Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Iran and the United Nations: Breaking New Ground at the Human Rights Council, Is the Commission for the Status of Women Next?
Iran and the United Nations: Breaking New Ground at the Human Rights Council, Is the Commission for the Status of Women Next?

Iran and the United Nations: Breaking New Ground at the Human Rights Council, Is the Commission for the Status of Women Next?

Bottom Line

  • Roughly 3,100,000 Euro-Americans are of Iranian descent, and many feel a strong connection to their Iranian identity and heritage.
  • Those of Iranian descent have succeeded in all sectors of professional life, from medicine to law to technology to banking to politics and more.
  • Euro-American support for the Iranian protest movement has moved from online activism to making history at the United Nations, first on the Human Rights Council and possibly next on the Commission for the Status of Women.

“Women, Life, Freedom.” These are the words Iranian women have been chanting during protests for more than 80 days. They are the women and the actions that have captured the world’s attention. They are also what led to a historic vote at the United Nations.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) broke ground on November 24, 2022, by adopting resolution SS35 to create an independent fact-finding mission to investigate alleged Islamic Republic abuses against its citizens, especially those involving women and children. The Iranian population has protested the Islamic Republic, its law enforcement institutions, and its officials for more than two months.

The protests began on September 16, 2022, triggered by the in-custody death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini who the “morality police” arrested for violating mandatory hijab laws. Known in Persian as the Ghast-e Ershad, the “morality police” or “guidance patrol” is a police group that monitors public spaces looking for people—especially women—who violate the laws and norms of “public decency” with their clothing, makeup, behavior, and “bad” hair coverings. Amini’s death comes from the intensification of repressive state policies under President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration. It announced over the summer the intention to aggressively target women not in “modest dress” or “bad makeup.” The morality police tend to monitor and more strictly enforce regulations in places with a higher percentage of poor, ethnic, or religious women.

Women and those under eighteen years old for the first time are leading protests. They catalyzed for and continue to be the revolutionaries against the repressive laws of the Islamic Republic. Because these protests have been about violence, state repression, and basic fundamental human rights, allies and supporters have joined from across society including men, the poor, and ethno-religious minorities. The government has responded by labeling the protests as treasonous and organized by the government’s “enemies” (implying the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel, among other potential Middle Eastern governments). Yet, at the same time, the Islamic Republic admits to sending children to “re-education” facilities, a term that was previously associated with China’s “cultural revolution,” and more recently with the Communist Chinese Party’s treatment of its Uyghurs and other Muslim communities. The purpose of the HCR’s independent fact-finding mission is to investigate allegations of arbitrary arrests and detention as well as indiscriminate violence including the use of disproportionate violence, live ammunition, psychological torture, and rape. 

In the weeks prior to the HRC’s thirty-fifth special session to discuss the “deteriorating human rights situation in Iran,” lawyers, advocates, and activists petitioned Euro-American governments and reminded them of the Islamic Republic’s legal obligations and history of violating multilateral treaties. Doing so was pivotal because the international community did not appear to substantively respond nor tangibly support the Iranian people in the initial weeks of the protests. Such weak or muted responses have historically been the situation. This includes in 2009 when Iran was rocked by the largest protests since 1979 over allegations of election fraud, when President Barack Obama committed what he now calls a “mistake” by not acting fast or strong enough. Obama proceeded cautiously because he wanted to avoid giving Iranian authorities an excuse to blame the United States or to use additional violence. In June 2009, Obama called for free speech, dissent, due process, and the democratic process. The Islamic Republic authorities responded by blaming the United States, cutting the internet, and more violence. The presidential nominee and other leading “reformists” remain under house arrest, their images and voices prohibited from being aired or used in public. Some of their supporters became persona non grata and lost jobs while the less connected were jailed and beaten. This situation has continued since 2017, when the frequency of protests began to increase.

