The UN’s human rights council has voted overwhelmingly to set up a fact-finding investigation into human rights abuses in Iran, where an estimated 300 people have been killed and 14,000 arrested since protests began 10 weeks ago.
At a special session convened by Germany in Geneva the HRC voted by 25 to six to set up the inquiry, with 15 abstaining. The vote is regarded as a significant victory for human rights defenders, since a mechanism now exists to file evidence of abuses by the state, making the possibility of prosecutions in international courts more likely.
“Iranian officials will not be able to perpetrate this violent crackdown anonymously,” the US ambassador to the HRC, Michele Taylor, said after the vote. “The international community is watching.”
Iran has been rocked by more than two months of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman arrested by the morality police for supposedly wearing her hijab inappropriately. The Iranian authorities have said their inquiry showed she died from natural causes due to a pre-existing condition. Her family allege she was beaten.
Iranian authorities have grown increasingly heavy-handed in their response to the demonstrations as they have spread across the country and swelled into a broad movement against the theocracy that has ruled Iran since 1979.
Before the vote the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, had warned that “a fully fledged human rights crisis” was taking place in Iran and urged its government to end the disproportionate use of force against protesters.
The UN has never set up such a powerful mechanism in respect of Iran before. Western powers have been imposing asset freezes and travel bans on individual security agents behind the repression, but in practice these sanctions have little impact.
The resolution calls for the UN to set up an inquiry to “collect, consolidate and analyse evidence of … violations”.
Iran is unlikely to cooperate. The deputy of the Iranian vice-president for women and family affairs, Khadijeh Karimi, told the HRC that the inquiry was disgraceful and accused European states of not having the moral credibility to criticise Iran since they were undermining the rights of Iranian women by imposing inhumane and unilateral sanctions.
In an attempt to preempt any international inquiry, Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, announced on Monday that it was setting up “an investigation committee to pursue the rights of the victims of the recent incidents and riots”.
Gissou Nia, the director of the strategic litigation project at the Atlantic Council, explaining the significance of the vote, said the fact-finding mission “will create an independent process with an international imprint that will bolster the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran and fill a gap that exists since there are no investigations at international courts nor structural investigations in national jurisdictions to interrogate these crimes”.
Türk opened the meeting by saying he believed that 14,000 people had been arrested and “hundreds of university students have been summoned for questioning, threatened or suspended and barred from entering university campuses”.
He said: “Civil society actors have been targeted and arrested from their homes and workplaces, among them human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers. Arrested protesters continue to be denied access to a lawyer. Many face national security charges with lengthy prison sentences”.
Türk said 21 people faced charges that carry the death penalty, and six had already been sentenced to death by the revolutionary courts.
He warned the regime: “The old methods and the fortress mentality of those that wield power simply do not work; in fact they only exacerbate the situation. We are now in a fully fledged human right crisis.”
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, accused the judiciary of covering up crimes by security forces, and said structural impunity had fuelled widespread patterns of unlawful killing.
“The victims’ families are forced to make false statements, under duress, stating that their children committed suicide. Iranian authorities spread false statements about deaths in custody and protester deaths. They fabricate false scenarios,” he said.
Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, who travelled to Geneva to address the meeting in person, said the vote was a test of the courage of the human rights council, and insisted Germany was not singling out Iran. She said Iran was only being asked to abide by the basic articles in the UN’s international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Iran is a state party.
Two senior police officers have been dismissed from the south-eastern city of Zahedan, but overall Iran’s approach has been to arrest and charge as many protesters as possible, often binding them over with heavy bail.
Iran has a high council of human rights inside the Iranian judiciary, but much of its work is dedicated to rebutting claims in international forums of human rights abuse in the country. The high council has already declared that “the riots have nothing to do with the death of Mahsa Amini, the hijab or women’s rights. The enemies of Iran used this as a pretext and sparked chaos and riots with their continuous plans.”