Transcript: Remarks by Karen Smith, former Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect to the UN Secretary-General

Verbatim transcript of remarks by Prof. Karen Smith at a Civil Society Hearing on the 1988 Massacre in Iran – 15 February 2024, Geneva:

Thank you to the organisers for inviting me to speak at this important event. It has been sobering to listen to the testimonies of survivors and family members of victims today, underlining that even after 35 years the pain does not go away. While we have heard different figures about the number of executions, it is the individual stories that make these numbers come alive. Justice and redress take many forms, and I strongly believe that events such the one held today, which gives people a platform to tell their stories is an important part of the broader quest for justice. I say this drawing on my experience of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, where public hearings were held across the country and broadcast daily across various forms of media. Not only did this allow people to share their experiences of gross violations of human rights; it also meant that nobody could continue to say that they didn’t know what happened, or how violent the apartheid state had been.

I am not an international lawyer and so will limit my comments on legal matters – something I will leave to my learned colleagues. What is clear however is that there is plenty of evidence –based on what we have heard today, but including some of the documentation that is now publicly available, to substantiate claims of crimes against humanity having been committed in Iran in 1988. While holding those responsible for committing these crimes is a matter of principle and something that is owed to the victims and their families, it is also significant in terms of the broader cycle of human rights violations which may amount to atrocity crimes, their recurrence, and their prevention. We know from evidence-based research that the risk of recurrence of atrocity crimes is significantly higher in contexts where accountability for previous crimes has not been achieved. In the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, which is used by the Office of the Special Adviser for Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect in assessing situations at risk of atrocities, a history of atrocity crimes, combined with a record of impunity and weak state structures are among the core risk factors.

We know and have heard a number of times today that impunity breeds a culture of impunity – what some have referred to as systematic or structural impunity. We have seen this in the increased violent repression of protestors and human rights defenders in Iran over the past few years, and continuing as we speak. I also want to emphasise again that although today’s event focuses on the year 1988, as we have heard from some of the survivors and family members, the arrests, torture, and some of the executions already started in 1981. This underlines the point that what we are dealing with here constitutes ongoing crimes against humanity.

I want to now turn to the responsibilities of states to protect populations from and to prevent the commission of the atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, under the responsibility to protect principle which was unanimously adopted by all states – including Iran – during the 2005 World Summit. While this means that Iran has the primary responsibility to protect its population from such atrocities, which includes taking measures to lower the risk of atrocity crimes, one of which is ensuing that the perpetrators of previous atrocity crimes are held to account, and that justice is served. In light of recent and current events in Iran, it is clear that it is not upholding this responsibility. Under the responsibility to protect, this responsibility thus falls on the international community, which has a collective legal, moral, and political duty to prevent the commission and recurrence of atrocity crimes. In his 2017 report to the General Assembly on the responsibility to protect, the UN Secretary-General emphasized the importance of strengthening accountability for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes. While legal accountability relates to obligations under national and international law. Accountability for implementation of the responsibility to protect, however, goes beyond legal obligations and includes a moral and political dimension.

While the member states of the Human Rights Council have heeded calls by civil society to establish a fact-finding mission into the state-led human rights violations in Iran during and following the 2022 protests, it is important that these events not be seen in isolation, but as part of a longer trend of human rights violations, some amounting to atrocity crimes, that has been the result of decades of impunity. I therefore want to reiterate the call by human rights experts and civil society groups that the Human Rights Council expands the mandate of the fact-finding mission to include the events that occurred in 1988, or alternatively that a separate UN Commission of Inquiry be established to investigate the crimes committed in 1988 in order to document evidence that could be used in eventual trials.

I am well aware of the challenges of implementing recommendations and bringing redress to the victims of the crimes committed. But as however selective or limited the immediate results of justice for atrocity crimes might be perceived, the critical importance of these efforts for those affected as well as their long-term impact as a deterrent of future atrocities must be recognized. We also know that seemingly symbolic gestures – I am thinking, for example, of the ICC warrant for President Putin – not only sends a signal to perpetrators that the international community is taking note; but can also contribute to justice in small ways by, for example, limiting the freedom of movement of perpetrators, even when they are heads of state. I am also thinking of the fact that President Raisi cancelled his trip to Geneva to speak at the Global Refugee Forum in December last year, following calls for his arrest. In the same way, targeted sanctions can limit the freedoms enjoyed by know perpetrators, also those at lower levels.

And while the testimonies today have focused on prominent individuals, let us not forget those lower-level officials who are also accountable. So, while traditional justice in the form of arrests and trials might seem like a long way off at this stage, there are of course other ways in which justice can be served. An increasing number of states are turning to universal jurisdiction to hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes accountable, as the previous speaker elaborated. Beyond the UN, specific groups within national governments – I am thinking particularly of legislators – have taken the lead in putting atrocity crimes on the agenda of legislative bodies and, for example, calling for the recognition of gross human rights violations and constituting atrocity crimes. But for all of these measures, investigations, preferably UN-sanctioned, are necessary, so this should continue to be an important priority.

I also want to reiterate that from the perspective of transitional justice, criminal justice on its own is an insufficient response to atrocities. Alongside justice there should also be a process that reveals the truth about what happened. This also constitutes a basic right of the victims and their families, and has been affirmed by the statements that we have heard today. This involves both the public accounting of the magnitude of the crimes committed (with today being part of this process) but also families of victims being told the truth about the fate of their loved ones. Truth telling lays the first stone in the pillar of prevention of future crimes.

Finally, we often think of justice as an accountability mechanism used to address events of the past. At the same time, however, judicial proceedings are important in terms of deterring future crimes and strengthening reconciliation processes. In short, despite the challenges, if we want to not only achieve justice for past crimes but prevent future violence and atrocities, we must continue to pursue justice and reject impunity. Thank you very much.