UN experts join JVMI in seeking accountability for the 1988 massacre in Iran

Underscore need to end culture of impunity

NEW YORK, 29 October 2023: Human rights experts, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Iran and a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), joined Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) at a side event on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York on 27 October 2023, urging UN Member States to oppose impunity in Iran and to support accountability for the perpetrators of the 1988 extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of political prisoners.

Speakers at the side event, held at 777 UN Plaza, included Prof. Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Dr. Grazyna Baranowska, Member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID); Amb. Stephen Rapp, former US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice; Prof. Melanie O’Brien, President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS); and Ana Sami, US Representative of JVMI. Representatives of several Permanent Missions and the New York City Bar also attended the event.

Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman, the event’s keynote speaker, said: “The gravest tragedy which we have witnessed since the Islamic revolution – the most painful one – remains that of the enforced disappearances and the summary and arbitrary executions of thousands of individuals in 1988.”

“In 1988, thousands of prisoners were extrajudicially executed pursuant to a fatwa issued by the then-Supreme Leader and implemented across prisons in the country,” he said.

Dr. Rehman added: “There are extreme concerns about the serious crimes under international human rights law and International Humanitarian Law having been committed through these executions. These crimes include crimes against humanity, including torture, genocide, persecution, murder, extermination, as well as enforced disappearances.”

“The mass executions of 1988 have been followed by the state authorities’ refusal to publicly acknowledge these killings or to disclose in some manner the fate of those killed and the location of their remains to victims’ families, and subjecting these families to threats, harassment, intimidation, and attacks.”

“There has been a determination on the part of the Iranian government to hide these massacres through false narratives and statements, distortion of historical data, and active harassment of survivors and family members of the victims, as well as by hiding the evidence, such as by the destruction of mass graves.”

“Systematic concealment of the fate of the victims, not providing the location of their remains, or not providing family members information about the causes of death is deeply troubling. Such concealment, in my judgment, also constitutes enforced disappearances and a crime against humanity. The massacres resulting in the summary and arbitrary executions as well as enforced disappearances have been a source of very serious concern for my mandate as well as several other UN Special Procedures.”

“Enforced disappearances continue until the fate and whereabouts of the individuals concerned are established irrespective of the time past,” the Special Rapporteur reiterated, adding that “family members have the right to truth.”

“So what about ending impunity and ensuring accountability? After 1988, Khomeini’s willing executioners were promoted to high positions in politics and the judiciary, where many remain today. One possibility – and this is one possibility of the many – is the use of universal jurisdiction to try individuals for serious crimes, including crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations that took place in 1988.”

“In July of last year, as you know, a Swedish court convicted Hamid Nouri for his role in the torture and mass executions in Iran during 1988, as the court found him guilty of war crimes and murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The other is obviously setting up an international tribunal or an investigative mechanism to hold accountable all those individuals who have committed grave crimes against the Iranian people. I have consistently called for accountability with respect to long-standing emblematic events that have met with persistent impunity, including the enforced disappearances and the summary and arbitrary executions of 1988 and the protests of November 2019. And I would continue to call upon the international community to hold these individuals accountable,” Prof. Rehman added.

Grazyna Baranowska, speaking on behalf of the WGEID, expressed solidarity with the families of the victims of the 1988 massacre who seek accountability and justice.

She pointed out that the WGEID has addressed the issue of the 1988 massacre in its regular reports.

“Let me come back to the last three reports that we have published. The one from September this year – so the freshest – in it, we have reminded the authorities in Iran about their obligations under international law to search for the forcibly disappeared, locate, protect, and preserve unmarked graves and investigate, and this was done precisely with regard to the 1988 massacre. And in the 2021 and 2022 reports, we have also expressed concern with the concealment, and we highlighted the ‘ongoing concealment’ of the burial sites of those that have been forcibly disappeared and executed in 1988 across the country.”

“Enforced disappearances are an ongoing violation. It is a continuous human rights violation. … That is to say, until the state acknowledges the detention or releases information pertaining to the fate and whereabouts of the individual.  Looking at the situation that we’re discussing today, it is clear that this crime is not complete, meaning that the state has not acknowledged it or not released information about the fate and whereabouts of the individuals.”

“So, in the understanding of the Working Group, and in the understanding of all the international bodies that have dealt with that, this ongoing human rights violation has not been clarified until today, and we’ve seen in Iran and in many other contexts that enforced disappearances affect families over generations.”

