Iran: UN called to act as crackdown intensifies

People take part in a demonstration in Lisbon in support of protesters in Iran. (Keystone/EPA/Rodrigo Antunes)

As the UN Human Rights Council prepares to meet for an urgent session to address the brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran, Iranian activists and NGO leaders are calling for the international community to step up its response and show that the world is watching.

Human rights organisations and activists have called on the United Nations to launch an urgent investigation into the situation in Iran as the Human Rights Council prepares to meet for a special session on Thursday.

The UN rights body will convene in Geneva for a special session to address the deteriorating situation in Iran amid the increasingly harsh crackdown on anti-government protests which erupted two months ago.

It comes as Iran’s repression of anti-regime protests appears to have entered a dangerous new phase, with reports of authorities deploying heavy weapons and killing dozens of protesters in predominantly Kurdish regions in the past week, including children. There have also been reports of sexual violence used against protesters by Iranian security forces in detention centres.

The UN session has been welcomed by rights groups and activists who hope that countries will agree to launch an investigation into human rights violations in Iran, where more than 300 people have been killed since the protests began following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly.

“The session is incredibly significant, especially if there is the creation of an independent investigative mechanism with the ability to go into Iran,” Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the Iranian-born founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), told Geneva Solutions.

“It is important to have a mission on the ground and determine the level of violence and the forms of abuse, the rape and torture that have been going on and put a stop to them. It’s saying that the world is watching and we care.”

Read also: Iran situation ‘critical’ as more than 300 killed, says UN rights office

As many as 14,000 people have been arrested across the country since the protests began, including journalists, activists, lawyers and teachers.

At least six people connected with the protests have been sentenced to death on charges of “moharebeh” (enmity against God) and “efsad fil-arz” (corruption on Earth), according to the UN. Amnesty International said last week that at least 21 people have been charged with crimes that could result in the death penalty.

Reports have also emerged in recent days of protesters being subjected to sexual violence and assault in Iran’s detention centres since the start of the unrest. The reports by CNN, which included men, women and children, have been condemned as “unspeakable acts of violence” by the US Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley.

Anderlini said it was vital the international community presented a united response in holding the Iranian government accountable for violence against protesters.

“A collective international effort is really critical,” she said. “So it's not just the West but globally, and using the strengths of the UN as an institution to call for investigations, the release of prisoners, the end of sexual assault and violence against protesters and minorities.”

‘Disappointing’ response

Some organisations and activists have criticised the response of the international community to the protests so far, with both countries and international organisations coming under fire for their reaction to the situation in Iran.

While countries such as the US, Canada and the European Union have introduced fresh sanctions against Iran in the wake of the protests, Switzerland has been accused of turning a blind eye to the crackdown following the government’s decision not to adopt new sanctions in response.

Demonstrations against the government’s inaction have been held across the country following the decision, which authorities defended as taking “into account all of Switzerland’s domestic and foreign policy interests, including Switzerland’s good offices in Iran.”

“Switzerland has said that they will not sanction Iran because of economic and political interests, so what happens with human rights?” Yasmine Motarjemi, an Iranian-born human rights advocate and whistleblower, told Geneva Solutions. “It’s hypocrisy. It says that they care about human rights on paper, but not in reality.”

Motarjemi, who is part of the Switzerland-based movement Solidarite Iraniens, also accused some international organisations in Geneva of staying largely silent in the two months since the unrest began.

“I would have expected that [international organisations] would sound the alarm and make declarations to mobilise the world and show the Iranian population that they have the support of the international community,” she said. “That would have been good a month ago, but now we need much more.”

UNICEF has been one of a number of organisations to face criticism for what some activists have denounced as a muted response to the situation in Iran, particularly the deaths of children during the protests.

The UN said on Tuesday that more than 40 children had been killed since the protests began, although other organisations have said the death toll has exceeded 60 children, including some as young as eight. That figure includes 10-year-old Kian Pirfalak who was killed when security forces reportedly opened fire on his family car in the western city of Izeh last week.

A statement issued by UNICEF to mark World Children’s Day on Monday referenced the situation in Iran, saying it was deeply concerned by the reports of children being killed and injured and calling for an end to the “terrifying” situation.

However, some have criticised the lack of a stronger statement from the organisation’s leadership given the number of children who have been killed and injured in the crackdown.

“I find it really heartbreaking and disappointing that a UN agency like UNICEF that has so much credibility and legitimacy would feel either cowed or somehow insecure about issuing a strong statement in support of the children who've been killed,” said Anderlini. “The silence is louder than any statement that could be made and it damages UNICEF’s credibility.”

A spokesperson for UNICEF told Geneva Solutions the organisation “has spoken out and will continue to speak out about the situation in Iran.”

“UNICEF is deeply concerned by reports of children being killed, injured, and detained in the recent protests and calls for the protection of children in all situations,” said James Elder. “Violence against children is never acceptable.”

Elder said the organisation had raised the obligation to ensure that children’s rights are respected and their lives and welfare are protected directly with Iranian authorities.

“We will continue to raise the issues until all Iran’s children are safe and able to enjoy their rights, including their right to freedom of expression,” he said. “We echo the call by the Secretary General for security forces to ‘refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force.’ Children and adolescents are the future of Iran. As such, their needs, aspirations, wellbeing and protection must be a priority.”

An uncertain future

As member states prepare to meet at the Human Rights Council, activists are warning that urgent action is needed as Iranian authorities continue to kill and detain protesters with apparent impunity.

“If the international community does not react there will be more deaths, which will be shameful,” said Motarjemi. “If there’s no action, it will keep getting worse. The longer the international community waits before reacting, the more people will be killed.”

But while countries consider their words and actions at the UN in Geneva, the people of Iran show no signs of backing down despite the heightened threats they face to their lives and freedom.

“It's extraordinary that they’re still out there. It’s extraordinary to hear what they have to say,” said Anderlini. “It is extraordinary to see their courage knowing the violence that is being meted out.”

“This is not the first women-led revolution in history,” she continued. “We have seen women in Sudan and Yemen lead their change. But this is the first time we see the clarion call of women’s fights and feminism uniting people across race and gender and geography and class and ethnicity across the country in the call for 'women, life, freedom.'

“That's an extraordinary moment in our collective history, and I'm incredibly proud of the young women and the young men who are leading this charge and that it's coming out of Iran. My heart goes out to them and I wish that they could all be safe and well and see the future that they're fighting for, which is a peaceful future. We're all united around what we hope for. The really difficult part is how that happens.”