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UN rights council urges Iran to end its deadly crackdown on protests

Panel holds urgent debate on call to investigate violations, with eye on prosecuting perpetrators in future, amid increasingly brutal response by authorities to demonstrations

High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk addresses the assembly during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Iran, at the United Nations in Geneva on November 24, 2022. (VALENTIN FLAURAUD / AFP)
High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk addresses the assembly during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Iran, at the United Nations in Geneva on November 24, 2022. (VALENTIN FLAURAUD / AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — The UN Human Rights Council held an urgent meeting on Thursday to discuss whether to launch a high-level international investigation into the deadly crackdown on mass protests rocking Iran.

New UN rights chief Volker Turk opened the proceedings in his first appearance before the council, and urged Tehran to halt its violent response to the protesters.

“I call on the authorities immediately to stop using violence and harassment against peaceful protesters,” said Turk, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights.

“The unnecessary and disproportionate use of force must come to an end,” he said, warning that Iran was in “a full-fledged human rights crisis.”

“Accountability is a key ingredient of the pursuit of justice for human rights violations,” he told the 47-member council, urging the body to vote in favor of an investigation.

The meeting, requested by Germany and Iceland with the backing of more than 50 countries, follows two months of protests in Iran sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress rules for women based on Islamic Sharia law.

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

The authorities have grown increasingly heavy-handed in their response, as the demonstrations have spread across the country and swelled into a broad movement against the theocracy that has ruled Iran since 1979.

Turk said more than 300 people had been killed since Amini’s death. Norway-based group Iran Human Rights has put the toll above 400, including more than 50 children.

“The security forces… have used live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets, tear gas and batons,” said Turk.

Thousands of peaceful protesters have also been arrested, according to the United Nations, including many women, children, and journalists, and six people have so far been handed death sentences over the demonstrations.

‘Shine a spotlight’

During Thursday’s session, diplomats debated a call for an international investigation of alleged violations linked to the ongoing protests.

The so-called independent international fact-finding mission should include “the gender dimensions of such violations” in its investigations, according to the draft resolution, presented by Germany and Iceland.

The text calls for the investigators to “collect, consolidate and analyze evidence of such violations, and to preserve evidence,” with a view to future prosecution.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock delivers her opening remarks at a conference on the Western Balkans at the Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, Oct.ober 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who like her Icelandic counterpart will be in Geneva for the session, stressed that “the Iranian demonstrators have no seat at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.”

Thursday’s meeting, she said, provides the opportunity for the body to “raise its voice for the indivisible rights of Iran’s people.”

Diplomats and rights activists voiced strong support for the initiative.

“We must do all we can to expose the truth of what is happening inside Iran and support the calls of the Iranian people for justice and accountability,” US Ambassador Michele Taylor said.

Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher with Human Rights Watch, urged the council to “shine a spotlight on the deepening repression and… hold those responsible accountable.”

‘Provocative’

Tehran has meanwhile been lobbying hard against the resolution and its Western backers.

“With a long history of colonialism and violation of human rights of other nations, the US and Europe are not in a position to pretend to be an advocate of human rights,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry tweeted Wednesday.

Iranians woman protests a 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini’s death after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images)

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently tweeted at Baerbock that his country’s response to Germany’s “provocative, interventionist and undiplomatic stances” would be “proportionate and firm.”

Germany and Iceland received broad backing for their request to hold Thursday’s session, including from more than a third of the council’s 47 members.

Western diplomats voiced cautious optimism that the resolution would go through, but acknowledged it could be tight.

‘Every vote counts’

Baerbock called for the council to vote in favor of the resolution, saying: “We owe it to the victims.”

“Every vote counts,” she said.

The Human Rights Council has seen growing pushback from countries including China, Russia, and Iran against often Western-led efforts to hold individual states accountable for alleged violations.

Last month, Western nations suffered a crushing defeat when their attempt to get China’s alleged abuses in its Xinjiang region onto the council agenda was thwarted.

But Iran may have a harder time blocking Thursday’s resolution.

The council already voiced concerns about Iran’s human rights record in 2011 appointing a so-called special rapporteur to monitor the country, and voting each year since then to renew that mandate.

“It should pass,” said Omid Memarian, an analyst at Democracy for the Arab World Now.

If it does, he told AFP, it will provide “a huge moral boost” to the protesters, and send a warning to rights violators in Iran that “the rest of the world will not be safe for them.”

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