The UNHRC fact-finding mission in Iran: ineffective effort or a step forward?

Content warning: this article contains discussion of police brutality and gender-based violence.

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It has been three months since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, who was arrested by Iran’s morality police for wearing her hijab inappropriately and was allegedly beaten to death. In the nationwide protests that have ensued, Iranian authorities have demonstrated increasingly heavy-handed responses, with reports that live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets were used against unarmed demonstrators and bystanders who posed no threat to life, and that forces were even shooting at the faces and genitals of female protesters. 

As UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, commented on the situation, “We are now in a full-fledged human rights crisis.” Therefore, on 24 November, the UN Human Rights Council voted to set up a fact-finding investigation into potential human rights abuses in Iran. Its purpose is four-fold: to thoroughly and independently investigate alleged human rights violations, establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations, collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve evidence, and engage with relevant stakeholders. The fact-finding mission will present a report on its findings during the Council’s 55th session in February 2024. 

The establishment of the fact-finding mission is significant

There are many hurdles that the mission could face, most notably the difficulty in accessing information. Interviews are the most common means by which investigating teams collect evidence, and indeed, the Council has called on Iran to cooperate with the mission by granting unhindered access to the country and provide the investigating team with all the necessary information. Yet as Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani stated on November 28, the regime would not engage in any cooperation. This means Iran will not allow the investigation team to enter the country to carry out their mandate, which is a blow to the overall mission.

However, there are ways to mitigate this problem, as there are precedents of investigations being carried out remotely. For example, the investigation team for Myanmar partially based its findings on sources deriving from or external to the country, such as satellite imagery, photos and videos, and interviews of refugees who had been displaced in surrounding states. Considering the prevalence of social media today, footage and images about the demonstrations posted online could equally provide a way to investigate alleged abuses occurring on the ground, although the information will have to be collected from credible sources like NGOs and civil society organisations, and properly preserved and verified. 

Despite the difficulties it faces, it shows promise to be a step forward

These potential challenges notwithstanding, the establishment of the fact-finding mission is significant. As Amnesty International states, the mission “sends a clear message to the Iranian authorities that they can no longer commit crimes under international law without fear of consequences”, a view shared by Gissou Nia, director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, who notes that the mission will “bolster the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran”.

The fact-finding mission symbolises the international community’s resolve that there will be no impunity for international crimes. More importantly, it represents a step towards further accountability. Information gathered from fact-finding missions can be used to push the issue further along the UN system or serve as evidence at the International Criminal Court or for cases prosecuted by individual states. For instance, preliminary investigations undertaken by the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur preceded a case for referral by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court. Additionally, the information can be utilised to pursue other reforms, for an understanding of the cause and unfolding of events may provide room for reflection, and encourage institutional reform and capacity-building to hopefully prevent violations in the future. 

For now, the effectiveness of the fact-finding mission in improving the human rights situation in Iran will depend on the work of the investigating team. Yet despite the difficulties it faces, it shows promise to be a step forward.

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