The Human Rights Committee’s 2023 Review: A Reminder of the Urgency of Structural Changes in Iran
December 8, 2023
In October 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committe conducted a long overdue review of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s human rights record...
The Human Rights Committee’s 2023 Review: A Reminder of the Urgency of Structural Changes in Iran
Delegates of the Islamic Republic of Iran before the Human Rights Committee, October 9, 2023
In October 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (the Committee) conducted a long overdue review of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s human rights record over the past decade. A sizable Iranian delegation, including a member under human rights sanctions by the European Union , participated in discussions with the Committee. The Committee, having received submissions from and met with Iran-focused human rights groups, including the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) , sought a comprehensive examination of Iran's adherence to its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The International Human Rights Day (December 10), coinciding this year with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned human rights advocate and abolitionist Narges Mohammadi, provides an excellent opportunity to scrutinize Iran's performance through the lens of the UN. The outcome sheds light on Iran’s continued violation of a majority of the articles in the ICCPR and the need for a more robust and persistent international response to hold Iran accountable.
Among the handful of Nobel Peace Prize laureates under arrest at the time of their award ceremony, Narges Mohammadi, sentenced to prison during the Committee's 2011 review of Iran , is unable to personally receive her accolade in Stockholm on December 10. It is her dedication to human rights, her efforts towards the abolition of the death penalty, and her unwavering commitment to justice that have kept her in prison for most of the last decade. The Committee's findings, the increasingly limited space for peaceful human rights activism, and the plight of individuals such as Narges Mohammadi emphasize the critical need for more effective international pressure on Iran’s leaders to carry out structural and institutional changes to ensure that domestic laws and practices are compatible with Iran’s international obligations.
Being a signatory to various international agreements and conventions, including the ICCPR, which Iran ratified in 1975 without reservation , the Islamic Republic of Iran is bound by its commitments to uphold human rights standards. The Human Rights Committee, composed of 18 independent experts, serves as the monitoring body overseeing the implementation of ICCPR by its State parties. Periodic reports detailing the Covenant’s implementation are submitted by all state parties, leading to the issuance of observations and recommendations by the Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations. These conclusions are reached after consideration of state reports and input from civil society.
On November 3, 2023, the Committee adopted its fourth concluding observations on Iran . While the Iranian government maintains that the Covenant is an integral part of the domestic legal system and treated as domestic law, the Committee begins by expressing concern that the Covenant is overlooked when domestic law takes precedence over the Covenant.
The report reveals Iran’s alarming and repeated flagrant disregard for its ICCPR obligations. In particular, the Committee expresses explicit concerns about “past human rights violations and reprisals in regard to protests, such as the arbitrary arrest of family members of people killed during the 2019 and 2022 protests” and emphasizes the need for “independent investigations, prosecutions, sanctions for perpetrators, and remedies for victims.” Notably, the Committee upholds that there has been a considerable increase in the number of executions carried out since 2021, raising concerns about the widespread and systematic nature of the abuses.
The Committee's recommendations now encompass a broader spectrum of issues compared to previous reports, ranging from anti-corruption measures to safeguards against discrimination, including the protection of minority rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, gender equality, and violence against women, including domestic violence. Among the issues raised by the Committee, at least three are of primary relevance to ABC’s work: impunity, the lack of free and fair trials, and the death penalty.
Fight against impunity and the right to a fair trial
The Iranian judiciary has long been criticized for its lack of independence and the absence of free and fair trials. The Committee upholds that the lack of an independent and impartial judiciary is severely curtailed by the fact that the country’s political leadership, particularly the Supreme Leader and other high-ranking officials, heavily influences the judiciary. The Committee is “concerned that under the Constitution, the Supreme Leader, the highest political authority of the country, directly appoints the Head of the Judiciary for a period of five years. The Head of the Judiciary in turn directly appoints, among others, the Head of the Supreme Court, the General Prosecutor, the Attorney General, and the Head of the General Inspection Organization.” The vetting process for judges is constructed to ensure that only those who agree with the political and religious ideologies of the Islamic Republic are recruited . Women are precluded from certain positions in the judiciary.
More alarmingly, the concluding observation states that due process rights, such as the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence, and the right to an impartial tribunal, are often not upheld in Iranian courts, particularly by the Revolutionary Courts. Trials, especially those related to political or security issues, are closed to the public and the media. This lack of transparency makes it nearly impossible to verify the fairness of these trials. Inconsistent rulings and a lack of adherence to principles such as the presumption of innocence further erode confidence in Iran’s judicial system. Defendants often can not access their judgments, hindering their ability to appeal their convictions and compromising the right to a fair trial as guaranteed under Article 14 of the ICCPR.
