Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran

IMG_3551The Advocates for Human Rights offers volunteers a remarkable and rewarding breadth of opportunities to effect change around the world. As an example, I recently had a chance to advocate for the rights of Iranians with disabilities when I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with The Advocates to lobby the United Nations Human Rights Council on a variety of human rights issues.

A Persian Proverb says “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind”:  Uncovering hidden obstacles to the rights of persons with disabilities in Iran.

Iran Under Review by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was considering the  initial report submitted by Iran since its adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. In its report, and its opening remarks to the Committee, Iran painted a rosy picture of its progress in removing obstacles and providing greater equality and support for persons with disabilities.

Even without digging beneath the surface, though, the language of those documents displayed a continuing view that persons with disabilities are lesser beings. The State reported as an accomplishment, for example, that premarital genetic testing is required for all couples in Iran “in order to prevent the birth of children with disabilities.”

It is difficult to assess thoroughly the status of human rights in Iran because of the lack of independent civil society or non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like The Advocates) working on the ground there. Instead, Iran has what are called “GONGOs,” for “government-organized non-governmental organizations.” GONGOs often purport to act as watchdogs, but in reality they are mechanisms of the State. Members of our group were actively pursued and questioned by an Iranian GONGO whose representatives were very interested in finding out what we planned to tell the CRPD.

 Persons with Disabilities and the Death Penalty 

Despite the difficulties, The Advocates were able to identify and report on several specific areas of concern.  They presented to the CRPD a shadow report that addressed issues related to the justice system. Iran provides no procedural safeguards in its death penalty process for individuals with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Those familiar with U.S. death penalty law know that there is a significant body of case law addressing the execution of defendants with such disabilities, including a number of Supreme Court decisions. The Advocates urged the CRPD to recommend that Iran suspend its death penalty for people with these disabilities, and take steps to ensure proper safeguards in future cases. While opposing the death penalty in all instances, The Advocates sought a recommendation that the law not provide lesser punishments for crimes against victims with disabilities.

Private Briefings and Public Hearings

I attended an interesting private briefing, during which The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist provided members of the CRPD with details on Iran’s use of amputation as a punishment for certain crimes, such as theft.  Examples were given of the amputation of fingers, hands or feet, and the use of chemical blinding.  The defendant may not have any disabilities when the sentence is given, but is left afterward with a disability imposed by the government. Since defendants are often poor and lack education, this likely leaves them with little ability to find work.  The stigma associated with this visible disability and its well-understood origin put the individual at a severe disadvantage for life.

I was also able to attend public hearings at which Iran’s delegation responded to a list of issues and concerns raised by the CRPD. Some of the questions touched on issues discussed at our earlier private briefing. Most of the answers were vague and circular, providing little in the way of actual facts and data, despite specific requests for these, or evidence of progress.  There was a great deal of talk about meetings, trainings, brochures and pamphlets, and more meetings, but seemingly little in the way of concrete results. Some CRPD members pointedly remarked on the lack of answers.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

The outcomes of the process, the CRPD’s “concluding observations”  were published in April. I was pleased to see that the CRPD included concerns and recommendations on issues that had been raised by The Advocates, as well as on LGBT rights.  The CRPD’s stated concerns included “the enforcement of mutilation as a form of criminal sentence, and the stigmatization against persons who have impairment as a consequence of such punishment,” as raised in our private briefing.

The CRPD also noted that “persons with disabilities, particularly persons with psychosocial and/or intellectual disabilities may be at risk of facing a greater risk of death penalty due to lack of procedural accommodations, in criminal proceedings,” as addressed in The Advocates’ shadow report.

The CRPD also expressed concern about “discrimination against persons perceived to have a disability, including on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation, being forced to undergo medical treatment.”

One of the lessons of this work has been the need for and value of patience. UN treaty bodies like the CRPD can’t simply order a country to change its conduct. The language of international diplomacy sometimes seems, to a newcomer like me, less strong than it ought to be. But participants in the process understand expressions of “concern” to indicate that the requirements of the convention are, in the CRPD’s opinion, not being upheld. Accompanying recommendations for resolving these concerns will be the subject of thorough review in the future, and Iran will be required to account for its implementation of, or failure to implement them.

