Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution did more than just challenge the assumption of the totality of ‘modernity’. It defied theorems of revolutionary movements altogether. In many ways, the violence of the 1980s was as much a theatre of fear, as a ruthless approach to power consolidation. This post-revolutionary violence far outweighed the force of what was a largely peaceful preceding revolutionary movement. As the international community largely transitioned into a vision of modernity that rejected torture (at least publicly) in favour of incarceration and rehabilitation, the conveners of Iran’s prisons sought to break and remake their inmates. They asked prisoners not whether they were sorry for what they had done, but rather demanded that they be sorry for who they had been. The much sought after recantation was central to this process.
Accordingly, those who lived through the tumultuous ‘bloody decade’ in Iran embody a disturbing alternative history. The human rights violations that took place during this time remain largely unexplored in the mainstream media and commentary, although through initiatives such as the Iran Tribunal they are gaining renewed recognition. As such, a generation has lived under the weight of its silence, with the heavy burden of unexplained, unaccounted for suffering. The relevance of this ‘public secret’ is striking because of the way that its official absence has fragmented the diaspora community and provided a substantial obstacle to achieving meaningful change and, crucially, unity. The Iran Tribunal was founded on the premise of unearthing this silenced history. A grassroots movement, one of the only one of its kind, enacted a two-stage truth telling and historically investigative process, away from any state or official bodies. It was unusual in its enactment (between 2012 and 2013) outside of the borders within which the violence had taken place, and in the absence of any official ‘transitional justice’ framework. There had been no power change and no public mourning or memorials for those affected by the violence it addressed.
The ‘bloody decade’ is elusive in terms of uniform facts and figures. Various surviving political groups keep their own records and these differ substantially. Exact numbers of those executed during this time are (still) not available. The Iran Tribunal estimates put the number at around 20,000 and they have recorded as many names as they could gather, excluding no one on the basis of his or her background. The Islamic Republic subjected opposition activists from a full range of political affiliations to a range of cruel and inhumane treatment. Many of the executed are buried in mass graves such as the now infamous Khavaran cemetery on the fringes of Tehran. The extent of the violence is outlined at length by the Tribunal’s final judgment:
…Victims were detained for long periods without trial; prisoners were charged with vague political offences at hearings lasting on average a couple of minutes, during which they were blindfolded and verbally and physically assaulted; none of the victims was ever given access to any defence counsel of any sort, prison cells were overcrowded, medical assistance was withheld, prisoners were forced to participate in religious indoctrinations, they faced mock executions; families of victims were subjected to cruel treatment; they were forced to pay for the bullets used to shoot their loved ones, they were assaulted when they tried to hold mourning services, gravestones were smashed and mass burial sites were covered with tarmac.
Draconian rulings that appeared obsessed with creating new ‘docile citizens’ were a standard. Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa in 1988 incorporated a command that those who ‘…remained steadfast in their position’ be eliminated with ‘…revolutionary rage and rancor’. Waves of outmigration followed. Puzzling to onlookers therefore has been the failure of the resulting vast transnational diaspora to impose meaningful change within Iran; or to provide a firm and inclusive opposition to the Islamic Republic’s practices, despite an overwhelming aversion to the current regime and commitment to human rights.
The Iran Tribunal managed to transcend the fiery divides that have come to characterise the immensely heterogeneous Iranian diaspora. It was initially composed of those who directly experienced the above-mentioned acts of cruelty during the 1980s. It grew to include support from respected human rights lawyers and judges, ranging from Professor Payam Akhavan, Sir Geoffrey Nice, John Cooper QC and Judge Johann Kriegler, amongst numerous others. The Tribunal’s ambitions were twofold. Firstly, it was determined to uncover crimes against humanity with respect to the Islamic Republic’s conduct. Documenting the violence as a historic event was thus paramount. The Tribunal’s judges defined crimes against humanity as follows:
…Part of a systematic or widespread onslaught against civilians. “Widespread” means that the violation is of “massive”, frequent and large-scale nature carried out collectively with considerable violence and directed against a multitude of people. A “systematic” attack is also a qualitative term, pointing to the organized nature of the act of violence and the improbability of its random occurrence.
