Kerry’s Selective Remarks in Bahrain Suggest Marginalization of Iran’s Human Rights

John Kerry

But Voice of American News reports that Bahrain’s human rights record was a focal point of conversations between Kerry and his Bahraini counterpart Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. The Secretary of State raised particular concerns about a political dissident who was detained along with her young son. But media coverage of the meeting does not indicate that Kerry ever addressed comparable Iranian human rights issues during his visit.

Iran has been widely described as being in the midst of a renewed crackdown on political dissent and pro-Western sentiment, with several mass arrests and politically motivated prosecutions having been reported since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers last summer. The fact that this has not been addressed alongside public discussions over Iran’s foreign policy gives credence to concerns that human rights has been sidelined as the Obama administration focuses attention on the nuclear deal.

This criticism was stated explicitly by James Lynch, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director for Amnesty International, in an interview with Agence France-Presse. The associated Amnesty campaign was highlighted on Thursday by an article in the India Times.It points out that Iran has been identified as the leading contributor to an increase in worldwide execution rates, which has led to the totals for 2015 being higher than any year since 1989.

At a time when most nations of the world have decreased their use of the death penalty or discontinued it altogether, the worldwide total have nonetheless increased by approximately 50 percent. Three countries are responsible for 89 percent of those executions that could be independently verified. Amnesty International reporting at least 977 executions in the Islamic Republic.

This total is only exceeded by China, which does not share records of any of its executions with the public. This is not to say that Iran has been transparent about its use of the death penalty, and indeed many human rights groups have speculated that the actual figures for 2015 could exceed those that have been confirmed. This perception is supported by Tehran’s simple denial of other human rights criticisms, and also by the fact that the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has a standing list of 518 people who have simply vanished after being placed in the custody of regime authorities.

This statistic was highlighted by IranWire on Thursday in a report that put specific focus upon an unresolved story from the 1980s that is reminiscent of the Bahraini detention highlighted by Secretary of State Kerry, but considerably more serious because it involves the probable death of an infant.

The report notes that in September 1983, the pregnant wife of a Marxist activist was detained in Evin Prison, where she gave birth to a baby girl. Prison authorities later took the child away from her mother under the pretense of a routine medical exam, but never returned it or released it to family members outside of the prison. The mother was then told that the baby had died, but its body was not released and no place of burial was reported.

IranWire notes that the baby’s surviving family still attend protests 33 years later alongside the families of other persons who have gone missing within the Iranian justice system or who have been detained as political prisoners and subjected to harsh treatment or arbitrary extensions of their sentences.

Many foreign advocates for the victims of such human rights abuses are notably concerned about their apparent lack of support from Western government officials, especially in the context of the nuclear agreement. On this point, Amnesty’s James Lynch said, “Western countries are starting to build commercial ties and trade missions. However, human rights has been absolutely left in the margins.”

In contrast to such statements, Emily Norris of the US State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs told attendees of RightsCon in San Francisco last week that US policy toward Iran’s human rights violations remains unchanged. She emphasized that sanctions related to those abuses remain in place even though sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program have now been lifted. But although official US policy may not have changed, this does not isolate the Obama administration from criticism regarding the practical neglect of those issues.

According to an Iranian human rights group, this year’s RightsCon, the annual international conference focusing on issues of free expression and human rights on the internet, highlighted some ways in which tech companies could help to guard against monitoring and online repression by Iranian authorities. It also indicated that existing US sanctions have prevented some companies from offering potentially helpful services – a situation that could be reversed by the active provision of incentives or exceptions to the sanctions by the US government.

But at the same time, RightsCon presenters also pointed to some of the independent resources that do exist to help Iranian activists and ordinary citizens, such as the Gershad app that allows users to track and report upon the locations of Iranian morality police, who routinely harass citizens for supposed violations of Islamic standards of behavior, sometimes resulting in arrest and prosecution on charges that are not recognizable as crimes but may carry the death penalty in Iran.