A Conversation with UN Special Rapporteur Dr. Ahmed Shaheed


On Monday afternoon, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed lectured to a group of Yale students, professors, and members of the New Haven community on the topic of “The UN Special Procedures and Human Rights in Iran.”  Dr. Shaheed is an internationally recognized expert on foreign policy, international diplomacy, democratization, and human rights reform especially in Muslim states.  He has twice held the Office of Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Maldives, a position he used to promote human rights standards.

During his time in government, Dr. Shaheed played a leading role in the Maldives democratic transition and in its human rights reform process.

Dr. Shaheed’s talk first focused on how the UN Special Rapporteurs, like himself, monitor and implement international human rights law.  In addition to visiting Iran (and meeting with the government as well as the people), Special Rapporteur duties include acting on individual cases of human rights issues, conducting thematic studies and convening expert consultations, making public statements, contributing to the development of international human rights standards, and engaging in advocacy.  Dr. Shaheed noted that Iranian citizens can approach him directly with any human rights issues they face or complaints they have and that this accessibility is critical to his role in facilitating the adherence to international human rights law.

Although some claim that the UN has unfairly targeted Iran, Dr. Shaheed rejects this opinion and explained the key reasons for the legitimate concerns with and attention to the current Iranian human rights situation.  He explained that Iran is both uncooperative and inadequate in its communications with various treaty bodies and with the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council of the UN.  The response rate to the Human Rights Council concerns is less than one quarter and some of the responses Iran provides fail to sufficiently address the concerns.  Dr. Shaheed noted that this low response rate and the poor quality of the responses they do get are not only unacceptable, but they are also far below those of almost all other countries.

After addressing how the Special Procedures functions and why Iran is such a major country of interest, Dr. Shaheed gave a general overview of the current situation of human rights in Iran.  There are a large number of violations Iran has been charged with and they tend to fall under specific areas he is most concerned with: freedom of expression, access to information, discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, gender inequality, due process, torture, and right to life.  Although, for example, women’s rights have increased dramatically in the past few decades, gender inequality is still a major problem in Iran and women face unequal citizenship rights, fewer job opportunities, and being forbidden from public affairs involvement.  Additionally, husbands must still accompany their wives when traveling and husbands can also legally object to their wives’ right to work.  Religious and ethnic minorities face similar discrimination including the deprivation of access to education as well as, more specifically, education in certain mother-tongue languages.

Dr. Shaheed spent the majority of his discussion on the current state of human rights in Iran on torture and fundamental due process violations.  His statistics on torture were chilling and, as he noted, deplorable.  Torture victims are subjected to blunt-force trauma 100% of the time, to sexual torture 60% of the time, to burns 26% of the time, and to other tactics such as electric shock and waterboarding to varying degrees.  Torture is a critical humanitarian concern and one that is also tied to problems with due process in Iran.  There are many reports of arbitrary arrests and detentions, failure to provide legal counsel, predetermination of verdicts by judges, and – often achieved with the aid of torture tactics – forced, false confessions.

Not only has Dr. Shaheed gained insight as to the state of human rights in Iran, but he has also developed a better understanding of the obstacles Iran faces as well as how Iran can adequately implement international human rights law.  The overly broad Iranian national laws, the capricious application of international and national law in Iran, and the impunity of the Iranian government in matters relating to human rights have been key reasons for the poor condition of human rights.  Additionally, these factors will make preventing and rectifying Iranian human rights violations challenging.  On the other hand, however, Dr. Shaheed explained that the five international human rights treaties ratified by Iran include safeguards for its citizens and that there are many individual rights guaranteed in the Iranian constitution.  Although these treaties and the constitution have not been successful in improving the human rights situation as of yet, they can provide a possible framework for improvement and progress in Iran going forward.

Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at hannah.flaum@yale.edu.