Furthermore, the Committee notes “credible reports of widespread and systemic practice of torture and ill-treatment of persons deprived of liberty by law enforcement officials and the Revolutionary Guard, in formal and informal detention centers.” It expresses concern over reports of “torture and ill-treatment to extract confessions during investigations, that are later presented as evidence in court, including in cases of the death penalty.” ABC has previously reported on how torture and ill-treatment are rampant in Iranian prisons and detention centers. Confessions play a significant role in securing convictions in Iran, and forced confessions, which are often obtained through torture, are common. Seyyed Saleh Mirhashemi Boltaghi, Majid Kazemi Sheikh Shabani, and Sa’id Yaghoubi Kordsafali were executed on May 19, 2023, after being convicted of fatally shooting a law enforcement officer and two Basij members during demonstrations in Esfahan on November 16, 2022. The primary evidence against the defendants was their confessions. Yet Majid Kazemi, one of the defendants, stated before his execution that he was forced to make false and self-incriminating statements after interrogators beat him, gave him electric shocks, subjected him to mock executions, and threatened to rape him, execute his brothers, and harass his parents .
The Committee also expresses concerns about “the pattern of excessive use of force carried out by security forces in the context of peaceful assemblies.” It refers to reports of “disproportionate and intentional use of lethal force” against largely peaceful protesters during the protests that followed the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022. It concludes that “the apparent lack of independent, impartial and transparent investigations into deaths and injuries following incidents of excessive and lethal use of force and firearms, by law enforcement officers, as well as for the lack of prosecutions and sanctions handed down to perpetrators and lack of remedies for victims; creating a de facto climate of impunity.”
Amini’s case, as noted in ABC’s statement to the Committee on October 9th, 2023 , is itself emblematic. More than a year after her death, no one has yet been charged or tried. The journalists who broke the news of Amini’s death are still imprisoned; her lawyer is being prosecuted for “propaganda against the regime” because he called for an independent fact-finding committee and demanded the release of missing footage from police cameras. Her family members were detained in their home and prevented from commemorating the anniversary of her death.
The aggressive use of the death penalty
As staggering as the number of protest crackdown killings has been, they have not been the only way the State has taken life. In its previous concluding observation , the Committee confirmed that the death penalty was carried out to an extremely high degree, with a wide range and often vague definition of offenses for which the death penalty could be applied, as well as noting the continued use of public executions, including stoning. The Committee urged Iran to only impose the death penalty for “the most serious crimes” (i.e. those involving intentional killing). Yet, in its most recent concluding observation, the Committee affirms that a high number of executions, which has increased considerably since 2021, is still carried out for a large number of offenses that the Committee upholds do not “qualify as ‘most serious,” including hudud crimes (such as offenses against the State and religion) qisas offenses (including unintentional killing), and ta’zir crimes (such as drug-related offenses).
According to reports collected by ABC, a staggering 695 people have been executed so far in 2023 (from January 1 through November 30) — a considerable increase from 508 during the same period in 2022. The total number of people executed in 2022 was 579. The Committee expresses concern over “the disproportionate application of the death penalty to members of minorities, such as the Baluch, Ahwazi Arabs, and Kurdish minorities,” a trend in line with historical patterns of the death penalty and minority populations. Furthermore, the Committee also concludes that there has been a startling increase in drug-related executions, which disproportionately affect the Baluch community. ABC can report that in 2021, there were at least 131 known executions for drug offenses (of 317 total), followed by 254 in 2022 (of 579 total) and 387 so far in 2023 (of 695 total, from January 1 through November 30). An estimated 56% of all executions in 2023 (as of November 30) were related to alleged drug offenders.
A 2022 ABC and Monash University report “Proven With(out) Certainty – How Judges Sentence Defendants to Death for Drug Offences in Iran,” provides a closer look at the judicial process and the arbitrary application of the death penalty in Iran for drug-related cases . The report notes, among other issues, the “duly unreasoned judgments” and the lack of details and context in rulings that send hundreds of individuals to the gallows every year.
Furthermore, the staggering speed at which the death penalty is being carried out at times is disturbing. ABC has recorded several cases where the death penalty has been carried out in all haste, following forced coercion and failure to meet international standards of a free and fair trial. Majid Reza Rahnavard, a 23-year-old resident of Mashhad, was publicly executed on December 12, 2022, merely twenty-three days after he was arrested. He had been tortured and forced to confess to the killing of two members of the Basij forces. The video footage used as evidence did not directly link him to the incident, and he was not given the right to defend himself in court .