Since 2018, Euro-America has largely remained embroiled geopolitically with the Islamic Republic. Both sides of the Atlantic have sought to repair the damage done by former President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or “JCPOA,” also known as the Iran nuclear deal). On the one side, the Biden administration has sought to reassure Middle East allies of its position to militarily secure them against Tehran, thereby limiting its own positions on re-entering the JCPOA. On the other side, the Europeans have tried to negotiate a means for both the United States and Iran to re-enter some version of the deal. In the interim, governments continued to only take steps against Tehran by adding more sanctions.

In the strategy to manifest a different outcome, to support the Iranian people, lawyers, advocates, and activists heavily turned to the law. Specific multilateral treaties became part of conversations on how to address these ongoing protests. This includes, for example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Germany, a sponsor of the S-35/1 resolution and holder of Europe’s UNHRC vice-presidency, specifically mentioned this treaty during the special session. Pertinent articles of the ICCPR include the:


With treaties like the ICCP—as well as those on the human rights of women and the rights of the child—in hand, advocates and survivors engaged in concerted efforts to mobilize the international community. Resolution S-35 is a first step, in their minds, to hold the Islamic Republic accountable for its violations of international law.

In order to pass the resolution, the sponsors needed the affirmative approval of one-third of the forty-seven member states. These votes came from twenty-five governments. Six governments opposed S-35/1. Unsurprisingly, this opposition came from Tehran’s allies in China, Pakistan, Cuba, Eritrea, Venezuela, and Armenia. Among the sixteen abstentions were those from Persian Gulf neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as International North-South Transport Corridor partners India, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

The Islamic Republic stated during the special session and after its belief that the special session as well as the vote for an independent fact-finding mission is “political.” The government will provide “no form of cooperation with this political committee that has been framed as a fact-finding committee,” stated the Foreign Ministry.

Human rights lawyers and activists, among others, celebrate the passage of S-35/1 as a success. Those who have long lobbied for some substantive action by the international community against the Islamic Republic wish that other tangible steps be taken. These include the removal of Islamic Republic diplomats, the deportation of Islamic Republic officials’ children from Euro-American states, and technical support to assure continued access to the internet, social media platforms, and traditional media coverage. Many also seek the removal of the Islamic Republic from the Commission of the Status of Women, a membership that particularly appalls women’s rights activists, human rights defenders and lawyers, and victim advocates. The commission’s mandate is “exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women” so that it may be “instrumental in promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

Like the Human Rights Council, member states of the United Nations sit on the Commission of the Status of Women. It consists of one representative from each of the forty-five member states elected by the Economic and Social Council on the basis of equitable geographical distribution. What this means is that there are thirteen members from Africa, eleven from Asia, nine from Latin America and the Caribbean, eight from Western Europe and Other States, and four from Eastern Europe. Readers might remember the outrage garnered by Saudi Arabia’s election to the Commission on the Status of Women in 2017. Looking at the list of current member states may also produce strong sentiments.

The United States will, according to Reuters reports, introduce a measure to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women at the December 14 meeting of the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council. Procedurally, suspension or removal from the Commission on the Status of Women must be voted on by the Economic and Social Council, which is the body that elects commission member states. Removal of the Islamic Republic from the Commission on the Status of Women will likely be more difficult than the vote on S-35/1.

Any resolution for removal requires twenty-eight members of the fifty-four member Economic and Social Council affirmatively approve—and not abstain from—the resolution. A cursory look at the council’s membership list gives an indication of the uphill battle advocates have. The members include not only the Islamic Republic of Iran but also other violent states with similarly checkered records on women’s rights as well as politically allied states. Those who vote no may include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Nicaragua, Russia, and Zimbabwe. Abstentions may likely come from countries like Benin, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Indonesia (which may vote no), Kazakhstan, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Tunisia.

Women spear-headed, lead, and remain central to the Zan Zandegi Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) protests. The violence committed against women and girls will likely remain at the center of legal and political conversations concerning Iran. The next step for many of these activists and advocates is whether they can garner the vote to remove the Islamic Republic from the Commission on the Status of Women. Anyone saying public pressure does not bring about some measure of change need only look at the historic vote that is S-35/1.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: United Nations (Photo by Ryan Brown)