In late September 2012, the United Nations in New York will host Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his annual visit as president of Iran - the last such occasion, since the election of June 2013 in Iran will see Ahmadinejad's successor take office. Much attention will, understandably,focus on Iran's nuclear ambitions and the danger of an armed attack on Iran. But it is important also to register the current conditions inside Iran, including the condition of human rights in the country, an issue that has been relatively neglected since the widepread protests against the declaration of Ahmadinejad's victory in the election of June 2009.
The Iranian official media regularly features news of the discovery by the regime’s intelligence forces of international crime-rings and nefarious anti-government plots. The headlines suggest these are law-enforcement victories, something for all Iranians to be proud of; but read further, and evidence of wrongdoing is hard to find - for those arrested were targeted because of their ideas and identities - as intellectuals, secularists, evangelical Christians or members of the Bahá'í religious minority, gay people, feminists, or communists.
Iranian government officials and state-sponsored media routinely accuse groups they dislike of committing crimes and posing security threats. Over many years, such charges rarely have proven true, yet Iranians have also tended not to challenge these narratives. Today, a cultural shift is visible, as discussions within civil society about human rights increasingly contest the old, dominant perceptions.
A shifting ground
A notable trend, for example, is the marked rise in Iranians' discussion of previously taboo topics such as the Baha’i faith. The government’s propaganda against the Baha’i - the largest non-Muslim religious group in the country - has portrayed any connection to this community a "security issue", but two major incidents have contributed to a more open debate in human-rights circles.
The first occurred when Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel prize-winning lawyer, took on the case of seven Baha’i leaders who were arrested in 2008. This provoked a storm of attacks on Ebadi by state-sponsored media, but it also laid the groundwork for public dialogue, especially online. The second incident involved the activities of students expelled from universities. These young people, some of whom had been denied higher education because of their political activities and others for their religious beliefs (as in the case of the Baha’i), campaigned side-by-side for their rights.
The sympathetic attention over this issue was so significant that Mohammad Javad Larijani, the government’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, publicly denied that Baha’i face any discrimination in Iran and told the council that all Baha’i in Iran have access to education and other rights. Even the public mention of Baha’i by a senior government official was in itself the breaking of a traditional taboo, and a reflection of how much the public discourse around Baha’i has shifted. As a result, more Iranian journalists and analysts started publicly to talk about the rights of Baha’i.
Another previously forbidden issue that Iranians have begun to talk about is gay rights, something unheard of only a few years ago. This subject may still be on the extreme end of social discussion, but it has slowly entered the discourse of Iranian civil society. This has forced the government to acknowledge the existence of gay people in the country.
President Ahmadinejad, in an infamous speech in 2007, claimed that Iran had no homosexuals. Now, however, the ground is shifting, and Iran has slowly begun to acknowledge homosexuality - albeit typically in a context not favourable to gay rights (for example, in the criteria for military service in Iran, there is now an article excluding gay people from service).
A new voice
In the past two decades, dozens of prisoners have written critical letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More recently, Iranian political prisoners have written open letters to the Iranian public, and made available love-letters exchanged with their spouses, which have been distributed on broadcast and satellite networks. The publicity around these letters has "humanised" prisoners, prompted discussion about the current political situation, and undermined the regime’s portrayal of human rights in Iran.
Activists, lawyers, journalists and the families of detainees have used the power of the internet - including blogs, online news outlets, and social media - to amplifiy public discourse over human-rights violations and thereby spread awareness and confidence. The effects have been flet in the way that more Iranians are willing to take risks and challenge the authorities in international forums, which has contributed to the failure of Iran’s human-rights diplomacy at the UN.
For example, Iranian victims of human-rights abuse living in Iran were willing to speak to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and this was crucial in enabling him to write a comprehensive and reliable report earlier in 2012. This report resulted in increased pressure being put on the Iranian government from UN human-rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
These trends have emerged following the surge in repression that followed the disputed election of 2009. They demonstrate a growing spirit of independence in Iranian civil society, and an intensifying struggle with the state concerning human rights. Iranian citizens are giving voice to the voiceless; addressing previously taboo issues; and, most importantly, making Iran's human-rights situation increasingly hard for President Ahmadinejad to ignore with impunity. During his visit to New York, the international community, including the United States, needs to demonstrate its solidarity with the pioneers of Iranian civil society by holding him responsible for his abysmal record on the persecution of many Iranian citizens.