The Rule of Law and Human Rights in Iran

Author: Regina Paulose

“Study the past if you would define the future.”[1]

This year Iran submitted its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. In its report it detailed legal principles which are supposedly given to Iranians. Among the principles presented were the “prohibition of torture,” the “right to legal counsel,” and the “presumption of innocence.” The remainder of the report makes no mention of any necessity or potential reform of its legal system.



This is quite troublesome given the series of events that have unfolded in the status quo. A week before Iran presented its UPR report, Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed. Karim Lahidji, President of the International Federation for Human Rights, described the Iranian justice system in a recent article:

“[t]he right to a fair trial continues to be systematically violated, and the courts increasingly hand down the death penalty, most often for cases of drug trafficking. Thousands of people — including many members of ethnic communities such as the Balochs, Kurds, and Arabs — are on death row in Iran. Despite a lack of transparency and an absence of official public records of executions, many death sentences are carried out, often publicly. 2013 was a record year in the past decade, with over 700 executions, including at least 8 minors. 2014 looks to be following the same trend, with more than 330 executions, including 7 minors, having taken place since the beginning of the year.”[2]

Sadly, these kinds of miscarriages of justice are not a new phenomenon in Iran. The rule of law in Iran has tumbled along all these years despite gruesome evidence that it is in desperate need of reform.

The UN also has ample records of the imbalances which exist in the Iranian justice system. Beginning in 1979 until 1982 UN Special Representative Olof Palme reported human rights violations which were occurring in the country.[3] From 1984 to 1986 Special Representative Andres Aguilar was given the cold shoulder when he attempted to meet with Iranian officials regarding these issues. In 1986 UN Special Representative Reynaldo Galindo Pohl was appointed and continued to report on various human rights violations. In 1988 Special Representative Pohl reported that he had spoken to witnesses who told him of the presence of mass graves and arbitrary executions.[4] The following year, Special Representative Pohl reported witness testimony that female prisoners who were being raped, forcibly married, and then executed.[5]  More reports regarding the same kind of gross violations followed every year. Special Representative Pohl requested the Iranian government to change penal norms in the country and to conduct a “scrupulous investigation” of all allegations of human rights violations that have occurred.[6]  Those requests to reform were ignored by Iranian authorities.

Despite U.N. monitoring and commentary since 1979, in 2013 the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran reported similar human rights violations:

“A preponderance of human rights defenders interviewed for this report maintained that they were arrested in the absence of a warrant, and subjected to physical and psychological duress during interrogations for the purpose of soliciting signed and televised confessions. A majority of interviewees reported that they were kept in solitary confinement for periods ranging from one day to almost one year, were denied access to legal counsel of their choice, subjected to unfair trials, and in some cases, subjected to severe physical torture, rape (both of males and females, by both male and female officials), electro-shock, hanging by hands or arms, and/or forced body contortion.”[7]

When the Iranian government has been questioned by the UN they seem to justify the oppression. During the 1980s Iran argued that Islamic law was incompatible with international law. They further utilized terrorism and their conflict with Iraq as justifications for human rights abuses, although they largely denied such abuses took place.[8]

Despite all the excuses made by Iran, in 2012, a group of survivors, witnesses, and relatives of deceased victims testified at the Iran Tribunal in The Hague about the systematic torture, rape, and oppression they experienced during the late 1980’s.  Various testimonies indicated a systematic and targeted policy which involved torture, rape, and murder towards various segments of Iranian society. The leadership of the regime was found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Tribunal.

The importance of this Tribunal cannot be stressed. One survivor who testified at the Tribunal stated, “for the first time, people in Iran—especially the younger generations—are finding out what happened in the ‘80s and can see how the past still informs the present. What happened in the ’80s doesn’t belong to the people of the ’80s. It laid down the foundations of where these young people were born: they were born in a climate of fear and oppression, and they are used to it and accept it, but the roots for the present situation have to be found in the massacres of the ’80s.”[9]  The record established at the Iran Tribunal, although not recognized by the Iranian government, clearly depicts a brutal system which is still in place. This system is not, should not, and cannot be justified by Sharia or Islamic law. This brutality has gone unchecked because geopolitics and economics has trumped the human rights agenda.  In addition to the plethora of evidence which sits within the UN reports, the international community should recognize and utilize the Iran Tribunal record when advocating for rule of law reform in Iran, considering the old practices still occur today.

While Iran has already taken one step by “accepting” and “noting” recommendations regarding its judicial system in the 2014 UPR cycle – it blames others for its poor human rights record. In its 2014 UPR submission Iran submitted that “the country faces challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights due to Western countries using the human rights situation in Iran as a “political tool.” They further claim that this “pressure or demands by other countries to accept and adopt certain Western standards of human rights will practically have negative impact on promotion of human rights.”

While the “West” continues to be blamed for almost every other calamity on the planet, in the case of Iran its historical record speaks for itself. The international community must remain vigilant with Iran on its promises about judicial reform. Otherwise in 2017 (during its midterm UPR report) and in April 2019 (during its next UPR report), we are bound to see an ugly part of history repeat itself.  Furthermore, without genuine efforts of reform of Iran’s legal system, other potential bodies, such as the Arab Human Rights Court could be plagued by notions that are contrary to the protection and promotion of human rights.

[1] Confucius

[2] Karim Lahidji, “Iran: Human Rights Caught between diplomatic process and political deadlock” HuffPost,  June 18, 2014,

[3] See Treatment of the Baha’is in Iran, E/CN.4/1517/December 31, 1981.

[4] Report of the Economic and Social Council, Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, A/43/705/ October 13, 1988, Pohl Report: para 14

[5] Report of the Economic and Social Council, Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, A/44/620/ November 2, 1989, Pohl Report: para 27

[6] Ibid at  para 127(b)

[7] Special Rappatuer’s Report on Human Rights in Iran, February 2013, A/HRC/22/56,

[8] Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in any Part of the World, with Particular Reference to Colonial and Other Dependent Countries and Territories, Report on the human rights Situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, E/CN.4/1988/24, January 25, 1988, para 58. See also Report of the Economic and Social Council, Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, A/44/620/ November 2, 1989, Pohl Report, para 92.

[9] The Economist, “Judgment Time” October 30, 2012,