For the EU and Iran, It's Déjà Vu
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is in Iran this weekend for talks with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, accepting the standing invitation of the Iranian government.
But while Ashton is welcome in Tehran, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, was and remains persona non grata in the Islamic Republic.
Ashton's discussions will be dominated by talks on Iran's nuclear programme, but will range widely, from economic interests to human rights. The talks are a continuation of a broader effort by the EU to explore a renewal of engagement with Iran – an effort that included a trip in December by a delegation of members of the European Parliament.
The danger, though, is that the EU will end up playing to a playbook that Iran has already used successfully, to divide the EU and the UN on human-rights issues.
In 2002, rather than supporting the renewal of the mandate of Shaheed's predecessor, Maurice Copithorne, the EU preferred to initiate its own human-rights dialogue. As part of that deal, Iran offered the UN's thematic rapporteurs a “standing invitation” to visit the country.
The result? The EU dialogue, which did not include independent Iranian human-rights groups, was suspended by 2004.
The EU's own evaluation of the dialogue was far from encouraging, stating: “there has been very little or no progress at all by the Iranian authorities measured against the EU benchmarks.” And, by 2005, Iran ceased allowing UN human-rights rapporteurs to visit the country. In the end, the EU dialogue did little to improve human-rights protections and weakened the international community's ability to keep an eye on the situation in the country.
In the following years, the human-rights situation in Iran steadily deteriorated, culminating in 2009 with an explosion of state violence, torture, rape, and killing of protestors and activists who peacefully challenged election results. As abuses intensified and thousands were detained or imprisoned after unfair trials, there was no ‘guard on duty' to advocate for them. Iran unequivocally proved that it needed a special rapporteur to monitor the human-rights situation closely until it could show fundamental progress. As a result, in 2011 the UN's Human Rights Council appointed Shaheed as the new special rapporteur.
Now, in an effort to return to the rapporteur-free days, Iran has revived the 2002 script. It has welcomed the EU dialogue while dismissing and insulting Shaheed and his work.
Iran's strategy is to minimise human-rights attention and in the coming days, leading up to a vote by the UN Human Rights Council on Iran and Shaheed's mandate, Iran will surely continue to present a façade of genuine commitment to reforms and progress. Its tactics are to divide the international community and to talk about to human rights with diplomats or rights generalists, rather than the man appointed by the UN to look specifically and exclusively at the situation in Iran.
Tarja Cronberg, the chairwoman of the European Parliament's delegation to Iran, summed it up accurately when she said, on her return from Tehran, that Iranian officials “don't want someone who is specifically focused on Iran to visit”.
Members of the EU community, eager for results and encouraged by the arrival of a new president in Iran, seem unaware of the history of the Iran-EU human-rights dialogue or the gravity of the situation today.
Seven months into President Rouhani's term, there has been little progress on human rights. At least 900 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, speech is still strictly curtailed, and women, religious minorities, and ethnic minorities face cruel discrimination.
In some respects, the situation has worsened. Since 1 January, Iran has hanged more than 150 people, including political prisoners. This spike in executions, coupled with due-process concerns, prompted three independent UN experts last month to describe Iran's use of the death penalty as “unquestionably illegal”. The group, which included Shaheed, again demanded the government place a moratorium on executions. A country serious about human-rights reforms would opt for a moratorium and would co-operate with the UN's human-rights experts.
Progress on human rights in Iran is possible if EU engagement is firmly rooted in support of the Human Rights Council's process and recommendations of its appointed expert and other UN bodies. Ashton's visit, and her conversations with the government should amplify, not substitute, Shaheed's efforts. Anything else would be rewarding Iran's refusal to co-operate and reform.