The New UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
On 8 July, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council appointed a new special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and, for the first time, a person of Iranian origin was chosen for this job. Nazila Ghanea is Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK, and has been active in the field of religious freedom and human rights for over 20 years.
Ghanea will take office on August 1, 2022, succeeding Ahmed Shaheed, Professor of International Human Rights Law and Global Practice at the University of Essex, who from 2011 to 2016 also served as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
UN Special Rapporteurs work as volunteers and do not receive any remuneration from the UN. But that hasn’t stopped the Iranian government from trying to portray these special rapporteurs as being in the pay of “hostile” or “biased” countries to submit unfavorable reports on human rights in Iran. In August 2015, for example, The Guardian reported that Iran used a fabricated WikiLeaks cable to smear special rapporteurs and claimed that the Saudi embassy in Kuwait paid Ahmed Shaheed $1 million to take an anti-political stance. -Iranian.
But Iran has been a “country of special interest” for human rights organizations for more than 40 years on issues of freedom of religion or belief. United for Iran, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that monitors rights abuses, says in its Iran Prison Atlas that at least 67 members of minority religious groups were jailed in late 2021 for practicing their faith. The government sentenced at least 62 of these people to long terms of imprisonment or executed them for “enmity against God” or “armed rebellion against the Islamic regime”.
Two recent examples include the case of Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish, who died in hospital last year after suffering convulsions in prison and being denied medication. Mahjoubi’s personal physician and doctors at Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital had diagnosed his condition, but the advice was ignored by the judiciary. And in 2014, Mohsen Mir Aslani, a psychoanalyst, was executed for blasphemy because he rejected the story of Jonah and the Whale.
Iran’s recent history is replete with similar examples – one of the most continuous and systematic of which is the widespread persecution of Baha’is under the Islamic Republic, which has continued unabated since the Islamic Revolution. from 1979.
“People nominate themselves for this mission or are nominated by others,” Nazila Ghanea told IranWire. “I was nominated by the State of Oman, an international NGO and two NGOs from Brazil and Malaysia. The UN Human Rights Council Advisory Group, made up of representatives from five UN regional groups which include Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Western Europe, selects about five of the candidates to interview. The committee then chooses three of them, ranks them first to third and sends their nominations to the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The council president then consults with regional groups, Ghanea said, and sends a list of candidates for endorsement to the entire Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states.
“I am honored to have been ranked first by the Advisory Group and the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council and that this choice has been endorsed by the international community,” Ghanea added.
UN Special Rapporteurs have two types of mission: some are country-focused and others focus on a global thematic issue. Javaid Rehman, a law professor of Pakistani origin, is the current special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Ghanea will be responsible for monitoring freedom of religion or belief in Iran but, as a thematic mandate holder, she will be responsible for addressing this freedom in the 193 UN member states.
“My work focuses on freedom of religion or belief, based on international human rights law standards,” Ghanea said. “It is a broad discipline that includes freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. My work will focus on the right of everyone to have their own religion or belief, to change their beliefs and to be able to manifest and share their beliefs. The right is guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has been signed by 173 countries including Iran and therefore these countries are bound to respect these rights.
Article 18 of this convention provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice, and the freedom, either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest one’s religion or belief by worship, observance, practice and teaching.
Ghanaa stressed that the independence of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is one of the most important features of his mandate.
“Special rapporteurs are independent, apolitical and unpaid. The UN covers the necessary expenses for the mandate, but the rapporteurs do not receive a salary. This mission is purely a matter of human rights and it is necessary that the special rapporteurs remain independent and assure the others of their independence.
“Persian-language media asked me about my role in relation to Iran and whether I would have the chance to visit the country,” Ghanea said. “Iran faces challenges not only in terms of social hostility around religion or belief, but also government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and discrimination based on religion or belief. . Since there is a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, I need to work with him to carry out my mandate regarding freedom of religion and belief there.
Ghanaa added that there is a standing invitation for special rapporteurs to visit Iran. This was published in 2002 by then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, but since the mid-2000s no special rapporteur on human rights in Iran or freedom of religion or belief has could surrender. It should also be noted that in 2002, when the invitation was first issued, the UN Human Rights Council also failed to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. man in Iran. The failure has been condemned by human rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom – but for a decade the Council avoided naming an Iranian rights mandate holder. of man.
“UN special rapporteurs follow clear guidelines that include regular reporting to the UN on their mandates,” Ghanea said. “Responding to violations of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is part of my duties. Violations can be reported online. The special rapporteurs ask the countries concerned to react and then to inform the international community of the cases which violate the freedom of religion or belief.
Other activities of special rapporteurs, Ghanea said, include supporting respect for human rights, raising public awareness and promoting human rights standards.
Ghanea added that one of the areas she will look at will be migrants’ freedom of religion and belief: “Today there are more than 280 million migrants in the world, some of them Iranians, so I want to be sure to include the freedoms of migrants within the framework of human rights”.
Freedom of religion or belief and the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment is another area that Ghanea says has not received enough attention and which she hopes to address in her work.
Ghanaa reiterated that the independence, impartiality and professionalism of special rapporteurs must be protected. “My goal is to support this independence, to keep the mandate impartial, focused on its main objectives so that it can strengthen our resolve to end discrimination based on religion of belief and freedom of religion or belief for everyone, including the Iranians”.