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Human Rights News

EU-Iran Conference Must Set Human Rights Benchmarks

Backgrounder on Human Rights Dialogue

(New York, December 14, 2002) Human Rights Watch today expressed regret that delegates from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were denied permission to attend the forthcoming dialogue on human rights issues between European Union representatives and Iranian government officials. The talks are scheduled to begin in Tehran on Monday, December 16.

HRW Backgrounder: EU-Iran Benchmarks Dialogue

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the proposed dialogue between the European Union and Islamic Republic of Iran will create significant new opportunities to press for improvements in human rights. But this potential will only be fully realized if the European Union adapts the lessons learned from previous dialogues over human rights between the E.U. and third countries, and fully applies the EU Guidelines for Human Rights Dialogues adopted by the Council in December 2001.

The guidelines provide that "any decision to initiate a human rights dialogue will first require the defining of the practical aims which the Union seeks to achieve by initiating dialogue with the country concerned, as well as an assessment of the added value to be gained from such dialogue." In defining these aims in the Iranian context it is important that consultation should take place with a broad range of political leaders in Iran, especially those in the parliament, intellectuals and representatives of civil society and the press who have pressed the case for human rights reform.

As a starting point, the European Union should revisit all resolutions on Iran of the UN General Assembly and Commission on Human Rights, as well as recommendations made by UN special procedures and treaty bodies on Iran as the basis for its own dialogue on rights. In particular, the E.U. should fully integrate the content of the resolution on Iran it tabled at the last session of the Commission on Human Rights, even though it was not eventually passed, as an expression of ongoing concerns.

In devising its strategy, the European Union should pay careful regard to the potential for UN special procedures and experts to also engage with Iran following the standing invitation issued by the government in August 2002. The European Union should obtain confirmation of this standing invitation, which the Government of Iran has yet to put in writing. While this announcement was a very welcome development, the European Union should adopt a wait-and-see approach before initiating its own dialogue, requesting the government of Iran to initiate visits by at least four special rapporteurs (violence against women, freedom of expression, torture and freedom of religion) and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; assessing their freedom of access to all parts of the country, individuals and groups; and monitoring concrete progress on implementing their recommendations. In developing its own dialogue, the European Union should fully integrate visits, findings and recommendations by the UN special procedures on Iran.

According to the guidelines, "As far as possible, the European Union will ask the authorities of countries involved in the human rights dialogue to include in their delegations representatives of the various institutions and Ministries responsible for human rights matters, such as the Justice and Interior Ministries, the police, prison administration etc." This will be especially important in the case of Iran, where moderate and reformist elements in the Presidency, Ministry of Foreign Affairs or legislature are frequently thwarted and undermined by hardline conservatives in the Council of Guardians, judiciary, the Revolutionary Guard and the office of the Leader of the Islamic Republic. The test for any EU human rights dialogue with Iran will not be simply the participation of a broad range of ministries and officials, but the ability of the dialogue to impact on these entrenched sources of power within the Iranian system.

The guidelines also envisage that "civil society could become involved under the most suitable arrangement in the preliminary assessment of the human rights situation, in the conduct of the dialogue itself (particularly by organizing meetings with civil society at local level in parallel with the formal dialogue), and in following up and assessing the dialogue." Taking into consideration the weakness of local civil society organizations, an inclusive dialogue may be achieved by involving independent activists, parliamentarians, lawyers, and intellectuals. Further, "the European Union undertakes to include human rights experts in the EU delegations." These experts may be drawn from academic institutions and independent non-governmental organizations.

Most importantly, the guidelines require the European Union to "on a case-by-case basis, establish criteria for measuring the progress achieved in relation to the benchmarks and also criteria for a possible exit strategy." Human Rights Watch suggests the following issues as critical tests of good faith by the government of Iran and substantive progress in any human rights dialogue. They should provide the basis for clear and measurable benchmarks, which could be made public and used to evaluate progress after an initial period of twelve months.

In the first twelve months of dialogue, the government of Iran should:

  • facilitate visits by the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women, Freedom of Expression, Torture, and Freedom of Religion, as well as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In each case, the government should make public and time-based commitments to full implementation of these recommendations.
  • release from prison Nasser Zarafshan, a prominent lawyer who has been sentenced to five years imprisonment; Akbar Ganji, Khalil Rostamkhani, Saeid Sadr, Hassan Yousefi-Eshkevari who were sentenced to long term imprisonment for attending a conference in Berlin in April 2000; Emadedin Baghi, a prominent journalist and Abdolah Nouri, former senior advisor to President Khatami and managing director of a newspaper; and a fourth group of students jailed after protests in Tehran in July 1999 including Ahamad Batebi and Akbar Mohammadi. Finally, Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri who has been held under house arrest since 1998 should also be freed. His health is deteriorating under confinement.
  • ratify the CEDAW, CAT and the ICC Treaty, and announce an official review of reservations entered upon ratification of other major human rights instruments.
  • abolish of the death penalty for juvenile offenders (persons convicted for offences committed under the age of 18) as a first step towards total abolition of the death penalty.
  • pass the amendment to the press law designed to safeguard freedom of the press that has been tabled for discussion in the parliament and permit publications closed by unlawful judicial procedures to reopen.
  • close all secret detention centers like the so called Prison 59 in the Revolutionary Guard compound in Tehran and ensure that all detainees are held in official prison facilities.
  • establish strict limits on incommunicado detention, and ensure prompt access to lawyers and family members for detainees. Courts should not admit as evidence incriminatory statements obtained through use of coercion. For example the case of Siammak Pourzand, a 73 years old journalist illustrates the prevalance of torture during interrogations of political detainees.
  • rescind the ban on the Iran Freedom Movement, a fifty-year-old political party and enable other political parties to function.
  • initiate a program of action to identify and address discrimination against minority groups, for instance by providing education and employment entitlements to people of the Baha’i faith.
  • implement appropriate measures to ensure that refugees are not returned to their home countries (particularly Afghanistan) without access to proper determination procedures and their full rights under the Refugee Convention.
In its guidelines, the Council stressed that "human rights dialogues and resolutions submitted by the European Union to the UNGA or the CHR on the human rights situations in certain countries are two entirely separate forms of action. Accordingly, the fact that there is a human rights dialogue between the EU and a third country will not prevent the EU either from submitting a Resolution on the human rights situation in that country or from providing support for an initiative by the third country. Nor will the fact that there is a human rights dialogue between the EU and a third country prevent the European Union from denouncing breaches of human rights in that country, inter alia in the appropriate international fora, or from raising the matter in meetings with the third countries concerned at every level."

This commitment will face a critical test in the coming weeks at the UN General Assembly, where the European Union has traditionally sponsored a resolution on Iran. The European Union moved such a critical resolution at the last session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, but this was defeated by the narrowest of margins. Despite the positive moves made by the Iranian authorities since that time, it is too early for the European Union to back off from this approach, as this would send a mixed signal before Iran has even begun to deliver substantive results on its promised new opening on human rights. Since Iran is already actively lobbying other countries to vote against a possible Iran motion in the GA, the EU cannot afford a "wait and see" approach on this matter. It needs to start its own lobbying activities for a possible resolution with key partners worldwide now. Experience with the China dialogue shows that the pressure generated by the prospect of resolutions at the Commission has been a key factor in moving the process forward, despite Chinese threats to the contrary. It will be extremely important at this formative stage of the dialogue with Iran that the European Union does not relax the sustained pressure that has produced this opening in the first place. It would be preferable for the European Union to offer incentives to Iran for delivery of substantive progress on the substantive issues above during the first phase of the dialogue.

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