Just as Iranians were reminded of their stolen June 2009 election and continued oppression, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) decided to kick them while they’re down. On June 10, with the active involvement and approval of the Obama administration, the Council adopted a decision on human rights in Iran that was a sentence long and contained no condemnation whatsoever.
The context was a review by the Council of Iran’s human rights record, as part of the Council’s consideration of all 192 UN states. The review featured a vigorous defense by Iranian representatives of Iran’s stellar human rights achievements, followed by Iran’s rejection of a host of “recommendations” made to improve its actual behavior. The “outcome” was a sentence identical for dictatorships and democracies alike, in which the Council merely refers to a bundle of documents containing praise, criticisms and responses without drawing any conclusion attributable to the Council itself.
The incomprehensible UN decision reads: "The Human Rights Council...Adopts…the report of the Working Group on the Islamic Republic of Iran, together with the views of the Islamic Republic of Iran concerning the recommendations and/or conclusions, as well as its voluntary commitments and its replies presented before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary to questions or issues that were not sufficiently addressed during the interactive dialogue in the Working Group.”
The reaction from the Obama administration was to declare victory and to manufacture something positive to say about Iran. On June 10, U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe rushed to the UN microphones in Geneva to announce repeatedly: “I have to emphasize that we are very pleased that Iran was willing to participate at all…. In the case of Iran, we applaud the willingness to participate at all…. We’re pleased that at least they were willing to show up.”
Praising Iran despite its total disregard of the fundamentals of human decency is the antithesis of the supposed liberal human rights mantra. Instead of buoying the Human Rights Council’s performance, the Obama administration is sinking with it.
When the Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, it introduced the process called the Universal Periodic Review or UPR. The UPR has been repeatedly championed as the leading innovation of the Council and the first justification for the Obama administration quickly jumping on board in May 2009. Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, has called it “a good mechanism.” State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has labeled it “an important change” justifying the heart of the administration’s foreign policy, or as Koh tells it: “with the HRC…we have chosen principled engagement and strategic multilateralism.”
The UPR on Iran is clear evidence of the abysmal failure of so-called principled engagement and strategic multilateralism, since the principles are nowhere to be seen and the strategy guaranteed to defeat human rights.
Here is the story of what happened when the UN’s lead human rights body, and its showpiece procedure for promoting human rights, met Iran, human rights violator extraordinaire.
The UPR takes place in stages, the first stage being a 3-hour public dialogue with state representatives. The state is then given an opportunity to respond to recommendations made during the dialogue to improve its behavior, and then some months later the Council adopts a report on the country concerned. In Iran’s case, the dialogue occurred on February 15, Iran responded to the recommendations in writing on February 17 and again in early June, and the report on Iran was adopted on June 10.
On February 15 Iran sent a large delegation to Geneva, headed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, Secretary General of the High Council of Human Rights. The UN gave the Iranian representatives a full hour to recount their country’s glorious record and Larijani relished every minute of it. He declared: “A salient feature of our constitution is its explicit and extensive reference to...the main pillars of human rights... Iran [has a] firm commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights ...Iran is one of the prominent democratic states in the region.”
He also brought with him a few props. The inequality of women in Iran is legendary – men are entitled to kill their wives for adultery if they aren’t first stoned to death by judicial decree. But two women on the Iranian team, Fatemeh Alia and Mahboubeh Mobasheri, informed the Council: “The significant advancement of Iranian women’s status in the society during the period of 30 years after the victory of the Islamic revolution under the auspices of the strategic national policy and programs is undeniable.”
Similarly, Larijani brought along a Christian, Yonathan Betkolia. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for religious minorities and a Muslim who converts to Christianity has committed a crime punishable by death. But Betkolia said: “Under the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, race, ethnicity, and religion do not distinguish among people, bestowing superiority to one group over another.”
After Iran’s presentation, other states were given two minutes each to weigh in. UN officials thought fairness meant fairness to the Iranian government, not fairness to the victims of human rights abuses in Iran. So they allowed the same number of states to speak in favor of Iran’s human rights record as spoke against.
