In her Senate confirmation hearing to serve as President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield described the world body’s indispensable role in advancing peace and human rights, but “only if America is leading the way.” She’s right – and nowhere will US leadership matter more at the UN than on demanding accountability from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Here are five key steps to achieve that:
The first place to start is at the UN General Assembly, which adopts an annual resolution on Iran that, while containing many strong points, opens with no less than nine separate sections of undue praise for the oppressive regime.
Absurdly, the text adopted on December 16, 2020, commended Iran’s “reduction in number of executions” even as it recently executed wrestlers Navid Afkari and Mehdi Ali Hosseini for protesting the regime, and hanged dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam in what France called a “barbaric” act.
The UNGA’s Iran resolution also “welcomed” the regime’s commitment to “improving the situation of women.” Someone may want to ask human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, condemned to 38 years in prison for defending women who removed their headscarves in defiance of the regime’s compulsory hijab law, for her opinion.
The US needs to start working now with Canada, the lead sponsor of the annual text, to make sure the December 2021 version is no longer replete with false plaudits.
Second, and even more problematic, is the annual resolution on Iran that will come up this month in Geneva at the UN’s Human Rights Council, a text that lacks a single line of condemnation for the Islamic Republic’s serial rights abuses.
Sweden, the main sponsor, openly acknowledges that it’s nothing but a “short, procedural text.” The US needs to convince its European allies to support changing the resolution to one of substance that actually calls out Iran’s abuses.
To its credit, the UNHRC resolution does renew the mandate of a UN monitor on Iran, whose job is to investigate and report on human rights violations. However, since the mandate’s creation a decade ago, Tehran has repeatedly denied entry to the monitor. The US should use its podium at the UN to call out the regime’s refusal to cooperate with the council, and demand transparency and accountability.
More broadly, the new administration should work with the council, which recently held an urgent meeting about its review of the island microstate of Nauru, to reorder its priorities.
The world’s top human rights body has never held a single urgent meeting on gross and systematic abuses committed by China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Cuba, or Zimbabwe – just to name a few.
Third, the US mission in Geneva should also urge the council’s 55 independent experts to reexamine their allocation of time and resources.
In the last five years, nine different monitors – with focus areas like racism, arbitrary detention and freedom of assembly – conducted or requested visits to the United Kingdom. Yet in that same time period, only five UN human rights experts made requests to investigate Iran, a dictatorship that has none of the checks and balances of British democracy.
Fourth, the US should demand that UN treaty bodies, which are expert committees that review countries’ compliance with international human rights conventions, begin to hold Iran to account.
For example, at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, countries are supposed to be reviewed approximately every four years. Yet Iran hasn’t been reviewed in more than a decade. And when it was examined, the UN committee failed to say a word about the regime’s Holocaust denial or its repeated calls to destroy Israel – even as the same committee did make sure to question the UK and Australia about Islamophobia.
Finally, it’s not only that too many UN bodies and officials give Iran a free pass. On repeated occasions, the UN awards the brutal regime with a medal of honor.
Despite the mullahs’ use of forced confessions, unfair trials, scrapping evidence, and denial of due process, the Islamic Republic of Iran was in 2018 elected to the UN Commission on Criminal Justice.
A year later, in March 2019 – a day after the regime sentenced women’s rights lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh to 38 years in prison – the UN’s women’s rights committee appointed Iran to judge complaints of women’s rights violations.
The US needs to lobby across the UN system to oppose cynical elections or appointments that hand false badges of international legitimacy to a cruel and misogynistic regime.
The Biden administration wants to show that engagement with the UN can deliver concrete results. Getting the world body to scrutinize – and not legitimize – the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei would be a perfect way to prove that proposition.
The writer is the New York Associate of UN Watch, an independent non-governmental human rights organization.