Amid Turmoil at Home, Iran Eyes Seat on Top UN Human Rights Body

By Patrick Goodenough | February 11, 2010 | 8:29 PM EST

The U.N. Human Rights Council met in Geneva from September 14 to October 2, with the U.S. for the first time taking part as a member. (U.N. Photo by Jess Hoffman)

( – As Iran’s continuing crackdown on opposition supporters roils the country and makes headlines around the world, the Islamic republic is seeking support for a fresh bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Iran last stood for election to the world body’s top human rights institution four years ago, but fared dismally. In this year’s annual elections, scheduled for May, its chances are considered better despite Western-led concerns about its human rights record and the violent suppression of protests sparked by last summer’s disputed presidential election.

In 2006, Iran was one of 18 countries vying for 13 seats earmarked for the Asian regional group in the fledgling HRC. In the vote, by the full U.N. General Assembly, it achieved the second lowest tally of the 18, with only Iraq doing worse.

In May, Iran will be one of five contenders for four available Asia seats. In the secret ballot vote it is expected to be backed by many fellow Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members – although some of the Gulf states will likely not be among them – as well as by non-Muslim allies in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Also currently in the running for the four seats are Qatar, Malaysia, the Maldives and Thailand.

Qatar is already a member, but having served only one three-year term it is eligible to run again; Malaysia, which held a seat from 2006-2009, wants to return; the Maldives, which announced its candidacy last April, has not stood before (although it obtained one vote in 2006); Thailand ran in 2006 but narrowly missing getting one of the 13 seats then up for grabs.

The Geneva-based, 47-member HRC faces numerous criticisms, chief among them the presence of countries with poor rights records.

Although the U.N. resolution which established the council says members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and requires all countries to consider candidates’ records in that regard when voting, the General Assembly has since then seated members including Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan.

In 2006, only 25 (53 percent) of the 47 elected members were countries that are designated “free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. The number of “free” nations dropped to 23 (49 percent) in 2007, to 22 (47 percent) in 2008, and rose back to 23 (49 percent) in 2009.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution at Azadi Square in Tehran, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

‘It’s time to try and stop this’

Tehran’s human rights record and its defiance of U.N. resolutions relating to its nuclear program have not prevented it from securing other leadership positions at the U.N.

Its campaign to join the HRC comes at a time of unprecedented criticism of its policies at home.

Following days of intimidatory threats by the regime, Thursday’s 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution saw clashes between opposition supporters and security forces backed by paramilitary militia in Tehran and other cities.

The government’s efforts to limit the demonstrations included banning foreign media from covering them, and trying to deny protestors online organizing tools, including Google’s popular Gmail product. A Google spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that Iranian users had reported having trouble accessing the email service.

“We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly,” she said. “Whenever we encounter blocks in our services we try to resolve them as quickly as possibly because we strongly believe that people everywhere should have the ability to communicate freely online. Sadly, sometimes it is not within our control.”

A Microsoft spokeswoman said in response to queries about Iran that its Hotmail email services appeared to be operating normally, “based on initial investigations.”

In Washington, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators on Thursday announced they would introduce a bill which for the first time will target Iranian regime figures linked to human rights abuses at home.

Individuals accused of violating citizens’ rights would be identified, denied visas and have any assets in the U.S. frozen under the legislation, unveiled by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The president will be required to produce within 90 days a list of the targeted Iranians, which will be made public.

Lieberman told Fox News the legislation is “the first to actually apply economic sanctions on people we identify as Iranian abusers of the human rights of their fellow Iranians. It’s time to try to stop this and I hope European countries and others will join us in this effort.”

Pro-government demonstrators hold posters of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and anti-US placards during Thursday’s rally in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

‘Fundamental principles of Islam’

On Monday, Iran’s human rights record will be examined by the HRC, as part of an ongoing “universal periodic review” (UPR) of all U.N. member states’ records.

The UPR process involves a three-hour “interactive dialogue” between representatives of the state concerned and the council members, based on reports compiled by the government, U.N. experts, and civil society groups. A troika of three other countries, chosen by lot, oversees the process. Iran’s troika comprises two fellow OIC members, Pakistan and Senegal, as well as Mexico.

Since every country is reviewed once every four years, the UPR is touted as one of the better reforms incorporated into the HRC.

But the process has also drawn criticism because it routinely sees countries paint themselves in the best possible light while their allies rally around with praise.

In its 31-page submission prepared for Monday’s session, Iran presents itself as a country in which human rights are upheld for all citizens – within the framework of Islamic principles.

On freedom of the press, for instance, it says this right is guaranteed, “provided that the Islamic teachings and the best interest of the nation are observed.”

Public demonstrations are permitted, provided they are “not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

The report accuses certain Western countries of criticizing Iran’s human rights situation due to “ulterior political motives.”

It says Iran adheres to shari’a law, and that “demands by other countries to accept and adopt certain Western standards of human rights will practically have negative impact on promotion of human rights.”

Critics of the Iranian government have been urging the HRC to hold an emergency “special session” on the situation in the country.

Convening a special session requires the approval of one-third of council members, which means the seven Western countries would need to find a minimum of nine members from other regional groups to support a request to hold one on Iran.

The HRC has held 13 special sessions in its four years of operation; six of them focused on Israel.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow