Iran’s Human Rights a Minor Issue in Australia but the Focus of International Activism

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

But one issue that was a source of particular controversy for Australian officials and political commentators ahead of Zarif’s visit was the situation of Iranian asylum seekers whom the Australian foreign ministry is seeking to return to their country of origin. Following the denial of their applications for asylum, the would-be immigrants have been left in a holding center while the Australian government pursues an agreement with Iran concerning their repatriation.

Some dissenting voices in Australia worry about the situation that might be faced in Iran by people who fled the country and attempted to present a foreign government with evidence that their lives or well-being were threatened by continued residence in the Islamic Republic. The Australian Broadcasting Company reported on Tuesday that officials from Australia’s Labor Party had voiced these concerns and pushed for Iran to provide guarantees that the rights of returned asylum seekers would be safeguarded if any repatriation agreement was concluded.

While the broader context of this issue was not a point of emphasis for Zarif’s visit, the mention of human rights served to draw some degree of attention to Iran’s globally infamous human rights record. Last week saw the release of the latest report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed.

Shaheed’s findings on human rights abuses in Iran have repeatedly been reinforced by the separate reports of human rights organizations as well as by political groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Human rights reports suggest that at least 969 people were executed in Iran in 2015 alone.

Human rights activists have condemned this situation as a pervasive crisis.

In instances like this, the relative lack of pressure from the international community potentially contributes to Tehran’s ability to simply deny that there is a human rights crisis under the regime’s rule.

As long as the judiciary-linked Iranian human rights commission disregards foreign reports of the regime’s abuses, it is crucially important for UN special rapporteurs and other international monitors to keep pressure on the regime from the outside.

Of course, the work of these monitors is dependent upon their ability to communicate with victims and on-the-ground observers of the Iranian human rights situation. And there is no shortage of Iranian activists who have filled this role in the past and will continue to do so. However, the crisis of political imprisonment and general repression makes it clear that their work comes at significant personal risk.

And while activism is generally criminalized under the pretext of vague charges, cooperation with the UN special rapporteur is explicitly described as a crime by regime authorities. In theory, the expansion of access to the internet in Iran and throughout the world would make it easier for activists to communicate with foreign entities, but Iran’s strict control over the internet has made that environment virtually as perilous as the country’s public spaces.

Experts have noted an increase in monitoring and repression on the Iranian internet especially during the two and a half years since President Hassan Rouhani was elected amidst promises of domestic reform.