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Artillery Row

Tragicomedy at the UN

The limp United Nations cannot be trusted to support the victims of tyranny

Last Monday was a big day for Iranians hoping for justice and accountability for the crimes committed by the Islamic Republic.

Not only did the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran present his final report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva; the fact-finding mission established in the wake of the death in custody of Mahsa Amini also presented its findings to the Council.

From 9.30 in the morning until mid-afternoon, the Council heard a long list of disturbing rights violations, including the conclusion of the fact-finding mission that Mahsa Amini’s death — which sparked nationwide protests — was “unlawful” and “caused by physical violence in the custody of the state authorities”.

The mission also described how the state authorities had deliberately shot protesters in the head, torso, genital areas and “particularly the eyes”, and noted how it is now a common sight to see young people in Iran wearing a white protective patch over one eye.

Six such individuals — “branded for life as dissidents”, in the words of the chair of the mission, Sara Hossain — were present at the UN to bear witness to this crime.

And yet alongside the member states and human rights organisations that queued up to add their weight to the cause of justice and accountability, there was also the sadly typical phenomenon of the Iranian delegation and its friends — Russia, North Korea, China, Venezuela, etc. — having the temerity to suggest, even in the presence of these witnesses, that the accusations were merely “politically motivated”.

The low point of this particular phenomenon was when one member of the Iranian delegation piped up three times in succession to call for “respect” and adherence to the rules of the Council, after one activist had refused to address the Islamic Republic of Iran by its full and proper title. 

Ms Hossain later made reference to this comment by suggesting that those in the room most deserving of “respect” were the six individuals now missing an eye.

She added that she had been “disappointed” to hear the Iranian representative call the report “biased”, saying her mission’s only “bias” had been to believe in human rights.

Ms Hossain added that she couldn’t understand how the Iranian authorities could claim the report was “undocumented”, as it contained “27,000 pieces of evidence”.

“I’m not sure on what basis that remark is made,” she said, “because we’ve put together a lot of documentation, which can be seen by everybody.”

Another disturbing and increasingly common phenomenon was the presence of half a dozen so-called “NGOs” from the Islamic Republic, who stole the platform from other genuine rights groups to defend Iran against the accusations, suggesting they were best placed to do so because they were actually based in the country. 

What they failed to mention, of course, was that this is only because no genuine civil society can exist within Iran. 

Meanwhile, perhaps the moment that best summed up the theatre of the proceedings was when the representative of Venezuela stated his support for the Islamic Republic, with two unveiled Iranian activists sitting in the row behind, shaking their heads throughout. 

It was also quite a sight to see the real NGOs lining up to take to the podium, surrounded by the hijab-clad “NGOs” from Tehran. Alongside the protesters with only one eye, this was perhaps the clearest visible representation of the divide at the UN. 

And the UN is indeed very clearly divided between those on the one hand who champion freedom and democracy, and those on the other who seek only to change the narrative to focus on their right to “sovereignty”, or essentially to do whatever the hell they want and not be held to account. 

You can’t speak about making international law … and then not respect its norms as they apply to you

Ms Hossein noted that there was currently an exhibition in the Human Rights Council highlighting Iran’s “long history of engaging with the making of international law”, adding: “You can’t speak about making international law … and then not respect its norms as they apply to you. This is true for every member state, and it’s true for Iran as well.” 

At times it can feel as though the UN is just a waste of time, such is the divide and intransigence of rogue states such as Iran. And yet, when states cannot be held to account at home, the UN at least offers the opportunity for victims’ voices to be heard, and a semblance of hope that, one day, justice, accountability and freedom may be achieved.

The reports of the fact-finding mission and Special Rapporteur at least shed light on the violations as they continue, and allow Iranians to dream of what their homeland could become, were this tyrannical regime finally to be overthrown. 

Indeed, perhaps the only justified criticism that could be levelled at Ms Hossein would be her failure to acknowledge that the protesters were seeking to overthrow the regime.

The protests were “expressing demands for broader social and political reform”, she said. But many activists stress that the Islamic Republic has shown itself over the past 45 years to be completely incapable and utterly unwilling to reform. 

What the protesters wanted, and still want, most Iranians will tell you, is for an end to the Islamic Republic.

But if anything could highlight how far there is to go in that endeavour, it was the sight later that same day of the Islamic Republic taking its position as the new chair of the UN’s “Conference on Disarmament”. 

Yes, that’s right, the Islamic Republic of Iran is now responsible for “negotiating arms control and disarmament agreements”.

Yet more theatre at the UN.

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