The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a groundbreaking report Thursday that puts LGBT human rights abuses in Iran in the spotlight for the first time and recommends that the government make changes. The document, which carries legal weight in the international system, could become a powerful tool for advocates working to improve conditions in the country and other parts of the world.
The report follows a long-awaited review of Iran's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the major treaty governing international human rights. The treaty currently has 166 state signatories, and countries typically undergo review at least every five years. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which ratified the treaty without reservations in 1975, had not submitted to review in 18 years.
In its concluding observations, the committee reaffirmed that "sexual orientation and gender identity" fall within the parameters of the ICCPR. The panel expressed concern about the persecution and discrimination faced by faced by LGBT people in Iran, one of the few countries in the world where homosexual sex is punishable by death. The committee noted discrimination against LGBT people in housing, education and health care, in addition to the use of corporal punishment for certain sexual acts. The committee recommended that Iran "take all necessary" measures to ameliorate the situation, and to provide a detailed update on the conditions for LGBT people in the country in its next periodic report due in 2014.
"For years, Iranian authorities have committed acts of terror against LGBT people, incited violence by others, and refused even to admit that LGBT Iranians exist," said Hossein Alizadeh, regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), in a statement on Thursday. "Today, the Human Rights Committee has made clear that the government of Iran's conduct amounts to a violation of the very international laws that it has agreed to uphold. As a state that prides itself in tradition and morality, Iran must now take immediate action to ensure its definitions of culture and morality are in accordance with the fundamental principles of international human rights law."
As part of the review, Iran submitted a 213-page government report prior to the committee's 103rd session in Geneva. The committee, a panel of 18 independent experts from around the world, then asked the government to provide written answers to 34 questions about a range of human rights concerns including women's rights, torture and treatment in detention, the judiciary system, freedom of expression and assembly, and fair elections. NGOs including IGLHRC and its partner, the Iranian Queer Organization, issued shadow reports, totaling more than 500 pages, with details on the legal situation and day-to-day conditions in the country. A delegation from Iran then appeared before the committee for a dialogue last month.
During the review, Iran evaded specific questions about LGBT rights, to the apparent frustration of the committee, according to those familiar with the process. The country was asked in writing about censorship of materials related to LGBT issues, allegations of forced gender-reassignment surgery, the Special Protection Division of the judiciary, which enlists volunteers to monitor "moral crimes."
"This question has gone beyond the mandate and subject matter of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," the Iranians tersely wrote back. In fact, LGBT rights have been addressed under the treaty since the landmark Toonen v. Australia decision of 1994.
"Basically, they said it's none of your business," said Alizadeh. "That basically showed they really don't understand their obligation."
Last month during the dialogue session in Geneva, committee members showed considerable interest in LGBT issues. Advocates attribute the awareness to improved collaboration between groups like IGLHRC, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International over the past five years, and increased recognition that LGBT rights are part of the international human rights framework.
"Six committee members specifically asked about the LGBT rights situation in Iran," said Alizadeh. "This is something very surprising, even for people who are familiar with this system."
The committee does not have the power to enforce its recommendations, but the report can be referenced and followed up across the UN system. NGOs can use the findings to help their advocacy, particularly with countries such as Germany and France that have close relationships with Iran. The report also could be useful in the context of other countries such as Uganda, where lawmakers have considered a bill that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Most importantly and immediately, the report provides unprecedented visibility for the LGBT community in Iran.
"This is one of the few opportunities where you can have a meaningful dialogue with Iran based on their own signature," said Alizadeh. "You signed this treaty, and you have to follow it."