Akkarasorn Opilan, Publications Executive of UCL JLAP
Despite the current “progressive” epoch that the international community seems to move towards, many violations of human rights law in current protesting countries are being downplayed by international countries, highlighting the weak rule of law being enforced both on a national and an international level when it comes to accountability. Understandably, the fine line that nations may not dare to cross due to diplomatic relations are partly a hindrance to this international accountability.
Apart from international accountability, the weakening respect towards human rights principles in the legal field of some countries emphasizes the challenges of today: how can a nation, or international communities, help curtail the rise of authoritarian usage of law-making mechanisms, especially those that affect human rights principles. In this blog post, the spotlight will be put towards Iran, a country in civil turmoil where mass protests are occurring against the current Islamic theocratic regime.
Mass protests started in Iran in September 2022, following the death of Zhina Mahsa Amini. She died on September 16th, 2022, due to the brutality she suffered under the Iranian morality police when they arrested her for not wearing the hijab correctly (Washington Kurdish Institute, 2022). Arguably, Zhina Amini’s death was the catalyst for what came to be a fight for “Women, Life, Freedom”. The focus of this blog piece is not on what had happened in Iran but rather the legal implications of the Iranian government’s response and the response of the international community on human rights principles.
It is crucial to understand the historical constitutional developments in Iran and its implications on women. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Shia Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the supreme leader, and his regime introduced a new constitution (Constitute, 2022). Although Article 21 of the constitution aims for the government to protect women’s rights, a US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center argues that the “constitutional provisions do not recognize women as individuals (Iran Human Rights Documentation Center).” Additionally, in 2021, a UN human rights expert said that “women and girls continue to be ‘second class’ ” citizens in the country (United Nations Press Release, 2021).”
The intention to uplift women from the previous regime apparent in the post-1979 constitution was merely an illusion that masked the clear discrimination. For example, in family law, wives must seek the permission of their husband to secure a divorce or take up employment. Most importantly, in 1983, Iran’s parliament passed a law for all women to wear the hijab in public spaces. The punishment is 60-days imprisonment, a fine or a sentence up to 74 lashes (Made for Minds, 2020). Contrastingly, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran noted that activists who protest the mandatory wear of hijab have been convicted with national security laws which often carry harsher sentences (United Nations Press Release, 2021). These discriminatory laws are against what the UN Commission on the Status of Women represent, which Iran was previously a member of before being removed in October 2022 (UN News, 2022).
The Iranian Penal Code of 2013 provides the death penalty for offences such as “waging war against God”, “corruption on earth”, and “armed rebellion”. These are the sentences that are used to convict activists during the September 2022 protest.
Three conflicts arise with the internationally accepted legal principles: (1) retributive justice or proportionate alternative punishment, (2) rule of law, (3) freedom of speech. Although it is important to not evaluate the Islamic laws based on Western democratic views as Iran’s government system is based on Islamic theocracy, the matter of women’s right and gender equity as well as religious freedom is a matter of human rights, which should be put as a superseding value in any society despite any cultural and religious differences. The use of unlawful force to detain, arrest, and silent protestors cannot be justified by any religious motivations, corresponding to the internationally recognized by the International Bill of Human Rights.
As of 13th December 2022, the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) has documented 490 protesters, 68 of that being children. HRANA estimated that around 18,000 people have been arrested. The death penalty is being imposed and the first to be officially sentenced to death due to links with the protests is Mohsen Shekari. Despite all of this, the Iranian constitution in Article 34 states that “seeking justice is the indisputable right of every citizen (Islamic Republic of Iran, 2014)” and yet, numerous reports show that the families of activist have been coerced into silence. This lack of respect towards the foundations of constitutional law is not unique to Iran but is also visible in many nations where its government are going against its own constitution or remaking them to silence protestors. Are there any national and international solutions to encourage accountability and the respect for the law when it comes to the tyranny of a government?
Whilst many nations, and the UN themselves, have condemned the Iranian government, it does not seem like the government has decreased its use of force, the death penalty, and arbitrary arrest of protestors (House of Commons Library: 2022 Iran Protests, 2022). Iran replied by encouraging “states to uphold the principle of non-inference in the internal affairs of other countries (Almayadeen, 2022).”
What happens when a regime/government oversteps its constitutional powers and enforces discriminative laws? As seen in Iran (and many other nations not mentioned in this blog post), the citizens are going against the government for their actions. And what happens when even the outcry of citizens is unable to force the government to take accountability of their own actions? Theoretically, we should be able to turn to laws and constitutional principles to uphold justice and yet, in this case, justice is not upheld. What happens then? One solution is the reliance of international pressure. But one limitation is that nations who interfere risk overstepping their diplomatic boundaries. As such, there may not be enough pressure to prevent the current Iranian government from committing its current human rights violations.
Iran is only one of many countries that are currently experiencing the tyranny of governments who overstep their authority and infringe upon human rights in this age where we should be moving towards progressiveness. Examples of other nations that saw this in the past few years are Thailand, Myanmar, and Latin American nations such as Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua (Human Rights Watch, 2022).