Tehran’s Next Target: Destroying the Idea of Human Rights

Torture by means of beatings, electric shocks, and death threats. It is a reality for many Iranian prisoners held in the country, including popular rapper and activist Toomaj Salehi. His crime? Speaking out, both in his music and outside, in support of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini. Twisted into ‘corruption on Earth’ by the Iranian regime, Salehi was then sentenced to death, a decision that led to outrage amongst the international community as well as the music industry.

Since then, the Iranian Supreme Court unexpectedly overturned the sentence, in what may have seemed like a gust of humanitarian enlightenment by the regime in Tehran in anticipation of the recent presidential elections, held early due to the unexpected passing of President Ebrahim Raisi. Despite hosting these presidential elections in June and July 2024, of which the freedom can be questioned and turnout was at a record-low, it can be assumed that the country will largely stick with its current political heading under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which is characterized by anti-Western and Islamic conservative beliefs. This comes forward in ongoing anti-democratic developments in the country, involving Khamenei himself, which show that Iran continues to retract into a state of undermining human rights and civil freedom.

The wrongdoings in the Iranian prison system were, in the case of Toomaj Salehi, clearly displayed by the authorities themselves. While residing on death row, Salehi appeared in a series of videos released by state media. The videos showed him wounded, with bruises on his face and hands following torturous treatment by prison guards, reading a forced confession of his ‘crimes’ and an apology to Iranian society for ‘producing violence’. The brutality that Salehi evidently had to endure during his more than a year-long prison spell, as well as the lack of a fair trial and the confessions that were forced out of him, tell the clear story of impaired human rights in Iran.

The very idea of human rights and its implementation into contemporary Iranian society is reason for significant and acute international concern. Only one day after Toomaj Salehi was relieved of immediate mortal danger, Ali Khamenei called on Iranian judges to not make note of Western human rights principles in their decision-making. He did so in a meeting with the country’s judiciary chief and several other senior judiciary officials, as he labeled the principles ‘wrong’ and resting on ‘false’ foundations, while also calling Western countries ‘hypocritical’. By putting this pressure on prominent Iranian legal figures, Khamenei unconstitutionally undermines the country’s judiciary by blurring the separation of powers.

In a country that is already troubled by cases like Toomaj Salahi’s, with frequent occurrences of institutionalized lethal force, torture, and sexual assault, these developments will only clear the road for the continuation of these malpractices. As Khamenei doubles down on judicial pressure, it is clear that despite the overturning of a singular death sentence, Iran is headed towards a future filled with more of the same illegitimate actions perpetrated by the regime.

To prevent this, and to protect the Iranian people against their own violent authorities, it is imperative that the international community steps up and does everything in its power to hold the government in Tehran accountable for the crimes they are committing against their own population. In light of the UN’s main international agreement on human rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran remains a signatory of, fellow member states have an obligation to not only speak up when Iran violates this agreement, but also to sanction the country accordingly.

Particularly in Europe, these responsibilities, as well as the task of raising awareness regarding Iran’s human rights abuses on the international stage, should shape foreign policymaking towards the Middle Eastern regime. In 2024, as a new European Parliament is taking shape following recent EU elections and UK voters soon take to ballot boxes to determine their country’s near political future, opportunities emerge for a new iteration of European policymakers to take a firm stance on Iran’s anti-human rights practices. Now is the time for both the EU and the UK to take the global lead and show the world that besides violations of the international nuclear agreements, Iran should be met sanctions for breaching another international agreement, based on the plentiful evidence that Iran is systematically abusing its citizens’ human rights.

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Cesar Sabas is an expert on security and defense based at the University of Toulouse.