The Government of Iran has failed to commit itself to undertaking the vital reforms needed to protect freedom of expression and civic space, during the adoption of its Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, ARTICLE 19 said today. Against a backdrop of a violent crackdown on the right to protest, and ongoing restrictions on digital rights and dissent, we call on the authorities in Iran to implement all those recommendations received from its peers, to fulfil its obligations under international human rights law.
“The Government of Iran’s limited commitments during its Universal Periodic Review are deeply concerning, particularly with the ongoing human rights crisis in the country,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, ARTICLE 19’s Senior Director of Programmes. “Iran must implement all recommendations received during this process, and immediately end systematic repression of civil society and the right to freedom of expression.”
Appearing before the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Iran formally responded to the 329 recommendations from UN Member States during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which took place in November 2019. Among those recommendations, 23 States called on the government to end its ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, to reform the restrictive legal framework for free expression, and to end its disruption of Internet connectivity.
We welcome that the government committed itself to implementing several broad recommendations on encouraging steps to protect freedom of expression and related rights. We deeply regret, however, that all those specific recommendations – mandating precisely the reforms required to make the enjoyment of these rights a reality – were rejected by the government. In this context, the government’s genuine commitment to improving its human rights record remains in serious doubt.
We are deeply concerned that the government rejected multiple recommendations calling for an end to violations of the right to peaceful assembly. Just days after Iran’s UPR took place in November 2019, the authorities violently repressed nationwide protests, including through the widespread use of intentional lethal force. A week-long internet shutdown enabled an information blackout on the protests, frustrating organisation and participation in peaceful protests, and crucially, preventing the documentation of, and free flow of information about, rights violations being perpetrated by the security forces from reaching the public.
The unlawful killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters and bystanders came alongside mass arbitrary arrests: over 7,000 are believed to have been detained, and many now face harsh and wholly disproportionate sanctions, simply for exercising their rights. In January this year, Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi, protesters from Tehran, were sentenced to death on trumped up charges of “cooperating in vandalism and arson” under Article 687 of the Islamic Penal Code.
Independent and effective investigations into all violations and abuses committed in the context of the peaceful protests in November, as called for by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, are essential, and must be an urgent priority for the government.
The Government of Iran rejected all recommendations calling for the release of individuals arbitrarily detained for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Iranian authorities have ramped up their use of judicial harassment and arbitrary arrests and detentions of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, as a tool of censorship. In recent years, increasingly harsh sentences have been applied against human rights lawyers and other prominent dissenting voices, seemingly to intimidate others into self-censorship.
To create a genuinely enabling environment for civil society and a free and independent media, as well as all other dissenting, minority, and critical voices, Iran must immediately end the practice of judicial harassment, and immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained on trumped up charges,
Iran also failed to accept any recommendations explicitly calling for the repeal or reform of repressive provisions for freedom of expression. The Islamic Penal Code provides the government an extensive toolbox to stifle free expression. Among the most widely misused are those broadly criminalising “spreading lies”, “causing damage to someone”, or “insult” against the Supreme Leader, Prophet or Islam. Women’s rights defenders protesting the veil have increasingly been targeted under vague provisions criminalising “corruption of morals”. These, and other vague and overbroad provisions, are in clear violation of Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, and must be repealed.
We deeply regret the government’s rejection of a recommendation calling for an end to its routine disruption of Internet connectivity. Internet shutdowns, and all other intentional measures that interfere with access to information online have been condemned by the international community as a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of expression and information.
As ARTICLE 19 has been documenting, the government has accelerated its efforts to develop a National Information Network (NIN), which aims to create a so-called “clean” national internet. This project has enabled the authorities to cut off access to the unrestricted global Internet entirely, including during the 2019 protests. The government has already sought to push Internet users in Iran onto the NIN by heavily subsidising the use of national platforms hosted on the network, including local social media and messaging platforms.
The broad content-based criminal offences in the Penal Code will be heavily enforced on the NIN, substantially reducing access to independent, diverse sources of information online in the country. Against a backdrop of proposals to criminalise online encryption, and the government’s already expansive surveillance powers, Iran appears intent on centralising, and tightening its control over the Internet.
“As COVID-19 has devastating effects on Iran, it has made clear how repression of freedom of expression and access to information is failing people across the country. It is important more than ever that Iran changes course on its human rights record. We urge the authorities to urgently implement the recommendations received during the UPR.”
Ahead of the UPR, ARTICLE 19 and Access Now submitted a joint report highlighting how freedom of expression had severely deteriorated in Iran, including a repressive legal framework applied to crackdown on human rights defenders, and internet shutdowns and censorship of websites and apps.