Human Rights

Global outcry over Iran's human rights violations

In Brief: 
  • Around the world, the outcry against Iran’s ongoing human rights violations is growing.
  • In December, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on Iran’s human rights record.
  • The vote followed statements from the UN Secretary General, Nobel Laureates Tutu and Ramos-Horta, and globally renowned philosophers and theologians, among others.
  • Many expressed special concern over the arrest and imprisonment of Bahá’í educators seeking only to circumvent the government’s ban on higher education for Bahá’í youth.

UN General Assembly resolution on Iran passes by widest margin since 1993; Nobel laureates, philosophers and theologians in more than 16 countries express concern for Bahá’í educators

UNITED NATIONS — From every region of the globe, including the UN headquarters building in New York, the ongoing and widespread violation of human rights in Iran is being increasingly condemned.

One of the strongest expressions of concern came on 19 December 2011, when the UN General Assembly approved a resolution about Iran’s ongoing rights abuses.

By a vote of 89 to 30 with 64 abstentions, the Assembly approved a resolution that expressed “deep concern at serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations” in Iran, citing “a dramatic increase” in executions, the use of torture, the systematic targeting of human rights defenders, pervasive violence against women, and continuing discrimination against minorities, including members of the Bahá’í Faith.

In recent months, many others have voiced similar concerns about Iran’s behavior towards its own people. A number have focused on Iran’s treatment of its Bahá’í citizens, and, in particular, the crackdown on Bahá’í educators and students. Recent actions include:

  • Two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, South African Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta, issued an open letter criticizing “Iran’s war against knowledge.” The September letter called on the Iranian government to drop charges against seven Bahá’í educators then on trial for their efforts to educate young Iranian Bahá’ís who are banned from college.

  • More than 40 distinguished philosophers and theologians from 16 countries, including Brazil, India, South Africa, China, and Kenya, and representing Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds, signed and issued a letter in October that condemned Iran’s attacks on an informal educational initiative of the Bahá’í community — known as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) — which Iran has repeatedly sought to shut down.

  • Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, told reporters at a UN press conference in October that Iran’s persecution of Bahá’ís is among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world today.

  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a report in October saying he was “deeply troubled” by human rights violations in Iran, which he said have “continued and intensified” over the last 12 months, and have included a “notable increase” in the country’s use of the death penalty, along with a rise in unfair trials, amputations, and the use of torture, arbitrary arrest and detention. He also expressed concern over the treatment of minorities, including Bahá’ís.

  • The European Parliament in November passed a resolution on Iran’s human rights record, citing numerous concerns, ranging from increased executions and the widespread use of torture to the systematic oppression of human rights defenders, journalists, women and minorities. It also took note of Iran’s increased persecution of Bahá’ís, noting they “suffer heavy discrimination, including denial of access to education.”

Representatives of the Bahá’í International Community said the global outcry was powerful evidence that the world has become increasingly intolerant of human rights violators.

“The Assembly’s vote this year makes absolutely clear the international community’s utter frustration with Iran’s continuing oppression of its citizens,” said Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN.

Ms. Dugal added that delegates to the General Assembly seemed especially frustrated by Iran’s repeated refusal to cooperate with the UN in receiving special human rights investigators, in particular a proposed visit from Ahmad Shaheed, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran.

“Since the appointment of Ahmed Shaheed, Iran has not welcomed him to the country and, in fact, has even questioned the legitimacy of his appointment,” said Ms. Dugal.

Dr. Shaheed was among those who have expressed his concerns over Iran’s record in recent months. He released a report in October saying he has received a number of “first-hand testimonies” about “deficits in relation to the administration of justice, certain practices that amount to torture, cruel, or degrading treatment of detainees, the imposition of the death penalty in the absence of proper judicial safeguards, the status of women, the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and the erosion of civil and political rights, in particular, the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and civil society actors.”

The crackdown on education

Iran’s crackdown on Bahá’í educators seemed a special concern for many. In May 2011, authorities raided some 30 Bahá’í homes in cities throughout Iran where Bahá’ís had conducted informal educational activities meant to provide higher education for Bahá’í youth — who have been banned from public and private universities in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Some 14 individuals associated with the informal Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education were arrested.

