The 1988 massacre in Iran was once again a key theme at the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) took part in the Council’s latest session in March 2018 and urged the UN and its Member States to support the launch of an international commission of inquiry into the massacre of thousands of political prisoners by the Iranian authorities.
The 1988 massacre was brought up in both the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran and the UN Secretary General. It was also addressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in an open forum with NGOs.
Numerous human rights groups and NGOs submitted written statements about the 1988 massacre published on the UN website. The issue was further brought up in numerous oral interventions in the Council chamber by Member States and representatives of NGOs.
JVMI also took part in a side event on the human rights situation in Iran where the 1988 massacre was addressed. JVMI representatives met over a number of days with OHCHR officials, various Special Procedures and members of the diplomatic community in an effort to encourage accountability and justice over this crime against humanity.
Families of the victims of the 1988 massacre rallied outside the UN at the end of February in protest to the presence of the Iranian Justice Minister, a perpetrator of the massacre, at the Human Rights Council. Alireza Avaie’s presence also led to condemnations by various country delegations and a walkout by some members of the diplomatic community. The rally received significant international media attention.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on Iran
The latest report to the Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the late Asma Jahangir, drew attention to the need for an investigation into the 1988 massacre. The report (A/HRC/37/68), included an entire section under the heading “Summary executions in 1988”:
“21. Since the issuance of her previous report, the Special Rapporteur has continued to receive documentation and letters concerning the reported summary execution and forced disappearance of thousands of political prisoners, men, women, and teenagers in 1988. Over 150 individual submissions were received in the course of 2017. The Special Rapporteur also met with families of some of the victims during her missions. They described the difficulty they had faced in obtaining information of these events, known as the 1988 massacres, which continue to be officially unacknowledged. The Special Rapporteur also heard first-hand accounts about the harassment of those continuing to advocate for further information related to the events which took place in 1988.
22. The Special Rapporteur reiterates that families have the right to remedy, reparation, and the right to know about the truth of the 1988 massacres and about the fate of the victims. The Special Rapporteur is also concerned by reports received of the reported desecration of sites believed to be mass graves in the city of Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province and in Ahvaz, and urges the Government to ensure that all locations are preserved and protected until investigations into the events can be carried out.”
In its conclusion, the report added:
“85. The Special Rapporteur reiterates her call upon the Government to undertake thorough and independent investigation into the 1988 massacres, and further ensure that locations believed to be the site of mass graves are persevered and protected to this end.”
Report of the UN Secretary General
In a separate report to the Human Rights Council, UN Secretary General, António Guterres, highlighted the campaign by families of victims to get justice. The Secretary General’s report (A/HRC/37/24) said:
“44. OHCHR continued to receive letters from families of the victims who were summarily executed or forcibly disappeared during the events of 1988. They ask for the intervention of OHCHR to stop the harassment, intimidation and prosecution of human rights defenders seeking truth and justice on behalf of the victims and of their families. The Secretary-General remains concerned by the difficulty the families faced in obtaining information about the 1988 events and the harassment of those continuing to advocate for further information related to these events.”
Remarks by the UN High Commissioner
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, responded to questions about the 1988 massacre in a session with NGOs on 9 March 2018:
“The 88 massacre, the allegations of the massacres in 88, the summary executions and enforced disappearances of thousands of political prisoners – men, women and children – we have received a great deal of information from you, as did of course our dear friend who has now departed from us, Asma Jahangir. … We received 150 communications in respect of 1988, and this is reflected in the report to this particular Council. And the recommendations have been made to the national authorities to investigate independently and impartially of course given all the attention given to this by the victims’ families. I have to say I am completely sympathetic with any view that has it that we need to look at historical injustices and we need to look with an investigative eye. As you all know, there’s so much between 1948 onward, the last 70 years, which could likewise be investigated, massacres of a most horrific kind. We’ve had complete wars which have never been looked into even though we know of the massive loss of civilian life. Massive. So, we need to find a way. This Office doesn’t have the means to investigate historical severe violations of human rights. But I think the prompting from civil society is very important for us to begin to think like that and how to mount investigations of this sort while witnesses are still very much alive and documentary evidence is still very much at their side. I’m completely sympathetic to sort of looking at how we can do this. The practical part, the cost part of it, is more complicated, how we go about doing so. And then, what does it mean if we focus on one area, how do we deal with the others. For instance, if we take the situation in Mozambique, a most difficult civil war, never any truth telling, no accountability mechanisms – only now is there some sort of agreement on finding peace between the RENAMO and FRELIMO. But are we obliged also to look at all the violations that were committed through the civil war? Maybe we are. Maybe we are. How do we do that though? We can barely find funding for what it is that we are supposed to be investigating today for the ongoing violations. It’s a question that we maybe need to think over. But if we can find it, I’m not indisposed of trying to do this sort of thing, because victims don’t forget the crimes that were visited upon them easily. How we do it though is a practical issue that requires further thought on. But certainly the communications have been received and the message has been received.”
JVMI was joined by the Nonviolent Radical Party, Transnational and Transparty; the Women’s Human Rights International Association; France Libertés – Fondation Danielle Mitterrand; International Educational Development, Inc.; and Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (MRAP) in submitting a joint written statement (A/HRC/37/NGO/125) to the Human Rights Council.
The statement, published on the UN website, has the heading: “Civil society urges UN to launch fact-finding mission to investigate Iran’s 1988 massacre in order to end impunity and prevent the same fate for detained protesters today”.
The Women’s Human Rights International Association submitted a separate written statement (A/HRC/37/NGO/139), titled “Request to ensure the rights and safety of the Iranian protesters”, which also referred in part to the 1988 massacre:
“The crackdown on the Iranian people in these recent protests is extremely alarming as it is reminiscent of the extreme crackdown on the Iranian people during the political turmoil in Iran in the 1980s. In the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran authorities executed more than 30,000 political prisoners in just a few months and buried their bodies in secret mass graves. Thirty years on, there has been no investigation of this crime against humanity.
We are deeply concerned about the safety of the several thousand detained protesters whose lives are at risk. Without effective international attention they too could face extra-judicial elimination.”
Oral presentations at the Human Rights Council
UN Member States and representatives of JVMI and other NGOs also addressed the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogues and General Debates, calling for an investigation into the 1988 mass executions and drawing attention to the state of current day protesters whose lives are at threat in Iranian prisons:
Side Event on the human rights situation in Iran
Tahar Boumedra, a representative of the JVMI and former Chief of the Human Rights Section of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), spoke about the need to investigate the 1988 massacre at a Side Event on 6 March 2018 at the Palais des Nations on the ‘Human Rights Situation in Iran’.
Other panelists included Giulio Terzi, former Italian Foreign Minister; Gerry Horkan, member of the Irish senate; Nicola Ciraci, member of the Italian Parliament; Struan Stevenson, former Member of the European Parliament (1999-2014) and Coordinator of Campaign for Iran Change; Parviz Khazai, a former Iranian Ambassador, member of the International Association of Jurists (Norway) and NCRI Representative in Scandinavia; and Simin Nouri, President of the Iranian Women’s Association in France.
Meetings with UN officials
During the Council’s 37th session, JVMI representatives met with officers from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, various Special Procedures and their assistants, and members of UN Member State delegations to the UN, discussing the need to launch a UN probe into the 1988 massacre.
Condemning the impunity
The appearance of Iranian Justice Minister Alireza Avaei, a perpetrator of the 1988 massacre, at the Human Rights Council on 27 February 2018 drew the ire of families of the victims and led to widespread international condemnation. In a statement, the JVMI said that families of the victims were appalled at the misuse of the UN human rights institutions by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Rather than welcoming a serial abuser of human rights who act with impunity, the international community ought to prosecute Avaei on the charge of committing crimes against humanity over his role in the largest massacre of political prisoners since the second world war,” JVMI said.
Avaei was Prosecutor-General and member of the 1988 Death Commission in Dezful, south-west Iran, that extra-judicially sent large numbers of political prisoners to their death. At a civil society hearing in Geneva on 1 February 2018, survivors of the massacre and international human rights experts testified about the massacre which under the definition of the Rome Statute constituted a crime against humanity. Avaei’s name was repeatedly brought up over his role in the massacre.
Avaei’s name (Seyyed Ali-Reza AVAEE, a.k.a. Seyyed Alireza Avaie) is also included on the sanctions lists of the European Union, Switzerland and the United Kingdom for human rights abuses during his time as President of the Tehran Judiciary.
JVMI published his name and background as a member of the 1988 Death Commission in Khuzestan Province in two books – “Inquiry into the 1988 mass executions in Iran” and “The 1988 Massacre in Iran: Evidence of a Crime Against Humanity” – in 2017.
The French news agency AFP was among numerous international media organisations to cover a rally outside the UN in Geneva by families of the victims of the 1988 massacre over Avaei’s participation. The following is the full text of its report:
Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Protests as sanctioned Iran minister addresses UN rights meet
Geneva (AFP) – Demonstrators gathered outside the UN in Geneva Tuesday and some diplomats left in protest over an address by Iran’s justice minister to the rights council, despite facing Swiss and EU sanctions over rights violations.
Alireza Avaie took the podium at the Human Rights Council, slamming “appalling deficiencies” there and in other UN rights mechanisms, and accusing Washington and others of “exploiting human rights for their political ends”.
But even before he spoke, his mere presence spurred up to 150 demonstrators to gather outside the UN’s European headquarters, waving flags used by exiled Iranian opposition groups and signs reading “Arrest Avaie”.
Standing near a large pyramid of shoes meant to represent the thousands killed in a 1988 massacre of political prisoners, demonstrator Safora Mohammadi, a 35-year-old law student, insisted Avaie was “a killer”.
“He’s a murderer and actually I was shocked that the United Nations invited him to be present in a conference for human rights,” he told AFP.
Avaie is perhaps the most controversial of the around 100 dignitaries addressing the opening of rights council’s main annual session this week.
Brussels and Bern have slapped sanctions on him, maintaining that as Tehran’s former top prosecutor he was “responsible for human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, denials of prisoners’ rights and an increase in executions”.
According to exiled members of the Iranian opposition, he played a key role in a 1988 massacre of political prisoners.
Amnesty International has said nearly 5,000 prisoners were executed in a matter of months, while Iranian opposition groups put the figure closer to 30,000.
– ‘A mockery’ –
Before Avaie took the floor, a handful of diplomats left the room in a discrete protest against his presence.
When approached by journalists after his speech and asked about the criticism, Avaie walked by stone-faced without responding.
Earlier this week, Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley also slammed the rights council for allowing him to participate, accusing him of “some of the worst human rights violations in Iran”.
The council “should be ashamed”, she said in a statement, and warned the move made “a mockery of its mandate to promote universal human rights”.
As Avaie arrived in Switzerland Monday, a Swiss lawyer filed a complaint on behalf of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, asking the Swiss attorney general to prosecute the Iranian minister for crimes against humanity.
The attorney general’s office confirmed to AFP that it had received the complaint, but did not say whether it would press charges.
The EU sanctions bar Avaie from travel to the EU and freeze any assets he might hold in the bloc, while Swiss authorities told AFP their sanctions against him were only financial.
Avaie is not on the Security Council’s sanctions list.