Tahar Boumedra speaking on day 3 of the Free Iran World Summit in Paris - 3 July 2023

Experts decry impunity in Iran in conference marking 35th anniversary of 1988 massacre

Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) took part in an international conference in Paris on 3 July 2023 marking the 35th anniversary of the 1988 massacre and seeking accountability for this ongoing crime against humanity.

The conference was held at the office of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in the northern Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise and featured presentations by survivors of the massacre and former United Nations experts.

JVMI Director Tahar Boumedra, a former head of the United Nations human rights office in Iraq, told the conference that its high time the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launches a Commission of Inquiry into the extra-legal executions and enforced disappearances of upwards of 30,000 political prisoners.

The 1988 massacre took place based on a fatwa by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini targeting members of the main opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Three-member ‘Death Commissions’ were formed across Iran sending political prisoners who refused to abandon their beliefs to execution. The victims were buried in secret mass graves. The perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity. Since 2016, the names of nearly 100 ‘Death Commission’ members have been revealed. Many still hold senior positions in the Iranian judiciary or government. They include the current Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), told the conference:

Thirty-five years ago, during the final days of July, the harrowing specter of death silently and swiftly cast its shadow over the country, targeting anyone who stood their ground as a member of the PMOI, as Khomeini had stated in his fatwa. According to mullah Moghtadaii, an executioner, Khomeini held consecutive meetings with his henchmen, urging them to continue their grim task without the slightest hesitation or fear. Khomeini harbored genocidal intentions, seeking the annihilation of the PMOI, which he perceived as an existential threat to his regime.

As the massacre unfolded in prisons such as Evin and Gohardasht, only a small number of PMOI prisoners remained in other cities. Tragically, in some prison wards, not a single PMOI prisoner survived.

It is of utmost importance that the acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and massacre perpetrated by the Iranian regime are officially registered in those terms by national and international courts and the UN Security Council. These grave offenses must be subject to international investigations carried out with the participation of representatives from the Iranian Resistance.

Other conference speakers included Amb. Joachim Rücker, President of the UN Human Rights Council (2015) and former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN in Geneva; Prof. Pierre Sané, Secretary General of Amnesty International (1992-2001); Prof. Ariel E. Dulitzky, Former Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) and Director of the Human Rights Clinic of the School of Law at University of Texas at Austin; Stanislav Pavlovschi, Minister of Justice of Moldova (2019) and Judge of the European Court of Human Rights (2001-2008); Amb. Zorica Marić-Djordjević, former Ambassador of Montenegro to the UN Human Rights Council; Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health (2008-2014); Irene Victoria Massimino, Co-President of the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention; Kenneth Lewis, Swedish lawyer representing the PMOI at the Swedish court case related to the 1988 massacre; Dr. Melanie O’Brien, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS); Hon. Tony Clement PC, former Canadian Minister of State and Member of Parliament; Ingrid Betancourt, former Colombian Senator and Presidential candidate; Eric Abetz, former Leader of the Government in the Senate of Australia; Jean-François Legaret, former Mayor of Paris 1st Arrondissement; Gilbert Mitterrand, President of France Libertés – Fondation Danielle Mitterrand; Zinat Mir Hashemi, NCRI member and Central Committee member of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas; as well as former political prisoners and survivors of the 1988 massacre, Majid Saheb-Jam, Khadijeh Borhani, and Asghar Mehdizadeh.

Joachim Rücker, former President of the UN Human Rights Council, told the conference:

I’m very clear in my support for the JVMI foundation. Today’s event, 35 years after the massacre in 1988 bears witness to that.

The UN Human Rights Council held a special session on November 22 to investigate the alleged human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the protests that began in September. This is a good thing. We all agree that it’s not enough that the UN Fact-finding Commission was set up for the ongoing persecution of people since September 16. But we would really want to see something happen in regard to 1988.

We should jointly continue to appeal, as we’ve done in the last couple of months intensively, to the international community as such, but also to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to the Human Rights Council to set up an investigation Commission into the massacres of 1988.

Prof. Ariel E Dulitzky, former Chair of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, said:

I want to speak of two numbers. First, 30,000 victims of the massacre. And I want to relate the 30,000 with the 30,000 disappeared individuals in my country. In Argentina, during the dictatorship, 30,000 people disappeared in the dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Two of my cousins were among them. In those years, there was no UN working group on Enforced Disappearances.

The other number is 35. This is the 35th anniversary of the 1988 massacre. On the 35th anniversary of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, we celebrated it in the detention center of Argentina, where 5,000 people had disappeared. Most of them were tortured, most of them were killed, and 35 years later, I was sitting there representing the United Nations.

And let me tell you that when we talk about disappearances, we don’t talk about your disappearance. We are not talking about ‘their’ disappearance. We are talking about ‘our’ disappearance. We are all responsible for the clarification of the disappearances of everybody.

These are not numbers, these are real people, fathers, and mothers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, friends. They all had hopes and ideas. Remember 30,000 people, individuals. By definition of enforced disappearance, every single enforced disappearance is a state crime because it’s carried out by state officials.

For all the relatives of the people who disappeared in 1998, this is a continuous crime. It continues until the fate and whereabouts of the person who disappeared are clarified, until the families receive information on what happened with their loved ones, until the bodies of those who disappeared are returned to their families so they can give a proper burial and they have a place where they can remember and pay their due respects. Until then, the crimes will keep being committed every single day.

Secondly, it’s not a question of the past. Because today, there are disappearances happening in different parts of the world. And we heard about crimes against humanity and genocide. When disappearance is committed in the context of a generalized attack against the civil population, that’s a crime against humanity and I will consider that is probably what happened in 1988 and for sure what happened during the military dictatorship in Argentina. These were crimes against humanity, and disappearances could also be part of a genocide.

But regardless if we define this as genocide or crimes against humanity, enforced disappearances are a technique of terror. What these regimes intend to do when they practice disappearances is terrorize the civilian population.

When we talk about enforced disappearances, the victims are many more. The victims are not only those who disappear. The victims are all of you, the relatives of those who disappear, because according to international law, according to the International Convention on Enforced Disappearance, a victim is not only the person who disappeared but everybody else who suffered harm due to the disappearance. So, when we are talking about disappearances, we are talking about many more people than just those who disappear.

The relatives have the right to the truth. Who did it? Why they did do it? Who covered it up? 

The international community has a role to play, to cooperate, to investigate, and bring closure to the relatives of those who disappeared.

Anand Grover, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, told the event: “For a long time the regime did not let the relatives of those executed know of their fate, death, or whereabouts. Despite thousands of demands by Iranians and the international community, for a long time there was no admission of the fate of those executed. Later, in various interviews, some of those in power admitted that those people were executed because of the decree passed to execute those who remained loyal to the Mojahedin.”

“I am dismayed, but not surprised, that despite the Reports of the UNSRs, the Committee on Involuntary Disappearances, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/43/137 December 1988 the situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution and the UN Commission on Human Rights did not take any action.”

“The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iranian regime to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date. These need to be tackled urgently,” he added.

Amb. Zorica Marić-Djordjević, former Ambassador of Montenegro to the UN Human Rights Council, said: “Despite the many efforts of human rights defenders and civil society organizations to document these crimes and advocate for the accountability of those responsible, justice, and truth for the victims, the Iranian regime has never acknowledged the facts or admitted its involvement in the 1988 massacre or at any of the continuous brutal killings and barbarian executions of this regime. Many perpetrators have remained in high positions of power today, and no trials have been held in Iran. Some of those perpetrators have not only been prosecuted for the crimes but have even been glorified as national heroes who fought against terrorism. The only success was a Swedish court sentenced former Iranian official Hamid Nouri in May 2022 to life in prison over crimes related to the 1988 massacres under the principle of universal jurisdiction.”

“The world community’s inaction has emboldened the regime in Tehran, which has been actively participating in the war in Ukraine by supplying Russia with drones. But the international community still has the opportunity to step up, mobilize diplomatic and political actions and hold Iran’s terrorist regime accountable for its malign activities.”

Irene Victoria Massimino, President of the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, said: “From a legal perspective, the crime of enforced disappearance has a unique characteristic. It is an on-going crime. It produces effects for as long as the disappearance exists. A permanent or on-going crime is constituted by an unlawful prolonged action, without interruption in time. In Iran, this crime started in 1988. Moreover, unlike other crimes or human rights violations, the crime of enforced disappearance is not defined as a particular action, but as the continuous absence of documents and bodies (dead or alive) related to the victims. The crime of enforced disappearance creates an overwhelming absence, and it is precisely this overwhelming and constant absence that defines it.”

