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Proposal at U.N. Body Puts Focus on Iran's Human Rights Record

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Washington - Diplomats and activists are gearing up for what they call a critical multinational effort to push for human rights in Iran.

“Iran stands out as a place where respect for fundamental human rights has deteriorated and where the aspirations of the people are being deliberately thwarted,” Suzanne Nossel, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, told a Capitol Hill conference March 15. “Our effort over the coming weeks to secure a new special rapporteur for human rights in Iran represents this administration’s most ambitious undertaking to date at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.”

Suzanne Nossel, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, says the goal is taking "practical steps that we hope will lead to changes" in Iran.

A vote could come as early as March 24 on the proposal to appoint a U.N. investigator, or rapporteur, to examine Iran’s actions on human rights. “This effort is not about grandstanding or showdown but about practical steps that we hope will lead to changes over time,” Nossel said.

Most of the international community’s activity involving Iran in recent years has focused on its nuclear program; the Iranian government rejects concerns raised by the United States and other countries that it is preparing to build nuclear weapons.

Sweden is the lead sponsor of the proposal for a special investigator. Jonas Hafstrom, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, said the diplomatic effort on the nuclear front is important but should not be the only topic up for discussion. Hafstrom called the human rights situation in Iran “profoundly disturbing,” citing two issues in particular: the lack of Internet freedom and a dramatic rise in executions, including of “people who merely had expressed themselves and voiced dissenting opinions.”

Both Hafstrom and Nossel expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the willingness of a majority of its members to call Iran to account. “However, the fact remains, it is the primary U.N. institution for protecting human rights,” Hafstrom said.

“We recognize that even if we are successful, a rapporteur will not deliver overnight the changes we hope to see, and our work will not be done,” Nossel said. “We’re not naive enough to think that this resolution or this mandate will be transformative in itself. Achieving impact in human rights work is a long, complex process. No single report, statement or individual will achieve the breakthrough we hope for.”

A special rapporteur would investigate complaints about Iran’s human rights restrictions and issue reports to the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission at least once a year. “It’s possible, even likely, that Iran will resist the visits of a special rapporteur and deny that person access to the country,” Nossel said. “We’ve seen this in North Korea, Burma and elsewhere. If it happens, the rapporteur will need to rely on witnesses outside the country to carry on their work.”

Nossel said Iran “looks to the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies as a place to legitimize itself and its ambitions for regional and global leadership.”

The prospects for approval of the special rapporteur are uncertain. Nossel said some countries “maintain that U.N. action against a nation should occur only with the consent of the country concerned. Our position is that in a situation of grave human rights abuses, we are all concerned countries.”

Hafstrom put it this way: “It is the task of each government to make sure that the human rights of all its citizens are fully respected. This task cannot be delegated to anyone else. But it is responsibility of the international community to help promote such respect, to call attention to situations where this has failed and to work for its implementation for all human rights to make rights real.”

Human-rights and Iranian-American activists have applauded the effort. “I think that the role of the special rapporteur would be very important: to document and keep focused on what’s happening in Iran and to force the Human Rights Council to deal with that situation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, head of the Middle East and North Africa Division of the nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch. She also spoke at the Capitol Hill conference, which was organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

Nader Hashemi, an Iran expert and a professor at the University of Denver, said the effort would “shine a global spotlight” on Iran’s human rights violations. And Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Iranians will appreciate the human rights push by the United States and its allies. “I think the Iranian government is very vulnerable to this sort of pressure because it can deflect some of the nuclear pressure - even within the international community, a lot of the nonaligned movement countries might relate to Iran’s nuclear drive - but I think human rights is an entirely different issue, especially with what’s going on in the world today.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

Related Article: US and Swedish Officials Outline Human Rights Initiative at NIAC Conference

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