“International law explicitly recognises those families as direct victims of enforced disappearances. So, it is not only the disappeared persons themselves that are victims of enforced disappearances, but also their close family members that are directly affected by the enforced disappearance. This also shows that there are obligations with regard to the families, not only with regard to the disappeared and the unmarked graves, but precisely to the families that are left behind.”

“There is obviously an inherent connection between crimes that have happened in the past and human rights violations that are happening today,” Dr. Baranowska said.

Ambassador Stephen Rapp stated that there was no judicial process in the course of the 1988 massacre. “There was essentially an inquisition where people, some of whom had even completed their sentences for so-called political crimes, were summarily executed in a way in which all the facts and circumstances, the names of the victims, the place of interment, all of those things were hidden so that we have these violations of international human rights law, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.”

“These crimes, however, are also crimes against humanity – a part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population there. These people were not involved in a conflict. It couldn’t be said that it was even done because these people were not Shia Muslims; frankly, 90 percent of the victims were. What this involved was individuals who objected to this theocratic autocracy in Iran.”

“We’ve seen the effect of the impunity that has occurred in basically the absence of justice for these crimes. Impunity breeds impunity. So we have a regime that went on to commit horrendous crimes thereafter in 2019 and the suppression of demonstrations and people exercising their rights to assembly and protest and now these horrendous crimes largely against women since last year in 2022, and in each of these situations there’s impunity and the expectation that this regime can get away with it.”

“And frankly, the regime then also sponsors groups in other regions that commit similar crimes. In fact, the consequence of this is a situation where around the world, we see more and more places where regimes feel that they can commit these crimes. As a result, it’s not just Iran, but it’s everywhere, and it’s a risk, and it’s a threat to all of humankind, wherever they are, when these kind of crimes can be committed without consequences.”

IAGS President Melanie O’Brien pointed out that the 1988 massacre amounted to crimes against humanity.

“The detention, disappearance, torture and killings of large numbers of Iranian civilians in 1988 and today qualify as a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population. These crimes committed against Iranians in 1988 and today amount to the crimes against humanity of murder; torture; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; persecution on political and religious grounds; enforced disappearances; and ‘other inhumane acts,” Prof. O’Brien said.

“The impunity surrounding these crimes has only emboldened the perpetrators. With Ebrahim Raisi in power, it is clear that, within Iran, there will not be justice for victims, and that the violence only continues,” she added.

Iranian-American lawyer Ana Sami, representing the JVMI and moderating the event, said the culture of impunity existing in Iran today stems from the “failure to hold Iranian officials accountable for committing crimes against their own citizenry, chief among them the 1988 extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of political prisoners”.

“We are concerned that the lack of accountability for the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre by the international community emboldens the Iranian authorities to commit further atrocities against dissident protesters and political prisoners, as was witnessed during the deadly crackdown of the nationwide protests of 2022 after the death of Mahsa Jina Amini. The lack of accountability not only perpetuates a climate of fear and repression, but also undermines the very principles of justice and the rule of law,” she said.

“The 1988 massacre is not an insulated event, the effects are apparent and visible to this day. In reality, many families are currently being harassed for seeking justice for their loved ones who were taken from them in 1988. It is high time that the UN Member States urgently establish an inquiry into the 1988 mass executions and enforced disappearances in Iran. States should also support the pursuit of accountability for Iranian officials who have committed major crimes that violate international law, such as the 1988 massacre and the brutal crackdowns on previous and current protests.”

“The culture of impunity within the Iranian government, exemplified by the 1988 executions and many other instances of human rights abuses, is a stain on our collective conscience. We cannot stand idly by while injustice and suffering persist. JVMI believes it is our moral obligation to demand accountability, to support the victims and their families, and to work towards a future where human rights are upheld, and justice prevails. Only by doing so can we hope for a brighter and more just future for the people of Iran.”

The panel called on the co-sponsors of the annual UNGA Third Committee resolution on Iran to include an explicit reference to the 1988 extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in the text of this year’s resolution.


  • In 1988, the government of Iran massacred 30,000 political prisoners.
  • The executions took place based on a fatwa by then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordering the execution of all political prisoners affiliated with the main opposition group People’s Mojahedin (PMOI or MEK) who remained ‘committed’ to their beliefs.
  • 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.
  • They include current President Ebrahim Raisi and Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei.