had also offered to visit Iran and to establish a stronger presence in the country. “So far I haven’t received a response.”
He said his office had received multiple documents from Iranian authorities regarding alleged rights violations with so far, unsatisfactory responses. “As a result, I’ve called for an independent, impartial investigative process to ensure that indeed, we find out what actually happened.”
In an unexpected move halfway through the session, China requested an amendment to the resolution, asking that the article calling for an independent fact-finding mission be removed – although this was voted down before the final vote on the resolution.
Human Rights Council president Federico Villegas is now tasked over the coming weeks with appointing members to lead the fact-finding mission. It is expected to give an oral update at the council’s 53rd session in June next year.
The council called on Iran to “cooperate fully” with the mission and “grant unhindered access to the country without any delay.”
Rights group welcomed the outcome of the vote, with Human Rights Watch calling it a “welcome step towards accountability” for the deadly crackdown on protesters.
“States should make sure the mission is well resourced to do the technical research and sufficient outreach to hundreds of victims' families across Iran,” Lucy McKernan, acting Geneva director at Human Rights Watch said.