Iran, West and Human Rights: Is Compromise Impossible?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh
Executive Editor of Iran Review

In the last day of its latest meeting, the Human Rights Council finally appointed Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the former foreign minister of Maldives, as special human rights rapporteur on Iran. Western countries’ support for the former Muslim foreign minister greatly helped him overtake two other contestants for the post: the former Italian ambassador to Iran and a Sudanese human rights lawyer.

Appointment of the rapporteur followed adoption of a resolution in April 2011, which was approved by the Human Rights Council through 22 ayes, 7 nays and 14 abstentions according to which a special rapporteur was to oversee situation of human rights in Iran.

A glimpse at Mr. Shaheed’s biography will introduce him a liberal person. He is a graduate of doctoral course in international relations from Queensland University. As foreign minister of Maldives, his country acceded to the highest number of international human rights instruments and also acceded to the Human Rights Council. Most interestingly, he was given Muslim Democrat of the Year Award in 2009 by Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID). He also managed in 2005 to rescind a former decision by the Maldives’ High Council of Islamic Affairs for the rejection of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Official stances taken by the Iranian authorities just a few days after his appointment proves that Iran will not allow him into the country. Of course, this does not mean that the Islamic Revolution has no intention to cooperate in this regard or answer his questions, but a visit to Iran by him in the coming years is currently out of the question.

To understand the reason why Iran is opposed to this process, one should first understand Iran’s approach to human rights and their attitude toward the concept of human rights throughout the post-revolution years. Why Iran has described appointment of a special human rights rapporteur (whether he is Western or non-Western, Muslim or non-Muslim) as interference in its internal affairs? Why Iranian officials believe that the human rights are being used as a Trojan horse to allow the West to undermine the Islamic system and therefore, insist on their position in spite of possible costs it entails? Is this the result of a chronic and unreasonable skepticism on the part of Iran or a sign of Iran’s fear from the international system? Or the situation is more complicated and Iran has its own reasons and as long as it is not offered a logical argument, the country will not be able to take a positive approach to the issue of human rights?

The following points will be helpful when answering these questions.

Firstly, the dominant idea in Iran is that human rights positions taken against the country are part of long-term, premeditated, and calculated measures by the West and countries which have been at loggerheads with the Iranian system since its very inception. According to this viewpoint, during the past 30 years, the West has easily ignored arguments offered by the Iranian side. Meanwhile, regardless of the double standards applied to human rights, Western countries have been using human rights as a means of putting pressure on Iran and will continue to do so. This opinion has many supporters in Iran who mention the West’s treatment of other countries where the human rights situation is much worse than Iran. Despite dire situation of human rights in those countries, the West needs them for economic reasons and ignores human rights abuses there. Untenable approach taken by the West to Palestinians’ rights has also made them conclude that the whole issue of human rights is nothing but a political ploy. So, they believe that any retreat on the human rights front will cause the West to progress in all fronts in order to destabilize the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As said before, this viewpoint, which is also rife in other countries of the Third World, is not only advocated by state officials, but by a large part of the public that is not very optimistic about human rights intentions of the West.

Take this example. The London-based Daily Telegraph published a Wikileaks cable in February 2011 (1) which carried detailed account of a conversation between Democracy and Human Rights Department of the British Foreign Office and (probably) US ambassador in London. The cable clearly proved that the United States and UK were in collusion to use the Universal Periodic Review mechanism to put human rights pressure on Iran in cooperation with their allies and pave the way for the appointment of a human rights rapporteur to investigate human rights situation in the country. Therefore, the above viewpoint is also backed by documentary evidence. The West’s dawdling in dealing with Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran’s military forces and civilians during eight years of Imposed War is another argument used against the West’s approach to “defending the human rights.”

Secondly, this approach can also be seen in Iran’s diplomatic activities. Before approval of the Human Rights Council’s resolution on special rapporteur, an argument offered by the Iranian delegation which was also repeated by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and by other countries like Cuba and China, was the hostile and political nature of the whole process. Iran correctly argued that when a powerful mechanism like Universal Periodic Review is in gear to assess all human rights details of a country, there is no reason to travel back in time and reactivate special rapporteurs system. On the other hand, although the West claims that human rights should be dealt with in its totality, in practice, human rights only becomes important and comes to the fore when Western states have political problems with a certain country. Thus, they are prone to easily ignoring human rights advances made by that country and simply insist on those cases which are of import to them. In fact, they arrange the stage in such a way that it seems human rights are being violated only in a single part of the Earth which is the country in question.

On the whole, as long as Iran and the West fail to reach a common understanding of human rights and also converge on real or political nature of supervisory mechanisms such as the so-called “name & shame” policy, this war of attrition will continue without getting anywhere. This claim has already been upheld by the experiences gained in the past 30 years.


(1) Demarche Delivered: UK Wants to Use UPR to Pressure IRAN on Human Rights, cited in:

*Links for Further Reading:

1- Iran and Special Human Rights Rapporteur By: Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh:

2- Shifting Pressure from Nuclear Case to Human Rights By: Davoud Hermidas Bavand

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم