Panel of UN experts calls for accountability through an OHCHR inquiry into the 1988 massacre in Iran

Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) joined a panel of international human rights experts and NGOs on Monday, 28 February, appealing to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to launch an inquiry into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran.

At a virtual conference on the first day of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council, speakers endorsed the appeal by UN Special Rapporteur on Iran Javaid Rehman for UN Member States to support accountability over the 1988 massacre.

In his latest report on the human rights situation in Iran, which will be debated at the Human Rights Council on 17 March, Special Rapporteur Prof. Rehman referred to the ongoing crackdown on family members of victims of the 1988 massacre and the destruction of mass graves. Most importantly, the concluding paragraph of his report made a final appeal to the international community to seek justice over the 1988 massacre:

“71. The Special Rapporteur urges the international community to call for accountability with respect to long-standing emblematic events that have been met with persistent impunity, including the enforced disappearances and summary and arbitrary executions of 1988 and the November 2019 protests.”

“The 1988 massacre was a premeditated crime,” JVMI Director Tahar Boumedra told the conference. “That fatwa was a death penalty for all the opposition and the MEK,” emphasized Boumedra, who is also a former Chief of the UN Human Rights Office in Iraq. He added that the fatwa was intended to “exterminate all those prisoners” who refused to bow and that this crime against humanity could be described as a “genocide”, as it targeted the supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI or MEK) who believed in a different version of Islam.

Hiljmnijeta Apuk, Winner of the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights for 2013, said: “There needs to be accountability into the 1988 massacre in Iran through a UN inquiry on the basis of the facts. In 1988, the Government of Iran massacred 30,000 political prisoners. The executions took place based on a fatwa by Supreme Leader Khomeini. Three-member Death Commissions were formed across Iran, sending political prisoners who refused to abandon their beliefs to execution.”

“The perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity. They include Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi and Judiciary Chief Golam-Hossein Mohsen-Ejei,” she added.

Prof. Jeremy Sarkin, former Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) said he was a cosignatory to both an open letter to the OHCHR by 152 experts in May 2021 and an open letter to the Human Rights Council by 470 experts in January 2022 seeking an international investigation into the 1988 massacre.

Prof. Sarkin pointed to the latest report of the WGEID to the Human Rights Council which reiterates the concerns expressed about the ongoing concealment of burial sites of those forcibly disappeared and allegedly executed between July and September 1988 across Iran. The Working Group recalled in its report that an enforced disappearance continues until the fate and whereabouts of the individuals concerned are established and it joined the call for an international investigation into the matter, Prof. Sarkin added.

Prof. Annalisa Ciampi, Ad hoc Judge of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, said the 1988 massacre involved enforced disappearances, summary executions, and extrajudicial killings which are both “serious violations of human rights” and “continuous violations” that should be the subject of an international investigation mandated by the Human Rights Council.

“We ask the Member States to put that political will for what happened in 1988, for what happened again in 2019, for what is still ongoing – because until there will be an investigation and the victims will be given, at the very least, a right to the truth, these serious human rights violations and core crimes will be still ongoing,” she said.

Prof. Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, lead prosecutor at the trial of Slobodan Milošević in The Hague, said there are two certainties regarding the 1988 massacre: first, a crime against humanity has been committed; and second, the international community has not stepped up to its standards and due process of law.

Hamid Sabi, a London-based human rights lawyer who has served the Iran Tribunal, Aban Tribunal, China Tribunal and Uyghur Tribunal, reiterated that 43 years of “impunity” enjoyed by Iranian officials must end. The 1988 massacre was a grave case of crime against humanity, he added.

“I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the 1988 massacre. Justice must prevail in the name of universal morality,” said former Judge of the General Court of the European Union, Prof. Valeriu M. Ciuca, protesting the global community’s failure thus far to hold Iranian officials accountable for human rights violations.

Prof. Stefan Trechsel, President of the European Commission of Human Rights (1995–1999) and former Judge of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), told the panel: “I am raising my voice to join you in your call for justice over the 1988 massacre in Iran and to declare my solidarity. … I will never forget the tears of men and many women in front of our tribunal when the responsible criminal actors had been convicted and sentenced to long sentences of imprisonment. This has shown that for the victims, international justice and the creation of an investigation and of punishment for the guilty has been of a great value and a very important element in bringing a little bit of justice in this unjust world.”

Claude Nicati, former Deputy Prosecutor General of Switzerland, said: “I was the prosecutor in charge of the first war crimes trial in Switzerland following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. At the end of the investigation and trial, which was not a simple matter, the accused person was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. When I left the Tribunal, a Rwandan woman I did not know hugged me and told me that now she finally knew, that now she could mourn the child or husband she had lost and that she could live. The dead were not going to live again, of course, but she was going to be able to.”

“I appeal to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that what was possible in Rwanda is also possible for what happened in Iran in 1988,” he added.

Gilbert Mitterrand, President of France Libertés – Fondation Danielle Mitterrand, said: “The UN must bring to justice the leaders of the Iranian regime. Time is of the essence. … The voice of democracy is a weapon, and we must use it.”

Prof. Eric David, UN jurist and International Public Law Professor emeritus at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, joined his fellow panellists in appealing to the international community to hold Iranian leaders accountable for crimes against humanity.

Prof. Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, former UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, added: “Justice must be rendered in all its aspects, especially for the families of the victims. Everyone has the right to know the truth about the 1988 massacre, and all victims should be included in the investigation. Universal Jurisdiction must be applied to prosecute Raisi for his role in the 1988 massacre.”

Herve Saulignac, Member of Parliament from France and Vice president of the French Parliamentary Group for a Free Iran, condemned Raisi’s presidency as an expression of systemic impunity in Iran and emphasised that “this impunity cannot persist.”

“The 1988 massacre and the killings in 2019 are crimes against humanity.  This genocide calls for an international investigation. It is urgent to act as we know the Iranian regime is destroying evidence,” he added.

The human rights community is concerned that lack of accountability for the perpetrators by the international community could embolden the Iranian authorities to commit further atrocities against dissident protesters and political prisoners, as was witnessed during the deadly crackdown on the nationwide protests of 2019.

Seven UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Iranian authorities on 3 September 2020, stating that the 1988 extrajudicial executions may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Their letter stated that the failure of UN bodies to act over the 1988 massacre has “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families” and “emboldened” the authorities to “conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial.”

On 3 May 2021, some 152 former UN officials and renowned international human rights and legal experts wrote to UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, calling for a Commission of Inquiry into the 1988 massacre.

On 29 June 2021, in an interview with Reuters, the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Javaid Rehman, called for an independent inquiry into the 1988 state-ordered executions and the role played by Ebrahim Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor. Prof. Rehman said that his office was ready to share gathered testimonies and evidence if the Human Rights Council or another body sets up an impartial investigation. He added that he was concerned at reports that some “mass graves” were being destroyed as part of a continuing cover-up.

In January 2022, civil society sent an open letter to the OHCHR and UN Human Rights Council calling for the urgent establishment of an international investigation into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran.

In all, 470 current and former UN officials, world leaders, distinguished jurists, human rights experts, Nobel laureates, NGOs, and academic institutions signed the appeal. Co-signatories include a former President of the International Criminal Court, a former President of the UN Human Rights Council, a former President of the UN Security Council, 108 current and former UN officials, including 39 former UN Special Rapporteurs, a former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide, two former Special Advisers to the UN Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect, the current Special Adviser on Crimes Against Humanity to the ICC Prosecutor, and the current Special Adviser on War Crimes to the ICC Prosecutor.

Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran
28 February 2022