International scrutiny, and international pressure, can change the course of a country’s conduct as the flow of water erodes rock and changes a river’s course. The change is incremental, but real and lasting.

By Lisa Borden, Birmingham-based Pro Bono Shareholder at Baker Donelson where her own pro bono legal work focuses on representation of indigent death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.  Ms. Borden volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program and traveled to the United Nations in Geneva with The Advocates’ team in March 2017 and March 2015.

Human Rights Tools for a Changing World

Change the World front coverThe Advocates for Human Rights’ Executive Director Robin Phillips is in London today speaking about The Advocates’ human rights monitoring work at the International Bar Association’s colloquium on “Rule of Law Fact-Finding by NGOs: Monitoring Standards and Maximising Impact”.

This international convening to explore the standards and impact of non-governmental organization (NGO) fact-finding on human rights violations is also an appropriate setting to introduce The Advocates’ latest publication:

        Human Rights Tools for a Changing World:  A Step-by-Step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation and Advocacy 

Human rights advocacy takes many forms, and human rights activists can be found in every corner of the world.  Human Rights Tools for a Changing World was created with the express purpose of providing advocates of all backgrounds and experiences a full range of tools and resources to promote human rights in a changing world.

This manual provides practical, step-by-step guidance for individuals and community groups who want to use human rights monitoring, documentation, and advocacy in their work to change policy and improve human rights conditions throughout the world. From framing an issue in terms of internationally recognized human rights standards to submitting a detailed complaint to an international human rights body, advocates can use this manual to plan and implement their work. The manual is designed to aid advocates undertaking a variety of activities—from the relatively simple to the more complex. With background information, key questions to consider, case examples, and practitioner’s tips, this manual provides tools to combat human rights abuses and change social institutions and structures to promote the full realization of human rights.

The practice-oriented sections help advocates to do the following:

  • Monitor: identify ongoing human rights abuses and collect the information advocates need about these issues;
  • Document: analyze, present that information, and make recommendations within the framework of international human rights standards;
  • Advocate: choose and implement a strategy to bring the lived reality closer to the ideals proclaimed by international human rights treaties, including through advocacy at international and regional human rights mechanisms;
  • Address Impunity and Accountability: identify strategies and legal mechanisms i for holding perpetrators and governments accountable for human rights violations; and
  • Build Capacity to Improve Human Rights: develop a better understanding of the international human rights system, identify strategies for applying a human rights framework, and develop competence in setting up and effectively running an organization in safety and security.

The Advocates for Human Rights  is uniquely qualified to present the human rights tools in this manual. Human Rights Tools for a Changing World is grounded in the The Advocates’ daily work in human rights fact-finding, documentation and advocacy.  For more than 30 years, The Advocates has adapted traditional human rights methodologies to conduct innovative research and generate human rights reports and educational trainings designed to bring laws, policies, and practice into compliance with international human rights standards. The Advocates has monitored human rights conditions and produced more than 75 reports documenting human rights practices in dozens of countries around the world on a wide range of human rights issues.

The contents of this manual were also shaped by the requests for assistance and guidance that The Advocates routinely receives from human rights defenders and others seeking to change human rights conditions in their communities throughout the world. Partnership on projects identified and led by local organizations is a powerful means to effectively implement human rights work in the field. At The Advocates, we view our constituencies as partners and form enduring working relationships with organizations and community groups in the U.S. and around the world.

The Advocates’ participatory model of working with in-country civil society organizations to document human rights abuses and coordinate advocacy for change has also demonstrated to us the critical importance of having access to a wide range of human rights tools.  Flexibility is key; there is no “one size fits all” human rights methodology.  Activists need a full menu of strategies and resources so they can choose the ones that will work best in each specific context. With the right tools, real human rights improvements are eminently possible.

We hope that that Human Rights Tools for a Changing World will benefit and be used by human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Because every person matters.

Download your free copy at:  TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/Change

Individual chapters and appendices can also be downloaded individually.

By:  Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and Director of  the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights