The situation of human rights in Iran, especially for women, remains dire, and the upcoming 55th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) holds unprecedented potential to propel accountability efforts on Iran forward should the U.N. Fact Finding Mission conclude that Iran has committed the crime against humanity of gender persecution and member States support the renewal of crucial oversight and investigative mechanisms. Without these actions, this session of the HRC could set the cause of human rights in Iran back decades. 

The 55th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council

On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Zhina Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police, who alleged she had not been in compliance with the country’s hijab laws. Her death, suspected to be from severe police brutality, sparked the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests across Iran and around the world.

Two months later, in November 2022, a Special Session of the HRC established an independent international fact finding mission (FFMI) Now for over a year, the FFMI has been investigating alleged human rights violations and potential violations of international law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The investigation focuses especially on human rights with respect to women and children and the gendered dimension of such violations. The FFMI will deliver its comprehensive report during the upcoming 55th session of the HRC, tentatively scheduled for Mar. 18. With the delivery of this report, the FFMI will have the opportunity to make a first of its kind finding about crimes committed against civilians.

The session also marks the end of the mandate of the current U.N. Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Javaid Rehman, and separately the need to renew the mandate itself. If this position is to continue its work, the HRC must vote in favor of its renewal.

The culmination of these events calls for three strong actions on human rights in Iran:

  1. The FFMI, in its comprehensive report, must recognize that Iran has committed the crime against humanity of gender persecution since at least Sep. 16, 2022. 
  2. Member States must support the renewal of the mandate of the FFMI so that investigations and preservation of evidence may continue beyond March. 
  3. Member States must renew the mandate of the UNSR on the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Crimes Against Humanity in Iran Since at Least September 16, 2022

While the mandate of the FFMI is focused on international human rights law and does not expressly mention international criminal law as a legal framework, according to the Terms of Reference, the FFMI shall also consider other international legal obligations held by Iran “including in relation to crimes under international law.” The FFMI’s approach is consistent with the one adopted by U.N. commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions with similar mandates in relation to international crimes.

Gender persecution is recognized under international treaty and customary law. The Rome Statute is the first international treaty that articulates the crime against humanity of persecution on gender grounds. While Iran is not party to the Rome Statute, persecution has long been recognized under customary international law. This custom is supported by the International Law Commission in the Draft Articles on Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Humanity (Draft Articles) adopting the Rome Statute definition of persecution in 2019. The recognition of gender persecution also gained momentum recently when the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC adopted a policy paper on gender persecution. Given this grounding in law, investigating Iran’s crimes through the lens of gender persecution holds promise for tangible outcomes.

In order for the FFMI to reach the conclusion that crimes against humanity of gender persecution have been committed, it must be able to demonstrate that there has been an intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group; or collectively, that victims were targeted because of their identity as a member of a group or collectively on gender grounds.It must also find that the acts of persecution have been committed “in connection with” other crimes under the ICC’s jurisdiction, or any other underlying acts of crimes against humanity, as well as that the persecutory acts are part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit an attack. 

In analyzing events that took place from Sep. 16, 2022, onwards, there is strong evidence that the violent acts perpetrated by authorities against individuals opposing the regime can be considered underlying acts of crimes against humanity according to Article 7 of the Rome Statute or severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law. These events include the excessive use of force resulting in death and serious injury and potentially amounting to murder; other inhumane acts in the form of deplorable conditions of detention and abuses committed at the time of arrest and against detainees, resulting in suffering or serious injury to the bodies or to the mental or physical health of the detainees; torture; rape; sexual violenceimprisonment; violations of the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, expression, and movement; and violation of the rights to privacy, to participation in public affairs, and the rights to work and education.

These acts were committed notably against women and girls for non-compliance with mandatory hijab laws or for opposing established gender norms and discriminatory policies. These violations were used to enforce restrictions on women and girls as they and their supporters flooded the streets. Women and girls were also targets of gender specific acts of violence, including slapping across the face; having their hair pulled; sexual assault rape and targeted gunfire to their faces, genitals, and breasts. These acts highlight the Iranian authorities’ persecutory intent against women and girls. 

The multiple acts of violence committed by the Iranian security forces in the context of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests amount to an attack. This attack was directed at a specific subset of the civilian population of Iran who participated in the protests against the regime. The widespread nature of the violence reached every province in the country. The number of killed, injured, arrested, and disappeared sits in the tens of thousands. The pattern of abuse across the State as well as the vast use of public resources signals the systematic nature of the abuse. The public manner by which the authorities denounced and demanded local police and security to violently repress protests signals that the above acts were part of an official state policy where agents were acting under the direct order of high-ranking officials.

FFMI report holds the potential for first of its kind findings on Iran

The FFMI should have sufficient information to recognize that the widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population that took place following the death in detention of Mahsa Zhina Amini amounts to the crime against humanity and in particular of gender persecution. Staff and experts alike have received ample evidence over the past 15 months. Civil society has also consistently provided analysis of the facts. This analysis includes the joint submission to the FFMI by my own team at Human Rights Activists with the support of UpRights on the crime against humanity of gender and political persecution, 

The FFMI’s conclusions should emphasize that women, girls, and LGBTQI+ individuals perceived as not conforming with or opposing the established gender norms and discriminatory policies have been specifically targeted by the Iranian authorities, their agents, and security forces. 

Recognizing the crimes that have been committed in this way paves a real path forward, opening the door to additional international accountability mechanisms. It also assures that victims know they are seen and heard. A failure to recognize the gravity of crimes perpetrated by Iranian authorities in the context of the protests will be a grave failure for the very women and girls who have suffered for so long. 

Beyond crimes against humanity, the report should include a comprehensive section on the lack of individual accountability as well as the need for redress and ensuring that justice is achieved. While specific individuals may not be included in the forthcoming report, any potential evidence against perpetrators should be actively shared. Given the FFMI’s mandate to collect and preserve evidence with a view to cooperate with legal proceedings, the FFMI should ensure that, where possible, and where consent of victims and witnesses has been given, it cooperates with investigators, prosecutors, and relevant national jurisdictions building case files against alleged Iranian perpetrators. If the international community has any hope of seeking tangible accountability in the context of Iran, it must ensure these steps are taken. 

While the findings in the forthcoming report are crucial, the investigations must not cease –because the violence hasn’t. Member States must support the renewal of the FFMI’s mandate. Human rights organizations continue to see women, girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, and men that support them persecuted at the hands of authorities and the situation grows worse by the day. Iran’s prisons hold women for failure to comply with mandatory hijab laws; the State has expanded its authority to police physical and virtual spaces, imposing fines and harsh punishments for failure to comply; women’s rights activists are pre-emptively detained, harassed, and accused of conspiring with foreign States; the government drafts and passes legislation aimed at the repression of women in society; and individuals charged in relation to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests remain held in detention, with one individual, Mohammad Gobadlou, executed just last month while suffering from a mental illness. In addition, evidence continues to pour in from the events of Sep. 16 onward. Iran, while claiming to investigate internally, has held no one responsible for injuries, arbitrary detentions, sexual assaults, and torture, and with no domestic investigations, the renewal of this mandate remains the only mechanism in place to lay the groundwork for accountability.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Islamic Republic of Iran

Member States must also support the renewal of the mandate of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. This critical mandate ensures there is continued reporting of widespread and systemic rights violations occurring within the country. These violations span far beyond the narrow mandate of the FFMI and the renewal of the mandate ensures that the repression of minorities; violations of labor rights, freedom of expression and political freedoms, violations of the the right to life, including via imposition of the death penalty (including on juvenile offenders), and the right to freedom of religion; and torture and inhumane treatment and punishments, among others, are adequately documented and archived.

Given the overwhelming evidence, the FFMI must find that the crime against humanity of gender persecution has been committed in Iran. Member States must actively support and renew the mandates of the FFMI and the UNSR on Iran, and the world must demonstrate that it will continue to seek justice for victims despite the regime’s ongoing attempts to silence them.

IMAGE: Women chant slogans and hold up signs depicting the image of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of Iranian authorities, during a demonstration denouncing her death by Iraqi and Iranian Kurds outside the UN offices in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, on September 24, 2022. (Photo by SAFIN HAMID/AFP via Getty Images)