A supporter of Ebrahim Raisi displays his portrait during a celebratory rally for his presidential election victory in Tehran, Iran, June 2021
Image by Wana News Agency


Azadeh Pourzand Print

In Iran, people’s fundamental human rights are violated on a daily basis. It is the only country in the world to have executed juvenile offenders in 2020, while the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, has said that “women and girls continue to be treated as second class citizens”. Religious minority and ethnic groups, as well as the LGBTIQ+ community, are deprived of basic human rights, facing hate speech, harassment, and persecution. Human rights defenders pay a heavy price for their activism, being prosecuted and jailed under the pretext of so-called “security” crimes.

Meanwhile, a nation that should be prosperous, given its extensive resources, is sinking into poverty, as a result of serious corruption and economic mismanagement, combined with US economic sanctions. Ordinary Iranians are suffering, with their purchasing power shrinking by the month. There is also increasing pressure on the middle class, including on human rights advocates and their families, who often struggle to make ends meet financially. This is not to mention the suffering endured by economically marginalised sections of society, particularly in rural areas. Rising discontent with deepening socio-economic, environmental, and public health crises has also fed local and national protests that have deep roots in the country’s working class. The Islamic Republic has used force and violence to sustain its rule, firing on protesters, as well as arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.

European governments have taken action on human rights in Iran, although this has not been as uncompromising as human rights advocates would hope for. Using back channels with the government in Tehran, the European Union has raised individual cases, particularly of people facing imminent execution. This work has helped to save lives, especially juveniles on death row. Europeans have also addressed the human rights situation in public, for example in issuing responses to the state-sponsored crackdown on nationwide protests in November 2019. At the UN Human Rights Council in 2020, Germany led and delivered a joint statement on human rights in Iran on behalf of 47 states. In April 2021, the EU added eight persons and three entities to its human rights sanctions list because of their roles in the November 2019 crackdown. Europeans have spearheaded support for the UN resolution re-establishing and renewing the mandate of the human rights special rapporteur ever since 2011. In September this year, in an unprecedented development, Sweden arrested Hamid Nouri, a former prosecutor, over the mass execution and torture of political prisoners in 1988.

But there is more that Europe should do, particularly on accountability. Rehman recently told the UN General Assembly that “the absence of domestic remedies highlights the international community’s important role in ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations”. Europe should support the push by Iranian human rights organisations for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigative and accountability mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence of the Iranian regime’s most serious crimes under international law.

Maintaining an international spotlight on human rights is particularly vital now because many key decision-makers – including President Ebrahim Raisi and the head of the judiciary – are among the perpetrators of serious past state violations, including the massacres of the 1980s, as well as the detention and torture of numerous activists in more recent years. Moreover, the Islamic Republic’s atrocities continue to transcend its borders and take place even in the jurisdiction of Western countries. This includes surveillance and the attempted kidnap of dissidents living in countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

Some Iranian human rights advocates have also been critical of Europe for prioritising the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations at the expense of the human rights situation. Given European efforts to establish and sustain the nuclear agreement during the Trump administration, it is understandable how difficult this balancing act is. Nevertheless, while the EU and the West in general were focused on negotiations and engaging the so-called more moderate factions of the Islamic Republic led by former president Hassan Rouhani, the human rights situation did not improve. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, Iranian authorities intensified the already worrying crackdown against human rights defenders, issuing heavy sentences including lengthy prison terms based on falsified securitised crimes while subjecting activists to surveillance and torture. In some of these cases, human rights defenders faced these harsh treatments after communicating with UN or EU officials. The subsequent flip from engagement to maximum pressure also did not improve the climate for human rights in Iran.

As Europeans attempt to revitalise the JCPOA, activists fear that human rights will again be marginalised. While the JCPOA process is politically complex, Europeans nevertheless need to ensure a parallel focus on human rights, using the opportunities presented by negotiations and wider political dialogues to press Tehran on the issue, reinforcing the message that this is a strong European concern.

Europeans should also look to support the work of Iranian human rights activists, many of whom risk their freedom and lives in order to express not only their own grievances but those of vulnerable and targeted groups, whose voices would not otherwise be heard. Europeans could also take steps to provide medical support in response to the current covid-19 crisis, given the country’s continued struggles with the pandemic, scarcity of vaccines, and the government’s mismanagement.

Europe should seek to forge a new relationship with Iran that is grounded in human rights. This relationship should support human rights defenders in their courageous and peaceful endeavours to hold the Islamic Republic accountable and prioritise the needs of the Iranian people. As such, it should avoid rewarding the regime for its gross violations of their rights.

Azadeh Pourzand is a human rights researcher and a civic entrepreneur whose work focuses on marginalised communities in the Middle East and south Asia. She is the co-founder and executive director of Siamak Pourzand Foundation, an NGO whose mission is to defend freedom of expression in Iran. She was previously the editor-in-chief of Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard, and has published two co-authored book chapters on women’s rights and the rule of law in Iran.

These case studies present a selection of views from human rights activists across the region. The countries selected do not offer a comprehensive assessment of the situation across the entire Middle East and North Africa but present perspectives on some of the key regional challenges. This case study was submitted on an individual basis without prior knowledge of the respective contributions.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.