After a two stage consideration of one hundred witnesses (some of whom offered their testimonies via Skype); the judges of the Iran Tribunal unanimously concluded that all components required to establish a verdict of crimes against humanity, as described in the Rome Statute, were met.
Secondly, they wanted to establish an alternative history and to present this to the international community as well as to the Iranian people themselves, both those who had in some way been affected by the events of the 1980s and those who had grown up in Iran with no such knowledge. This second goal is a long-term objective that surpasses that of the two-stage tribunal and lives on in the forthcoming publications and teachable materials that are being developed by the Tribunal’s academic team. But, above and beyond preparing a dossier of evidence for consideration by the United Nations, is the inevitable and crucial catharsis of letting such atrocities be heard and recognised. It is hoped that this corpus of evidence will act as the history of those expelled from the national narrative of the Islamic Republic – both literally and otherwise.
The highest human rights authorities in the world were present at the proceedings through the legal team and expert witnesses. They ranged from past and current members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), UN and NGOs such as Amnesty International. Notably, the former institutions were spared no scrutiny themselves and were the subject of debate. Maurice Copithorne, expert witness at the Hague Truth Commission and judge at the first stage of the Tribunal detailed his experiences as the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran between 1995-2002. Only on one occasion, at the beginning of his post, was he granted a visit to Iran, thereafter being pronounced persona non-grata. He responded meaningfully to Tribunal Judge Michael Mansfield, who questioned him about the proposed efficacy of such a grassroots tribunal with no legal authority. Mansfield had previously also questioned the actions of the UN during the time the events were taking place, to which Professor Copithorne responded:
…I certainly had no source of intelligence. I had what I could read in the newspapers. For example, I did not receive reports from senior UN people in Tehran. They had other agendas and it certainly did not include human rights.
This serves as a chilling reminder that the fragmentation of diaspora mobilisation is not the only obstacle to holding perpetrators accountable for crimes against humanity. Despite being part of one of the highest legal authorities in existence, Maurice Copithorne alluded to the international community knowingly ignoring the events culminating in Iran at the time. In light of this, independent human rights movements such as the Iran Tribunal gain renewed significance. They focus on documenting, recording and broadcasting testimonials of violence above and beyond the involvement of states and institutional obligations.
In the words of the Tribunal itself:
…We do not represent any state power, nor can we compel the perpetrators responsible for crimes against the people of Iran to stand accused before us. Yet we believe that these apparent limitations are, in fact, virtues. We are free to conduct a solemn and historical investigation, unrestricted by the confines of any state or other such obligations.
Despite representing a staggering array of diversity within its ranks, the Iran Tribunal successfully united an impressive number of supporters and spectators; even reaching into Iran through live streamed broadcasts of the events. Utilising human rights centred discourse, not simply as superficial rhetoric but as the driving principle behind the whole movement, allowed them to achieve a solid backing. But I do not wish to convey an impression of utopian campfire comradery. Decision making amongst the hundreds of members of the campaign, the steering committee and legal advisors is certainly not for the faint-hearted. As a researcher of the Iranian diaspora and their political engagement, I was fascinated with Babak Emad’s (co-founder and one of coordinators of the Iran Tribunal) knowledge and precision in attending to emerging fractures in the body of the campaign, mediating and mending tirelessly. I was reminded that the Iran Tribunal was so much more than an abstract longing for a place in history. As Mr Emad told a colleague at The Hague, he had been haunted by the words of a young cellmate while imprisoned himself. The young, terrified man had sobbed and expressed his fear of imminent death. Emad, unable to help the young man, who was subsequently executed, simply promised him that he would not let the young man die in vain. Onlookers may see little use for pursuing justice for past atrocities like these, especially when initiated by those outside of the margins of proposed accountability. But as academics and legal practitioners like Kaveh Shahrooz (himself a member of the prosecution team) have pointed out, there is clear and disturbing continuity in these violent practices and notably the perpetuators of the Islamic Republic continue to thrive within the current system. This makes pursuing accountability for past crimes seem daunting, as the current Iranian government were very much involved in the implementation of past and present crimes against humanity.
