Human Rights in Iran


Human Rights in Iran
A Challenge to International Human Rights Law
By Dr. Tahar Boumedra September 2015
Introduction and Conclusion



Human rights violations in Iran under Rouhani‘s Presidency have been the subject of detailed and reliable reports presented by UN officials and human rights institutions. They have also been at the centre of concern for the UN Special Representative on Human Rights in Iran, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, who periodically reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

These reports are an undeniable testimony of the violations of the most basic human rights in Iran, raising the protests of awakened consciences around the globe. Organisations such as Amnesty International (AI) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) have also repeatedly warned about the dire human rights situation in Iran.

In the following pages we will review the ongoing worrisome situation of human rights in Iran with a special focus on the last two years of Rouhani’s Presidency.

From the outset, it is necessary to underline the fact that human rights violations in Iran are deeply rooted in the legal system of the Islamic Republic and its mode of governance.

Over the past three decades more people have been executed in Iran for political expediency than any other country in the world in contemporary history. Some estimate the number to be as high as 120,000 executions. In the summer of 1988 alone, 30,000 political prisoners were annihilated in the span of just a few months. By the time Rouhani was elected, the world hoped the situation of human rights would improve. On the contrary, under the Presidency of Rouhani, contrary to all expectations, Iran has carried out the highest number of executions in the world per capita. The victims among others include political dissidents, ethnic and religious minority activists, those alleged to have committed acts against national security and others under the pretext of ordinary crimes. Most of these executions are the result of a perverted course of justice and unfair trials. Many of the suspects in those massacres are currently holding high ranking positions in Rouhani’s cabinet or the judiciary.

The systematic human rights violations in Iran go far beyond the individuals’ misconduct and abuse of power. They are incorporated in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. This makes Shari’a as interpreted by the Iranian Ayatollahs the primary source of law1 and gives pre-eminence to the views and dictates of the religious supreme leader “Vally al Faqih” as a source of law. The Supreme Leader’s fatwas (edicts) are mandatory and prevail over Iran’s positive law and its international obligations.

While visibly the constitutional order of Iran appears to adopt the separation of powers, a basic tenant of democracy, the concept of “Vally al Faqih” introduced in the constitution2 by Khomeini and his followers is the antinomy of democracy and separation of powers. “Vally al Faqih” claims divine authority on Earth. He holds the most powerful political office in the Islamic Republic. To date this position has been held by two leaders: first by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then by his successor Ali Khamenei.

The Supreme leader is the highest official of the State and the supreme commander of the Armed Forces3 with executive powers related to defence, religious affairs and election of the President, the Guardian Council4 and the Expediency Council5. The leader appoints the heads of some powerful posts such as the chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the supreme commanders of the different Armed Forces, the members of the National Security Council dealing with defence and foreign affairs, the director of the national radio and television network, the heads of the major religious foundations and even the prayer leaders in city mosques. He also appoints the head of the judiciary6, the prosecutor, special tribunals and with the help of the head of the judiciary, half of the 12 jurists of the Guardian Council, the body that decides both what bills may become law and who may run for President or Parliament. According to the Iranian constitution the Supreme Leader also decides on the suitability of candidates for the Presidency of the Islamic Republic, he formalizes the election of the President of the Republic, he asserts the authority of the President and decides on dismissing him. He can veto the laws made by Parliament and gives assent for Presidential candidates to proclaim their candidacy. He makes declarations of war and peace together with a two third majority of Parliament. With all these powers in hand, he is effectively the one and absolute ruler of the country.

Since December 1977, Khomeini had progressively built around himself the perception that he was the ‘Imam’, a title that conferred upon him divine status and one which had not been used by mainstream Shi’a Islam for centuries7.

Such a constitutional order puts Iran among a few countries in the world that are in conflict with the basic principles of international law and the principle of universality and indivisibility of human rights8. The supremacy of what the mullahs decree as Islamic law (shari’a) over international law in the Iranian constitution puts the Country at odds with the United Nations Charter; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

During the review of the human rights situation in Iran by the pair review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Council had authoritatively pinpointed the limits of the Iranian constitutional order and legislation in upholding the rule of law and human rights. These limits are recognized by the UN treaty bodies and special procedures, the UN Secretary General and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), the thematic special rapporteurs and the concerned UN member States and NGOs. It is proposed that this study highlights some of the ongoing severe human rights violations in Iran, especially the high number of executions and the systematic use of the death penalty over more than three decades as a means to terrorise the public, briefly reviewing areas where the Iranian legal system has failed to comply with the universally accepted principles of international law of human rights and engages a reflection for change that will ensure full compliance with Iran’s international obligations.


To understand the realities of the fundamentalist regime in Iran one has to answer the following question: who governs in Iran? The bone of contention in this question revolves around a disconnected group of theologian rulers who stole the people’s revolution and established an environment where the big man’s word (Vally al Faqih) is final. The clerics’ leadership remains a major but often neglected cause of the country’s demise. Iranians today are confronted with an immense constitutional handicap which is responsible for their disability to make sense of how justice, democracy and the fulfilment of human rights might be advanced. More than in the darkest periods of Iranian history, the clerics had left no room for progressive social movements, civil society associations and ordinary citizens to rise against oppression, repression and dire inequality.

Nonetheless, the struggle for democracy in Iran championed by the NCRI members particularly the PMOI has managed to tease out the interconnectedness between politics and justice/injustice by raising questions of human dignity, respect and sustainable human development by recovering and uncovering the links in theory and practice between democracy, human rights and social justice. The NCRI President-elect’s 10 point plan89 opens a gateway into these connections in a way that reclaims democracy by reviving its emancipatory perspectives, by committing to the ballot box as the only criterion for legitimacy; freedom of association, expression and the media; abolition of the death penalty; freedom of religion and secularisation of the state; gender equality and equal participation of women in political leadership; the rule of law and justice as a foundation of the state, adherence to and respect of the international human rights conventions; the equality of all nationalities; recognition of private property, private investment and the market economy; a foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence and compliance with the United Nations Charter; a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction.

President Obama and the EU member states administrations invested much energy in their attempt to re-shape their relations with Tehran, but Iran’s response has been illusive and non-committal. After thirty six years in power, the totalitarian and hegemonic regime remains a serious threat to the people of Iran, to the region and to the whole international community. Any rapprochement with such a regime that does not take into consideration the strategy and the values presented in the NCRI president-elect’s 10 point plan is bound to be discredited and rejected by all those who aspire for a democratic Iran, abiding by law and respecting human rights.

Author: Tahar Boumedra Chief of the Human Rights Office of United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and Adviser to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Camp Ashraf affairs from 2009 until 2012.

 Former Regional Director of Penal Reform International (PRI) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), based in Amman, Jordan. In November 2008, he was offered the position of Chief of UNAMI Human Rights Office also representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) in Iraq.

End Notes:

  1. Article 2 of the Constitution
  2. Articles 5 and 107 of the Constitution
  3. Articles 110 and 113 of the Constitution
  4. Ibid
  5. Article 112 (2) The permanent and changeable members of the [Expediency] Council shall be appointed by the Leader.
  6. Article 157 of the Constitution
  7. Shi’a branch of Islam believes that the Twelfth and the last Imam has been hidden by divine power and will only reappear at the end of history as a messiah to lead an era of Islamic justice. However, the majority of the clerical establishment in Iran never accepted the use of this title and even those clerics who supported Khomeini’s Islamic revolution shed away from it.
  8. See Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action Adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993

 The full report (in French):

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