Similarly, on November 4, 2022, Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, a 40-year-old Karaj resident, was arrested along with 16 other individuals in connection to the killing of a Basij member. Approximately two months after being arrested, on January 7, 2023, he was executed by hanging in Karaj. No evidence was provided to support the accusations, and neither his attorney nor any member of his family was aware of the execution .
Despite the fact that the use of the death penalty for crimes committed under the age of 18 is strictly forbidden in international law, Iran continues to execute children. On April 25, 2019, Mehdi Sohrabifar  and Amin Sedaqatpur , two cousins, were executed at the age of 17 in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz for the alleged crimes of rape and robbery that occurred when they were 15. Neither the children nor their families were aware of the death sentence. The two were reportedly forced to confess under torture, and flogged before their executions, in clear violation and utter disdain of international law and the rights of the child .
The Committee welcomed Iran’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994 and the measures taken to improve the status of children such as adopting the Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents (2020), which criminalizes any abuse against children, and the introduction of the new Islamic Penal Code (2013) which puts limitations on corporal punishment for children. However, the age of criminal responsibility (nine lunar years for girls and 15 lunar years for boys) still allows children to be treated as adults before a criminal court. The Committee reiterated that Iran is to “ensure that no person who was below the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of an offence is subjected to death penalty under any circumstance” . According to reports collected by ABC, from January 1, 2012 through November 30, 2023, Iran has executed at least 88 alleged child offenders.
The Committee's Concluding Observations reveal alarming human rights violations highlighting Iran’s repeated flagrant disregard for the obligations it has under ICCPR. Of particular concern is the absence of specific information on efforts to incorporate ICCPR provisions into domestic legal proceedings. The Committee also remarks on the government's failure, despite a two decades-old commitment, to establish an independent National Human Rights Institution in line with the Paris Principles . Furthermore, it underscored the lack of progress in developing a human rights plan of action.
The Committee emphasizes the need for fair trials and legal representation in all cases, and urges Iran to consider abolishing the death penalty, to give due consideration to establishing a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to abolishing it, and, if not, to impose the death penalty only for “the most serious crimes” and ensure that no person is executed for a crime committed before the age of 18.
ABC, which has documented the use of capital punishment in the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than two decades, draws attention to the high cost in human lives of a criminal justice system lacking the minimum standards of fairness. The heavy-handed punishments meted out to anti-death penalty advocates such as Narges Mohammadi and those who call for greater transparency and adherence to international standards in Iran’s criminal justice process are intended to spread fear and prevent public scrutiny and debate on the crisis of the right to life in Iran.
Iran’s representatives may have engaged with the international community frequently and in numbers over the years, but the persecution and silencing of critics, the denial of access to independent monitors, and the withholding of systematic and reliable data do not signal Iran’s intention to seriously address the decades-long cycle of violence and impunity. Hence the need for the Committee to reiterate many of the concerns raised and recommendations issued during Iran’s last periodic review in 2011. ABC welcomes the thorough and substantive recommendations of the Human Rights Committee and its recognition of Iran's serious and persistent violations of its obligations under the ICCPR. Iran’s civil society and international human rights organizations have repeatedly reported on systematic and widespread violations, including violations amounting to crimes against humanity .
Addressing the culture of impunity that has plagued Iran for decades, and was exhibited once again through the state's deadly response to the Women Life Freedom protests, requires a more robust, creative, and sustained international response. “The international community must counter Iran’s leaders’ determination to prevent meaningful change by a similarly strong and lasting determination to hold Iran accountable for violating its international human rights obligations, including by extending the mandate of the UN Fact Finding Mission on Iran, calling for the release of all political prisoners, and demanding structural changes to stop the cycle of violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives in more than four decades.” —ABC’s Executive Director Roya Boroumand
 Signing and ratifying international conventions is a critical process through which countries formalize their commitment to upholding specific principles, standards, and obligations towards the international community. Signing signifies the country's intention to consider joining the convention and to participate in the negotiation and domestic approval process. However, it does not legally bind the country to comply with the convention's provisions. Ratification is the formal act of confirming a country's commitment to the obligations and responsibilities outlined in the convention. Once ratified, the convention becomes legally binding on the country.
 UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee: Iran, 3 November 2023, CCPR/C/IRN/CO/4 (https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/4082, accessed 9 November 2023). The Human Rights Committee is a body of 18 independent experts that monitors the ICCPR’s implementation by its State parties. All state parties provide information on their periodic reporting on the implementation of the Covenant, upon which the Human Rights Committee issues observations and recommendations in its concluding observations after considering the State’s report, and reports from civil society.