Skip to main content

Iran on U.N. women's agency is a travesty

By Gissou Nia, Special to CNN
  • Gissou Nia: Iran still plans to execute Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a widow and mother
  • Iran set to join governing body of U.N. women's rights agency, Nia says
  • Nia: Iran has despicable record on women's rights and would discredit agency
  • Iran would send emissaries who don't threaten regime, she says, wants to clean up image

Editor's note: Gissou Nia is a researcher and legal analyst at the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She recently co-wrote a report on the Iranian government's crackdown on women's rights activists after the disputed presidential election of last year. Before her tenure at the center, she worked on war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.

(CNN) -- The Iranian government still plans to execute Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a widow and mother of two whose stoning sentence on adultery charges provoked a significant international outcry this summer, according to the International Committee Against Execution and Stoning.

This development reaffirms concerns about Iran joining the governing body of the new U.N. women's agency, U.N. Women, whose mission is to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Iran is expected to be elected to the body without contest on Wednesday.

The United States and human rights groups fear the membership of Iran will damage the credibility of the agency. Some counter these fears with the proposition that bringing countries like Iran "into the fold" can act as a catalyst for positive change, while benefiting the new agency with added diversity of perspective.

As a general matter, this accommodationist rationale in matters of human rights has a dubious record. Iran's membership in the U.N. agency would be an especially serious mistake. The nation's presence would have the effect of discrediting the new agency before its important work even begins, and allow the agency to be used as a vehicle to further suppress Iran's diverse and vibrant women's movement.

Once Islamic hardliners seized power ... they wasted no time in reversing progress on women's rights.
--Gissou Nia

Unlike the fledgling women's rights movements of some countries in the Middle East, the long-established women's movement in Iran has pushed for gender equality for more than a century. By 1978, Iranian women were working as judges, diplomats, Cabinet officers, mayors and governors. Twenty-two women sat in Parliament.

But once Islamic hardliners seized power after the Iranian revolution, they wasted no time in reversing much of the progress on women's rights. The new government dismissed women from their posts as judges, repealed laws granting expanded rights for women on marriage, family, inheritance and property matters, and eventually mandated Islamic dress for women in public spaces.

Despite the curtailment of their freedoms, women's rights activists persisted in their efforts. In 2006, activists formed a campaign to collect 1 million signatures in support of reform of gender discriminatory laws. The campaign cut across socioeconomic lines and united secular and religious women in the cause. Government backlash swiftly followed. Scores of women's rights activists were arrested and charged with threatening national security for urging "un-Islamic" reforms -- and the crackdown continues today.

Women's rights activists were arrested and charged with threatening national security, and the crackdown continues today.
--Gissou Nia

Given this history, coupled with the internal political situation, today's Iranian government views the women's movement as not just a force for gender equality, but also as a catalyst for larger reform and a threat to its very existence. As such, Iran's presence on the U.N. agency would provide the government the diplomatic cover to continue its campaign of repression.

The government would bar legitimate and credible women's rights activists in Iran, who could actually contribute by presenting Iranian views, because of their perceived political opposition. Instead, the Iranian regime would send its own vetted emissaries who would have little to say about the actual interests of Iranian women while giving the government a diplomatic veneer of progress on women's rights in the eyes of the international community.

History has shown us the consequences of giving governments that abuse human rights a role in formulating and overseeing those same rights. In the formulation of the 1948 United Nations genocide convention, the Soviet delegation vetoed any definition of genocide that included killing social classes or political groups. The concern was that such a definition could include the actions of their own leader, Joseph Stalin, who spent much of the 1930s ordering the killings of "kulaks," a class of relatively affluent farmers, and members of the political opposition.

Post-World War II political considerations led to the Allied nations conceding to the Soviet request. Raphael Lemkin's original definition of genocide was pared down to the narrower one, binding in international law today. As a signatory to the watered-down genocide convention, Stalin continued the mass deportation of political opponents to the gulag for another five years until his death in 1953.

In a more recent example of accommodationist reasoning gone terribly wrong, Sudan kept its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission (now Council), the U.N.'s human rights watchdog, as the Janjaweed, a militia group allegedly supported by the Sudanese government, raped and murdered civilians in Sudan's Darfur region.

While the commission focused excessively on condemning atrocities in Israel, little to nothing was said about the deepening humanitarian crisis in Darfur. The unwillingness of the commission to address the Darfur atrocities resulted in the refusal of some states to participate in the work of the commission, and led to its work being largely discredited by many nations.

Given Iran's deplorable record on women's rights, its ascension to the U.N. women's agency whose very purpose is to promote the interests of women is like the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. The United States and human rights groups have rightfully voiced their opposition. Now is the time for all nations to object to Iran's membership. Iran's women deserve no less.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gissou Nia.