The Human Rights Council in Session.

On February 15, 2010, Iran went before the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group for the first time. The UPR is a process undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council once every four years to review the human rights situation of each Member State. The process was established in 2006 by General Assembly resolution 60/251, which also established the Human Rights Council, and is designed to improve the human rights situation in every Member State.

To that end, UPR sessions operate like a moderated discussion to remind states of their obligations, address allegations, and provide support and advice as to how to enhance the state’s capacity to improve its compliance with human rights standards. The sessions draw on a national report provided by the state under review, reports from independent human rights experts and groups within the UN, and information from NGOs and other interested stakeholders. The other Member States use this information to pose questions and suggestions to the state under review.

During its UPR session, Iran faced harsh criticism of its treatment of political dissidents and opposition parties, but remained adamant that it was adhering to human rights norms and respecting its international obligations. United States Under Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner said, “The United States strongly condemns the recent violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has resulted in detentions, injuries, and deaths.” Representatives from Britain and France also criticized the Iranian government and called for an independent investigation into alleged human rights abuses.

In response, Iran acted as many other nations do when before the UPR committee – they lobbied and rallied friendly nations to provide a counterpoint to the criticisms they were facing. During the UPR debate of Iran’s record, 27 nations criticized Iran’s record and 27 supported it. As critics of the process quickly pointed out, Iran’s supporters were not nations known for their respect for human rights, including Sudan, China, Cuba, Syria, and Zimbabwe.

Countries participating in the review recommended that Iran take measures to prevent excessive use of force by security forces, guarantee freedom of expression, and limit capital punishment and torture. These recommendations are nonbinding, and while the international community may assist, the country under review is free to implement changes as it sees fit. The review process does require the country to report back on its progress, but according to critics, there are few repercussions for failing to comply.

Some nations are more receptive to the process than others. Following its session during the UPR in January and February of 2009, Saudi Arabia pledged reform in a host of areas, including the rights of women, domestic workers, and religious minorities. Not all of the promised changes have occurred, but human rights groups find it encouraging nonetheless that the UPR has produced commitments and agreements which they can use to hold countries accountable.

While this appears to leave things at a standstill for Iran, the process has produced some positive results. Iran invited UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay to visit the country, and negotiations are now under way to bring a UN delegation of some kind to Iran. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International critiqued Iran’s claims as “blanket denials and a lot of cynicism;” however, Iran’s refusal to engage may pave the way for further action against Iran and undermines its chances of joining the Council.  Iran’s bid is already considered to be in jeopardy, and there have been numerous calls for economic sanctions against the country. Human rights groups remain skeptical that the UPR will have a meaningful impact on Iran’s human rights record but still hope that by participating in the process and calling for change, they can convince Iran to move away from its rejectionist stance and embrace real change in the future.