Another Week in Geneva

I returned from Geneva last week and made a few notes on this peaceful place that was so full of politics….

The peaceful white mountaintops remained unscathed by the heat of debate that took place within United Nations corridors. The mountains, I thought, are indeed a fitting background. Full of frozen splendor and  high enough not to be touched by the realities on the ground. Such was another week of deliberation at the UN Human Rights Council that this time debated on Iran and Egypt . You  will find some more in the post below

Another Week in Geneva
By Nir Boms, 3rd March 2010

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva concluded a week of deliberations with Iran and Egypt topping the agenda. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process which involves the review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States. This recent UN tradition started in 2006 following growing criticism regarding the lack of attention given to human rights at the UN. The process, which allows for input given by NGO’s as well as other states, was meant to change that. To say the pace of change has been slow is an understatement.  More like a Swiss glacier.

“Human rights violations in Egypt are widespread and routine, including arbitrary detention, torture, and unfair trials before state security and military courts” wrote Human Rights Watch in one of the submissions on Egypt.  The government habitually invokes the ‘state of emergency’ laws, in place since 1981, to suppress peaceful political activities and critics.  Security officials routinely arrest bloggers and journalists for their writings, and Egypt’s laws allow for an extremely broad definition of an “illegal organization” that are subject to special trials conducted by military and state security courts.  Torture is also allowed under article 126 of Egypt’s penal code.

While the delegates continued their deliberations in Geneva, dozens of Egyptian women and human rights activists staged a protest in Cairo against a decision that bars women from holding judicial positions. Thursday’s protest came after the Council of State’s Association, an influential court which advises Egypt’s government, voted overwhelmingly against the appointment of women as its members. This decision comes in spite of the fact that article 40 of Egypt’s constitution states: “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.”

The discussion on Iran attracted even more heat. UN Human Rights Council members raised numerous concerns regarding the violent and systematic attacks against demonstrators and opposition members during the past eight months, including the lack of accountability for abuses. In response, secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, Mohammad Larijani, said that “all cases were duly addressed in competent courts openly and the defendants had access to their chosen lawyers.” Rejecting the recommendations to change the judicial procedures he argued that the Iranian Judiciary “meticulously examined all allegations pertaining to the breach of citizenry rights and most scrupulously heard the complaints lodged with them for even the alleged minor illegal treatments against the detainees.”

If only Mohammad Amin Valian, a twenty-year old  student  at Damghan Science University had a chance to hear   that statement. He was convicted in a show trial last week on charges of “propagation activities against the Islamic regime,” and “insulting top regime officials” (which means that he is charged with participating in protest gatherings where anti regime slogans were chanted).  These charges are punishable by death.  Nine other protestors, including Valian, were prosecuted last week and face the death penalty if convicted. The main pieces of evidence used to convict the twenty-year old student are photographs showing him throwing rocks during Ashura protests. Iranian law allows the death penalty for boys from age 15 and for girls from age 9. Since 1990, Iran has executed at least 46 children under the age of 18 and is the only country in the world which has executed juveniles in 2008. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran’s execution rate has increased by nearly 300% and currently over 100 juvenile offenders await execution in the country.

But Iran, which already submitted its response to the council, is not bothered.  As predicted, it decided to reject the vast majority of the council’s recommendations.  These include a rejection to “immediately halt the execution of juveniles and political prisoners;” “To take immediate action to cease the practice of torture in detention facilities;” “To end its severe restrictions on the rights to free expression association;” and “To prosecute security officials involved in torturing, raping, or killing.”  These measures were unnecessary, declared Ambassador Larijani.  “Iran is in full compliance with the relevant international commitments it has taken on in a genuine and long-term approach to safeguard human rights” He now seeks a seat for Iran on the  Human Rights Council itself, perhaps to further uphold these “genuine” standards. At this pace of change at the UN, this is not an unforeseeable scenario.

The weekend just came to Geneva and the mountaintops are back at the center of attention. After all, it is ski season and with all due respect to minor street demonstrations, the diplomats have other things to do. You can get a ski pass for about $65 which is cheaper than an hour of deliberation at the Human rights council which costs about $65,000.
Nevertheless, things can be changed if member states will choose human rights over political considerations.  And it’s about time to see such a message coming out of the Human Rights Council.

Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and co-founder of

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