New Europe:This week is the first anniversary of the major Iran protests that took place in November 2019, when the state forces of the Islamic Republic killed hundreds of peaceful protesters, arrested thousands, used torture to obtain forced confessions, and issued prolonged sentences and the death penalty to silence its people. There were also nationwide protests in 2017 and 2018, during which tens more peaceful protesters were killed by state forces. None of this has been enough to push the European Union to use its influence, both legally and politically, to send a strong signal to Tehran that such behaviors will not be tolerated.
The EU has been a powerful ally of Iran, particularly after signing the nuclear accord in 2015. Despite widespread calls by rights organizations in past years for European countries to support the Iranian people’s quest for ending rights violations by the Iranian government, the EU has chosen to keep its eyes closed to the atrocities. Even when Iran’s security forces began shooting hundreds of protestors in the streets, the EU response was weak and vague.
For its part, Iran understood very early on that the EU’s desire to keep the nuclear deal intact, for many reasons, including international security justifications, is much stronger than Tehran’s, and that Iran would not be pressured for its behavior and neglect for international norms and standards. The Iranian people have paid a heavy price for the EU’s approach.
The EU’s weak reaction to an ongoing human rights crisis in Iran coincides with the Union’s handling of the ongoing post-election crackdown in Belarus. Since August, the EU has wasted no time in imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials accused of vote-rigging and political repression. In the latest development, on November 6, the sanctions list was officially expanded to include the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son Viktor and 13 others.
While Minsk’s crisis is a European problem, the European Union has been swift and firm in condemning the use of violence against protesters, insisting the people of Belarus want change and “deserve better”. Lukashenko is “responsible for the violent repression by the state apparatus carried out before and after the 2020 presidential election, in particular with the dismissal of key opposition candidates, arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of peaceful demonstrators”, according to the EU sanctions decision. Across Minsk, many protestors have been detained and police have fired flash grenades and rubber bullets and beaten people with riot batons.
This marks a stark double standard and hypocrisy between the way the EU has treated oppression in Iran and Belarus, particularly when it is able to put pressure on the Iranian government. While Europe’s interest in dealing with Iran and Belarus are different geopolitically, in both cases it’s been a politically expedient calculation that has driven and defined the Union’s reactions to human rights violations in countries where the EU has simultaneously both the interest and leverage to make changes.
Now that dozens of political prisoners are on death row and hundreds in prison, the EU must put an end to its enabling approach in dealing with Iran’s human rights crisis. There is ample evidence that prisoners, whose due process rights have been violated, are being tortured and that the families of slain protesters are being systematically harassed and persecuted, with little prospect of accountability for the perpetrators. The EU is perhaps the only major international actor that could make a difference in Iran’s brutal crackdown on peaceful dissent and it must use every legal mechanism it has at its disposal to attempt to save lives and prevent further atrocities.
In order to send a strong signal to Iran, the EU should take concrete action and target all perpetrators involved in the country’s repression machinery, including the state media, which is used by the Iranian judiciary and intelligence to broadcast forced confessions from political prisoners.
According to a recent comprehensive report by Justice for Iran (JFI) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “between 2009 and 2019, Iranian state-owned media broadcast the forced confessions of at least 355 individuals and defamatory content against at least 505 individuals.” These coerced confessions are obtained under torture and duress by Iranian intelligence and its judiciary. These institutions and the relevant officials should also be held accountable.
The European Union Council can – and should- expand the list it created in 2011 that currently includes 78 Iranian individuals and one entity responsible for grave human rights violations and use the restrictive measures it promised against the perpetrators. The human rights sanctions regime has been renewed every year and remains in effect. However, the last time anyone from Iran was added to the list was in 2013. It is time to end the complacency. The EU human rights sanctions regime as a legal mechanism based on the EU’s self-declared commitment and own regulations is long overdue in applying to many perpetrators in Iran.
As in Belarus, the EU should act swiftly and decisively towards Iran. Using these legal mechanisms that are available to the EU, is much more effective than issuing statements that have shown to have no effect and it would be a good start to address Iran’s ongoing human rights crisis.