In recent weeks, developments in the Middle East and an alarming report of the International Atomic Energy Agency concentrated the world's attention on Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons.
But on Dec. 19 -- nine days after international Human Rights Day -- the United Nations General Assembly reminded the world of another problematic dimension of the Iranian regime -- treatment of its citizens.
U.N. member states put Iranian human rights abuses front and center by endorsing two new reports -- one by Ahmed Shahee, the special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, and the other by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- that expressed grave concern about the country's assault on human rights. A resolution addressing the issue, introduced by Canada, was supported by 89 countries, with 30 against and 64 abstentions. All of the Western democracies supported the nonbinding resolution.
The U.N. resolution identified a wide range of heinous acts carried out by Iranian agents, including the frequent use of torture, flogging and amputation, infliction of capital punishment for vaguely defined crimes, often through coerced confessions, frequent public executions and secret group executions, infliction of the death penalty against minors, and execution by stoning -- despite a government rule against it -- and by prolonged strangulation. It has been reported elsewhere that Iran executed more than 450 people in 2011, one third of them in secret executions.
U.N. members also expressed deep concern at "pervasive gender inequality and violence against women" in Iran, as well as a continued crackdown on defenders of women's human rights and violent repression and arrest of women exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
Iran also has engaged in "ongoing, systemic and serious" infringement of freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, according to the U.N. resolution. It noted the extensive imprisonment of journalists and bloggers, the forceful breaking up of demonstrations, unfair trial practices that prevail in the Iranian revolutionary courts, and arrests and death sentences for the vague charge of "enmity against God." The U.N. resolution called on Iran to immediately release those detained "for simply exercising their right to peaceful assembly and participating in peaceful protests."
Iranian violations of the rights of minorities, including Christians, Jews, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis and Kurds, were also cited in the U.N. resolution. It highlighted persecution of members of the Baha'i faith, noting that they have been arbitrarily imprisoned and denied employment, government benefits and higher education.
The United Nations also called on Iran to launch an impartial investigation of allegations of killings and other abuses in the crackdown by police and paramilitaries that followed the 2009 presidential elections, which were widely perceived as fraudulent. Iran was pressed to prosecute those responsible for the post-election abuses and to ensure that the upcoming 2012 parliamentary elections "reflect the will of the people."
These findings remind everyone that it is vitally important that all member states support the U.N.'s efforts to improve the human rights situation in Iran and the specific recommendations it has set out as a needed course of action. This includes pressing Iran to cooperate with the mandate of the special rapporteur and to allow him to visit the country, to allow for investigation of and reporting on human rights violations, to stop the practice of imprisoning and executing those who express dissent and to release those imprisoned.
The realization that such a country may soon possess a nuclear weapon provides added impetus to highlight its human rights record and press for change. Iran must be pressured to alter its human rights record before we can hope to make genuine progress on other issues.
Rabbi Mark Robbins is director of the Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.