Hence, another hour passed with the following kinds of contributions. Venezuela congratulated Iran on “shed[ding] light on the efforts and commitment undertaken by the country to promote and protect human rights.” Lebanon praised “the efforts made by the Islamic Republic of Iran to promote…the rights of women.” Libya “commend[ed] the national legislation in the field of human rights.” Syria declared “The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran…consolidates human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people as a basic principle of the general policy of the republic.” And Zimbabwe fawned: “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights is glaringly noticeable.”
The UPR only takes place once every four years and by the time the Iranians and the pro-Iran crowd had finished there was just one hour left for criticism. The Council divided it up into two minutes per speaker. The speed-reading of the Obama administration’s 120-second contribution to improve human rights in Iran was duly performed by Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
The Council then gave Iran the last word. Said Larijani: “Violence against women is more than anywhere in the United States and a number of western countries. In Islamic states and Iran, definitely women are very much respected...Thank you very much, Mr. President, for your free and fair leadership of this meeting.”
The Council responded by breaking into a warm round of applause. That’s applause – from the UN’s lead human rights agency – for a country whose leadership has openly declared that genocide against Jews is state policy.
The next step in the UPR process was to give Iran an opportunity to accept or reject the recommendations that had been made to it over the course of the dialogue. Within 48 hours, Iran rejected recommendations to “abolish in practice, public executions by hanging and stoning… Prosecute security officials involved in torturing, raping or killing…Repeal or amend all discriminatory provisions against women and girls in national legislation…[E]nd discrimination and harassment against persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities….”
Over the next three months, Iran was given more time to respond to the recommendations and produced a written statement which the UN duly added to its “report” on Iranian human rights conditions.
In response to the recommendation to “end its severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly; and end the harassment and persecution of journalists and bloggers,” Iran wrote and the UN published: “press and publications are free to express their opinions except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
In response to the recommendation to “consider the elimination of cruel punishment, including…stoning,” Iran said: “The term 'cruel punishment' is applicable to none of the punishments stipulated in the laws of the country.”
In response to the recommendation to “provide due process of law for those charged with crimes,” “provide guarantees of a fair trial,” and “take steps to end the current culture of impunity,” Iran replied that it regarded these “recommendations to be irrelevant to the internal situation in the country.”
Iran understood that it had nothing to fear from the UN Human Rights Council. Far from being a serious mechanism to do anything about Iran’s human rights violations, a cocky Larijani reappeared on June 10 at the Council for the final UPR phase. He accurately summed up the process this way: “the universal periodic review has provided a unique opportunity…to raise awareness of Iran’s practices and experiences on the promotion of human rights.”
He wasn’t kidding. He took his seat before the Council and without any hesitation explained why Iran had not ratified the Convention Against Torture: “Torture is one thing and punishment is another thing…This is a conceptual dispute. Some form of these punishments should not be considered torture according to our law.” By which he meant flogging, amputation, and stoning. Allowed once more to be the last to speak, he finished off on June 10 by telling the Council: “The Islamic Republic of Iran…is a democracy. We are perhaps the only democracy, the greatest democracy, in the Middle East and we are very proud of this achievement.”
What did the UN Human Rights Council do in the face of such deceit from the front man for a serial human rights abuser and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism? It unanimously passed – with the participation and approval of the United States, now a Council member – the one sentence “adopting the report” – with all its Iranian misrepresentations and rejections of recommendations contained therein.
The Council made no effort to adopt a resolution condemning Iran’s human rights record. And the United States delegation made no effort even to introduce a resolution on Iranian rights abuses.
The UN Human Rights Council has in fact never adopted any resolution critical of Iran, nor has it even created an investigator on human rights violations by Iran. (The Council has been too busy with Israel – adopting more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all other 191 UN states combined.) But in the immortal words of Ambassador Donahoe when the Iranian UPR was all over: “the UPR process has been an incredible success for the Human Rights Council.”
At least Donahoe clarified the meaning of the crux of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, that illustrious principled engagement and strategic multilateralism. She announced at the final press stakeout: “We are no longer willing to stand by and allow empty rhetoric to convince others around the world. We have to shine a light on the facts on the ground and come back with our own rhetoric.”
Rhetoric for rhetoric – the modern liberal’s idea of protecting human rights.
And so with a rhetorical flourish Donahoe added: “empty promises are not enough. It is time for Iran to actually do something with respect to the human rights situation.” To which Iran can now respond “right back at ya.”
Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.