Yesterday, Iran was ousted from the U.N. body tasked with empowering women after months of protests in the country calling for gender equality. The move follows a landmark resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) last month to establish the first international fact-finding mission on Iran investigating human rights violations committed during the protests, which began in September when Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died after being held in custody by Iran’s morality police. Since then, the United Nation estimates that the government crackdown against protestors has resulted in over 300 deaths, including at least 40 children, as well as over 14,000 arrests.
The fact-finding mission in Iran has a short amount of time to collect, consolidate, analyze, and preserve evidence of human rights violations with a view toward cooperating with future legal proceedings. The mandate specifically calls for a gender analysis in its investigations, which will require expertise on sexual and gender-based violence. The fact-finding mission must provide the HRC with an update on its work by next summer at the 53rd Session of the HRC and present a comprehensive report on its findings by March 2024 at the 55th Session of the HRC.
Past Fact-Finding Missions
U.N. mandated investigative bodies are used to respond to situations where serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law have been or continue to be committed. The fact-finding missions and Commissions of Inquiry established by the HRC focus on country-specific situations, such as the current situation in Iran. With complex mandates and tight reporting deadlines, the work of the fact-finding mission is fast-paced and intense.
Starting a few years ago, the United Nations. began to create independent investigative mechanisms which serve as evidence repositories as part of an “accountability turn” in U.N. fact-finding. To date, three independent investigative mechanisms have been created–the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism on Syria (IIIM Syria), the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD), and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM). All three mechanisms share information collected with national or international courts and tribunals. The IIIM Syria, for example, has shared information with national jurisdictions in western Europe, UNITAD shares information with the Iraqi authorities, and the IIMM shares information with the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.
The IIIM Syria, UNITAD, and the IIMM are standalone institutions that are independent from a larger U.N. agency. These mechanisms focus on criminal investigations, where international crimes or violations of international humanitarian law are suspected. As such, the mechanisms have a mandate to share information collected with domestic, regional, and international courts and tribunals.
The fact-finding mission on Iran similarly has a mandate to collect, analyze, and preserve “evidence” with a view towards sharing it with future legal proceedings. The Iran mission, however, will focus on investigating human rights violations, which involves different procedures and methodologies. The fact-finding mission’s mandate is twofold: investigate human rights violations to produce public reports, and serve as an evidence storage mechanism with a view of sharing the evidence in the future with courts.
Challenges and Recommendations
Numerous challenges may arise in the investigative process for the fact-finding mission on Iran—notably, the lack of access to the country itself. Without the ability to travel inside Iran to interview victims and witnesses, the fact-finding mission must develop creative methods for collecting and preserving information in near real-time as events unfold.
Overcoming this challenge will require relying heavily on open-source information. Investigators need to establish a chronology from the start of the protests, identifying key events related to violence against protestors, assessing the gravity of the situation, and identifying the human rights violations that occurred. Developing a comprehensive understanding of the social media landscape in Iran will be necessary to collect, preserve, and verify digital information. Collecting information from credible media sources, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, and social media platforms will be crucial for establishing the facts of what happened on the ground.
While remote interviews with victims and witnesses can be conducted, it is crucial to ensure safeguards for, not only the physical safety and security of interviewees, but also their digital security. If remote contact with people inside of Iran is impossible or dangerous, investigators will need to carefully identify who can be interviewed safely. Member States in the region could facilitate safe passage and secure interview locations for victims and witnesses. Civil society organizations and victims groups could be trained on interview methodology and documentation efforts.
Even when information can be safely accessed, there will be additional challenges with processing, verifying, and preserving it. As the mandate from the HRC includes language on sharing the information collected with legal proceedings in the future, questions arise as to whether the collection and preservation of the information should be done to a legal standard, and if so, what standard.
One important aspect of this work concerns the rapid preservation and disclosure of digital information from social media platforms. Documenting events on a mobile phone and posting it to social media has become an integral way of sharing information on atrocity and other crimes. As more events are documented via social media, it is important for governments and civil society to take steps to preserve the posts for accountability purposes. Social media companies, for their part, should voluntarily cooperate with fact-finding missions to identify relevant posts for preservation and disclosure. Preservation of information will assist in accountability efforts in the future as this information may be shared with legal proceedings as part of the evidence collected.
The creation of the first U.N. fact-finding mission on Iran signaled that the world will not stay silent in the face of egregious human rights abuses. While the practical impact of the U.N. mission remains to be seen, it is important to keep the human rights situation in Iran in the spotlight and on the HRC agenda going forward.