Iran in the Spotlight at the Human Rights Council

The United States, the United Kingdom, France and other countries took to the floor of the Human Rights Council yesterday to criticize Iran’s crackdown on political dissidents following disputed presidential elections last year.  The Iran discussion is happening under the auspices of a unique tool of the Human Rights Council called the Universal Periodic Review, which was an innovation of the Human Rights Council when it replaced the old, discredited Commission on Human Rights in 2005.  It requires that all member states undergo a review of their human rights records every four years, no matter what. The Universal Periodic Review does not result in any resolutions condemning or praising a country, but it does oblige countries to face international scrutiny of their internal human rights situations.  This forces countries to respond to specific criticisms, putting governments on the record in regards to alleged human rights abuses.  The review also offers recommendations on how a country may improve its human rights record.

The Universal Periodic Review means that at some point every country will be the focus of the council (and it belies the charge that only one country is ever the target of the Council.) This week happens to be Iran’s turn in the spotlight.  And the United States is using the opportunity to join with several allies to draw global attention to recent human rights abuses in Iran. Yesterday, the United States undersecretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner did that in a pretty dramatic way:

The United States strongly condemns the recent violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has resulted in detentions, injuries and deaths. Since last June millions of Iranian people have sought to raise legitimate concerns about the 2009 electoral process and to exercise their universal rights. The Government of Iran has suppressed their protests, often resorting to violence.

Similar sentiments were expressed by a number of other countries. Of course, Iran summarily rejected these and other accusations. The obvious question, therefore, is what practical good does these sorts of public demonstrations accomplish? Well, for one, it may lead to Iran’s further isolation. According to one close observer of the proceedings, the defiant stand taken by Iran may help pave the way for future council action resulting in a resolution condemning Iran’s post-election crackdown. It will also undermine Iran’s chances of joining the council during the next round of elections. 

Still, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness of the Universal Periodic Review is the extent to which it can inspire a country to alter its internal human rights practices. With countries that are generally rejectionist of this sort of external interference (say, Iran and North Korea) there is an obvious limit to what the council can practically accomplish. On the other hand, countries that have troubling human rights records, but are not completely rejectionist, have been inspired to improve their human rights records based on the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review. For example, Human Rights Watch notes that following Saudi Arabia’s first review last year, the Saudi government pledged a number of reforms on women’s rights, ending the juvenile death penalty, and expanding its labor laws to include protection for domestic workers.

The Universal Periodic Review is the cornerstone of the the Human Rights Council. It shows that the council is much more than its caricature, in certain quarters, as a hot bed of anti-Israel sentiment. Rather, it can be a tool to effectively press certain governments to live up to international human rights standards. And, if those governments (read, Iran) chose to reject these recommendations, they will find themselves isolated even further.

To be sure, the council does not always work perfectly. But when it does work, it can be an useful tool for advancing human rights globally.


Image: Flickr (US Mission in Geneva)