The Rome Statute conventionally targets individual perpetuators and was formerly limited in terms of time (being officially implemented after the time that the Iranian case had occurred) and accountability. While the latter was amended in 2002, the former was polemicised by the Iran Tribunal judges in some depth. Noting that abstract bodies cannot be held accountable by international law enforcers, Professor Akhavan did nevertheless state that these violent practices were based on policies of the Iranian government itself and that this warranted an international investigation into the regime as a whole. The UN’s appointment of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran (Ahmed Shaheed) certainly displays a preliminary step towards investigating the government for current human rights abuses but does little for the victims of their past actions. Professor Akhavan described the 2012 Hague hearing as the beginning of a long road in the pursuance of justice. Despite Iran not being a signatory to the Rome Statute and the ICC, the judges of the Iran Tribunal deemed the evidence outlined in the final Judgment as carrying sufficient cause for international inquiry under customary law “[…] irrespective of whether Iran has signed any particular treaty or not”. According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute, under customary law the Iranian government should be held accountable for failing to investigate, with due process, crimes against humanity. But as stated above and by Professor Akhavan, this is not likely to take place with a regime that consolidated its power through these very acts, and continues to accumulate a shocking human rights record.
The UN has so far not initiated substantial steps towards investigating the 1980s violence and the Iran Tribunal’s existence is testament to the frustration of victims who still await justice. When Dr Ahmed Shaheed cannot even enter Iran, despite being appointed by the UN, their frustrations are certainly understandable . Having appointed prestigious judges to formally accept their case within international legal frameworks, the Iran Tribunal presents witnesses’ experiences in the language of international law, hoping that this is enough to finally be recognised for higher international consideration.
Dr. Shaheed, responsible for monitoring the human rights situation in Iran for the UN Human Rights Council, stated in his October 2013 report that he continues to be approached by those affected by the violence of the 1980s. He responds to these ongoing requests for assistance by reaffirming that his predecessor Reynaldo Galindo Pohl (Special Rapporteur to Iran from 1986-1995) had raised concerns about the situation and recommended an international inquiry. That such a process has still not taken place is a point of continuing concern.
Of course, the idea that the UN and ICC are in themselves ‘neutral’ bodies is certainly not taken as gospel. Previous critiques of the ICC have included cynicism about its docket consisting exclusively of trials of African leaders up to the current date. Such critiques also bring renewed suspicion about the absence of European and American state actors, notably former Prime Minister Tony Blair; and his colleague former President George Bush (the latter infamously ‘symbolically un-signing’ the Rome Statute in 2002), for their joint and unpopular invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although like Iran, the United States is not currently a signatory to the Rome Statute, international customary law could, but is unlikely to, wield authority when ‘crimes against humanity’ are deemed to have taken place. But perhaps most troubling of all is the election of Iran to NGO committees at the UN, despite widespread support for Dr Shaheed’s latest report on the human rights situation in Iran by many UN members, something the executive director of UN Watch described as a ‘black day’ for human rights.
It remains to be seen whether, in the future, the UN does take up the case of Iran formally and whether we will see Khamenei and other numerous related political actors put on trial for their current and past abuses of human rights. Presenting itself as an independent judicial institution and declaring that: ‘…the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation’ makes the ICC the principle and most likely (formal) avenue for the long road to justice, despite its problematic inadequacies.
The International Criminal Court is unable to investigate ongoing and historical violence in Iran, without a reference from the Security Council or the unlikely scenario of the Islamic Republic becoming a signatory to the Rome Statute. This is why the Iran Tribunal (and other independent people’s tribunals) has developed a parallel system of justice-seeking. This is obviously no mean feat, and crowded with its own obstacles and seemingly endless polemics. But in one sense at least, the Iran Tribunal has already succeeded in its initial ambition; establishing a credible historical truth. And as Professor Payam Akhavan (member of the steering committee and head of the prosecution team) reminds us ‘ending a process of denial of historical truths is the first step to ending the denial of human rights’.
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This essay also used for reference purposes Arjomand, S. A., (1986): Iran’s Islamic Revolution in Comparative Perspective, World Politics, Vol.38, no.3, pp 383-414 and Taussig, M. T. (1999). Defacement: Public secrecy and the labor of the negative. Stanford University Press.