UN Special Rapporteur, Member States call for accountability over Iran’s 1988 massacre at the Human Rights Council

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran on Thursday appealed to the international community to support accountability for the 1988 enforced disappearances and summary and arbitrary executions in Iran.

Presenting his latest report (A/HRC/49/75) to the annual UN Human Rights Council session on Iran on 17 March 2022, Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman pointed to “large-scale enforced disappearances and summary executions of real or perceived political dissidents in 1982 and 1988” as example of “persistent impunity” by the Iranian authorities. Prof. Rehman told the Council:

“The problem of accountability does not stop at the failure, or rather unwillingness, of the government to take steps to pursue accountability. In addition, there is a widespread practise which amounts to a policy of attempting to silence those who call for accountability. There are many cases of harassment and threats against families of victims and others calling for justice.”

Paragraph 71 of Prof. Rehman’s report appeals to UN Member States to seek accountability for the 1988 massacre, stating:

“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.”

Following the report’s presentation, a number of UN Member States joined the call for accountability over the 1988 massacre.

The Permanent Mission of Argentina, whose country holds the Presidency of the Human Rights Council for 2022, told the Council:

“The Republic of Argentina deeply regrets the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not initiated any investigation or accountability mechanisms into the enforced disappearances and summary and arbitrary executions on large scale of political dissidents, whether they be real or alleged, which took place in 1988, in line with what has been expressed by the Special Rapporteur in his report. In this context, we request immediate independent investigations that are impartial and transparent be conducted in line with international standards on the alleged crimes, that the perpetrators be identified, and that appropriate reparations be granted to the victims.”

The European Union’s Permanent Delegation stated:

“Non-separation of powers, which characterizes the Iranian legal system, prevents it from bringing perpetrators to justice. The report details emblematic examples of Iran’s failure to ensure accountability, including with respect to large scale use of lethal force against peaceful protesters, enforced disappearances as well as summary and arbitrary executions. We call upon Iran to cooperate with the Office of the Hight Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur.”

Liechtenstein’s Permanent Mission stated:

“This overarching system of impunity has been dominating the legal and political system in Iran for several decades. We share the Special Rapporteur’s concern over the long-standing emblematic lack of accountability for such events, such as the summary and arbitrary executions of 1988 and the November 2019 protests. In many cases, those killed were standing up for their fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, or assembly.”

Malawi’s Permanent Mission stated:

“We agree with the Special Rapporteur that there is need for accountability and a sense of closure as recommended in Paragraph 71 of the report.”

The Czech Republic’s Permanent Mission stated:

“We also consider it necessary to draw attention to the continued lack of accountability for serious human rights violations perpetrated in the past. Mr. Special Rapporteur, on the issue of accountability, can you inform us of any concrete actions taken at the domestic level, and what steps would you recommend at the international level?”

North Macedonia’s Permanent Mission told the Council:

“We are deeply concerned of the findings in his report of the absence of a system of accountability for serious violations of human rights in Iran.”

Australia’s Permanent Mission used its intervention to seek ways to tackle impunity in Iran:

“With reference to the Special Rapporteur’s report, what can states do to facilitate accountability for events that have thus far been met with persistent impunity?”

Responding to Member States’ intervention, the Special Rapporteur stated:

“In responding to several states and organisations on the absence of accountability and institutional impunity – I recollect Malawi, amongst others, raised that point – I ask the Iranian authorities to undertake fundamental reforms to establish a system of accountability in line with international law, including constitutional, legislative, and administrative reforms, to ensure separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, political pluralism, and democratic participation in governance and decision-making.

I urge the international community, in particular this Council, to seek and to ensure accountability as regards 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.

I am also encouraged that some states have used universal jurisdiction to initiate criminal prosecutions against individuals who would otherwise not be held accountable for alleged human rights violations. More fundamentally, it is extremely important that concrete human rights conditions, including those related to accountability, are included in any dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In January 2022, Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) and other members of civil society sent an open letter to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet and the Human Rights Council calling for the urgent establishment of an international investigation into the 1988 massacre.

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
17 March 2022


In 1988, the government of Iran massacred approximately 30,000 political prisoners. The executions took place based on a fatwa by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The fatwa targeted 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. They include Iran’s current President Ebrahim Raisi and Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei.

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 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.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) in a separate report to the Human Rights Council, dated 4 August 2021, also called for an international inquiry into the 1988 massacre. Paragraph 84 of the WGEID report (A/HRC/48/57) stated that the 1988 enforced disappearances constitute an ongoing crime:

“84. The Working Group reiterates the concerns expressed about the ongoing concealment of burial sites of those forcibly disappeared and allegedly executed between July and September 1988 across the country. The Working Group recalls that an enforced disappearance continues until the fate and whereabouts of the individuals concerned are established and joins the call for an international investigation into the matter.”