In September, it was learned that seven of those educators had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The seven were taken to court on two separate days, handcuffed and chained at the ankles. There, in the presence of their attorneys, they were informed of the verdict and their sentences, with little time to defend themselves.

Diane Ala’i, representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN in Geneva, said neither the defendants nor their lawyers were shown a written copy of the verdict, “but we know from transcripts taken down by people present at the hearing that the seven were found guilty of ‘membership in the deviant Bahaist sect, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country, in order to further the aims of the deviant sect and those of organizations outside the country.’”

Two of the Bahá’ís, Vahid Mahmoudi and Kamran Mortezaie, each received five years imprisonment, while four-year jail terms were given to Mahmoud Badavam, Nooshin Khadem, Farhad Sedghi, Riaz Sobhani and Ramin Zibaie.

“The authorities know full well that there is no truth whatsoever to the charges,” said Ms. Ala’i. “The prohibition on foreign diplomats attending court — and the refusal of the judiciary to provide written documentation of the verdict — show how unjustifiable the assertions and actions of the government are, and clearly expose the blatant religious discrimination that is at the heart of this case.”

In their statement Archibishop Tutu and President Ramos-Horta found this type of discrimination in education especially outrageous. “The forward progress of humankind in the last centuries has been fueled, more than any other factor, by increasing access to information, more rapid exchange of ideas, and in most parts of the world, universal education,” wrote the two Nobel laureates.

The letter from 43 distinguished philosophers and theologians likewise focused on the education issue. “To acquire knowledge and learning is the sacred and legal right of all; indeed, the state is obliged to provide it,” they wrote. “In Iran, the government has done the opposite.”

“To acquire knowledge and learning is the sacred and legal right of all; indeed, the state is obliged to provide it. In Iran, the government has done the opposite.”

Open letter from 43 philosophers and theologians

Among those signing the letter were Charles Taylor of McGill University, Hilary Putnam of Harvard University, Cornel West of Princeton University, Leonardo Boff of Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil, Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University in the USA, Graham Ward of Oxford University, Abdulkader Tayob of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Xinjian Shang of Peking University in China, Ashok Vohra of Delhi University in India, and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University in the USA.

On a national level, too, numerous individuals and groups have expressed concern about the fate of Bahá’í educators.

In Ireland, more than 50 academics called upon the Iranian authorities to cease attacking Bahá’ís and allow access to higher education for all. “It is hard to believe that any government would deny the right to education to a group of students,” they wrote to the Irish Times in November.

In Germany, some 45 prominent professors also demanded the immediate release of the seven. In a letter dated 25 October to Iran’s Minister for Science, Research and Technology, they wrote, “We insist upon the unrestricted observance of the right of higher education for all citizens of your country in accordance with international norms...”

In Brazil on 4 November, some 26 filmmakers, producers and actors urged the government of Brazil to defend the rights of filmmakers, journalists and Bahá’í educators. Among the signatories to the open letter were such acclaimed directors as Hector Babenco, Atom Egoyan, and Walter Salles.

In a statement on 20 October, Brazilian Federal Representative Luiz Couto — former president of the country’s Human Rights Commission — said: “We all know the work that is developed by the Bahá’ís in Brazil in the areas of equality, justice and human rights; and many of us are also familiar with their educational work in the communities...Why can’t these people have the right to profess their faith?”

On 31 October, Scholars at Risk (SIR), an international network of over 260 universities and colleges in 33 countries, said Iran’s exclusion of Bahá’í individuals from higher education raises “serious concerns about a wider campaign to limit the ability of intellectuals and scholars generally to work freely in Iran.” This is counter to “Iran’s rich intellectual history and traditional support for the values of scholarship and free inquiry.”

On 7 December, 48 Deans and Senior Vice-Presidents of American medical schools, representing a third of all US medical schools, issued an open letter addressed to Iran’s representative to the United Nations, voicing their “concern about the treatment of Bahá’í students and educators in Iran.”

“[W]e believe that education is an inherent human right. At our respective institutions, we have hosted and continue to host students, residents, fellows, and faculty irrespective of their religious beliefs from all over the world. We have welcomed this diverse population into our educational communities to contribute to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”