New U.N. Human Rights Rapporteur for Iran

Semira N. Nikou

            On June 17, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed Ahmed Shaheed, former Maldives foreign minister (2005-07), as the new special rapporteur to Iran. Shaheed had resigned from the foreign ministry in 2007 to protest the Maldives government’s failure to implement democratic reforms. For his new position as special rapporteur, Shaheed is tasked with monitoring the human rights situation, visiting Iran and preparing a report for the United Nations. After the announcement, the Iranian press reported that Shaheed would not be allowed to visit the country.
           State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed the appointment of Shaheed, a Muslim, to “serve as a voice for the millions of Iranians who have suffered egregious human rights violations and are not heard by their own government. We encourage all members of the United Nations to support Mr. Shaheed in his duties, and call on the Iranian Government to live up to its commitments to universal human rights and to respect the writ of the special rapporteur.”
           Shaheed will be the fourth special rapporteur to Iran, after Andres Aguilar, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, and Maurice Copithorne. All past rapporteurs expressed concerns about human rights violations in Iran but received little cooperation from the Iranian government. Copithorne, for example, was allowed in Iran only once at the beginning of his term.
           In an interview, Roberto Toscano, who served as Italy’s ambassador between 2003 and 2008, explained the mission, purpose and challenges of the special rapporteur. Toscano is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Interview with Roberto Toscano-Former Italian Ambassador to Iran (2003-08)
  • UN Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur to investigate Iran’s human rights situation. What are the specific duties of the rapporteur?
The special rapporteur has to prepare a report. The job requires the collection and critical analysis of information pertaining to human rights violations in a given country. The rapporteur is not just a mailbox. He is supposed to vet information because there is so much of it [and] there are so many denunciations.
The rapporteur has to exert discipline because he has to be credible.  He has to gather information on any regime that deserves to be suspected. [The information-gathering] is like a legal procedure [in the sense that] even a serial killer has to be judged fairly.  So fairness is extremely important—professionalism and fairness. 
  • Why did the United Nations opt to take this step? And why now?
There was a political consensus in the Human Rights Council in Geneva that developed around the idea. My personal opinion is that what happened in 2009 gave a boost to this idea because undoubtedly [the human rights situation in Iran] became more critical. There were already human rights problems in Iran before 2009, but afterward, the situation became more critical.  There was more awareness in the international community, and therefore more countries were in favor of instituting a special rapporteur. [The U.N. council vote was 22 in favor of a special rapporteur, seven opposed, and 14 abstentions].
  • Given Tehran’s objections to the appointment, how much cooperation do you anticipate from Iran? How can a rapporteur operate effectively if he is not allowed into Iran?
It does not look good. Tehran’s attitude has been negative. Hopefully somebody [in Iran] will realize that it is better for the rapporteur to have the capacity to work thoroughly and fairy. But I am not very optimistic. The previous rapporteur, Maurice Copithorne, went to Iran once, in the beginning of his mandate, but never again because Iran rejects the function itself.
Who is it that generally gathers information about human rights violations in Iran? The human rights activists, human rights watch, Amnesty International, etc. I think the special rapporteur will inevitably have to tap into the resources that already exist in Iran. Many of these organizations are credible and can supply the rapporteur with reliable material. So that is the only alternative.
  • How might the special rapporteur’s findings impact the human rights situation in Iran?
The first important aspect of human rights activity is to make information public. What any repressive government would love is to be left alone in secret—like North Korea, for example. Do we know how many dissidents are in jail in North Korea?  Do we know their names? No way.
If [the rapporteur’s findings] were not significant, we would not understand why regimes hate the post. Governments don’t like to be submitted to external scrutiny.
  • Does Iran care that the international community is increasingly raising human rights abuses?
It makes Iran uncomfortable. [International scrutiny] would make any government uncomfortable. If someone were to appoint a special rapporteur to the United States, [Washington] would be uncomfortable—the jails, the way immigrants are treated in certain states like Arizona, etc. 
But of course nobody can replace the activity and engagement of a country’s people. The international community can be helpful, counterproductive, etc. But the job belongs to each of us within our own country. The future of Iran will definitely not depend on what is decided in Geneva, New York, or even Washington D.C. From the outside, we should at the very least do no harm. We should not enter into strategies that are detrimental to the possibility of an improvement in the life, democracy and human rights of the Iranians.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website ( in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website ( as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to