“The disappeared is a forensic concept, defined by and for the legal sphere. Thus, the key aspect of the legal definition of disappeared lies in the permanent or continuous absence of the body, dead or alive, and of the documentation on its whereabouts. This permanence allows the triggering of jurisdictions and laws than otherwise would not be possible to apply to finally end the vicious cycle of impunity that is once again feeding violence in Iran.”

“For 35 years families and friends of the Iranian disappeared have been longing for the bodies of their loved ones, for documentation or information that would allow them to know exactly what happened to them and where they are. The psychological trauma provoked by the permanent presence of the absent body is overwhelming. We must stop this cycle by supporting any process of judicial accountability.”

Prof. Melanie O’Brien of University of Western Australia, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, said: “With the resumption of violence since the killing of Mahsa Amini, we see the same types of violence being carried out. Protestors in the street are being met with violence, with security forces being ordered to ‘severely confront’ protestors, open firing on and beating protestors. Other protestors are arrested and detained, with hundreds already executed. The killings have included children. It is a continuation of the targeting of those opposed to the authoritarian regime running the country that was seen in the 1980s, with the very same conduct being carried out. Indeed, it is history repeating itself.”

“Crimes against humanity are crimes committed as part of a ‘widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population’. The detention, disappearance, torture and killings of large numbers of Iranian civilians in 1988 and today certainly qualify as a widespread AND systematic attack on the civilian population. These crimes committed against Iranians amount to the crimes against humanity of murder; torture; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty in violation of international law rules; persecution on political and religious grounds; enforced disappearances; and ‘other inhumane acts’. Some of these crimes are committed against the victims, others against the families of victims.”

“Obviously, the Iranian government is not going to hold itself accountable for atrocity crimes including executions, torture and enforced disappearances. This is especially the case as some of those responsible for the 1988 crimes have since been promoted up the ranks to high government positions, including the current President, Ebrahim Raisi, who was a death commission member. For Raisi, he is a perpetrator of the killings in 1988, but he is now obviously also accountable for current crimes against humanity being perpetrated against protestors. With Raisi in power, it is clear that, within Iran, there will not be justice for victims.”

“The international community needs to unequivocally support accountability processes to ensure justice for the victims and their families who have not even been permitted to properly mourn their loved ones,” she added.

Stanislav Pavlovschi, former Minister of Justice of Moldova and Judge of the European Court of Human Rights, said:

The 1988 massacre was a tragic event. It shocked the entire civilized world. Justice delayed is justice denied. The time for justice has come. Such tragic events should have no place in the world based on human dignity.

The world should do everything to guarantee that it will never happen again. The impunity of those involved in this crime is very serious. The UN is trying to take some steps. Without an investigation, it would be impossible to establish the truth.

Pierre Sané, Secretary General of Amnesty International (1992-2001), told the conference:

Human rights are in crisis again. Iran continues to remain to be the graveyard of human rights, almost to the indifference of the international community. When it comes to human rights violations, Iran checks all the boxes: massacre, torture, execution, enforced disappearance, violence against women, confiscation of property, and brutality. It seems that it is very hard to create solidarity among progressive governments. There is hesitation to criticize Iran and the Islamic Revolution in the face of Islamophobia. 

There is hesitance by the progressive global movement to join hands with Iranian freedom fighters. I think this is a confusion. When we are talking about human rights violations, we’re talking about victims. When we talk about human rights violations, we talk about international human rights law that binds all governments, irrespective of their ideology. When we talk about human rights violations, we talk about universal rights that apply to all members of humanity. And the last time I checked, the Iranian people were still members of humanity.

Irrespective of the context, irrespective of geopolitical developments, we cannot—because of politics—sacrifice our duty of solidarity to all those who are victims of human rights violations and to all those who are fighting for a human rights regime. That starts with the end of impunity. There cannot be human rights if impunity is allowed to prosper. And the end of impunity is the basis for international solidarity, which is nothing more than the expression of our obligations towards other fellow human beings.

There is no human rights if there are no human obligations. Solidarity is the key and we showed how solidarity was successful in ending apartheid in South Africa, in ending the military dictatorship in Latin America, and in bringing an end to the Vietnam War. It is indeed time that we step up the solidarity for the struggle for human rights in Iran.