By Roozbeh Mirebrahimi
Over the past three years, Malawi has been cited by the international community for its steady efforts to improve protections for its citizens and has emerged as a leading African voice on human rights worldwide. This week, Malawi has an opportunity to bolster its reputation as a model for reform in Africa when the United Nations General Assembly adopts a human rights resolution on Iran, a flagrant human rights offender. It is critical for Malawi to cement its position as a legitimate democracy by strengthening its support for the global human rights movement.
Malawi, like many countries, cannot boast a perfect human rights record, yet President Peter Mutharika has demonstrated in his first 18 months in office a commitment to attaining international standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even in the wake of the tragic events of July 2011. Malawi’s leadership has devoted significant resources to addressing poverty, gender equality, and child marriage, among other issues.
While things in Malawi are slowly improving, the state of human rights in Iran is deteriorating at a worrying pace and Malawi should not remain silent. In the last two months, Iranian authorities have jailed 15 members of the Baha’i religious community, sentenced two poets to prison and 99 lashes each, arrested 5 reformist journalists, and banned female musicians from preforming in a symphony.
Many of us hoped that with a new president and renewed international engagement born out of the nuclear deal with the P5+1, Iran would be on path towards increased human rights accountability. But so far that has not happened, and likely will not happen without the persistence of the international community to prioritize human rights in Iran.
The latest report from the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran—an internationally mandated expert whom Iran has repeatedly refused permission to enter the country—reveals just how dire the human rights situation in Iran has become.
The rapporteur reported that Iran is on course to execute the most people in a single year than it has in over 25 years, possible putting more than 1000 people to death. Compare that to Malawi, which has not executed a single person I the last 25 years. Moreover, just this month, Iran confirmed its status as the world’s top official executioner of juvenile offenders to new heights after two men were re-sentenced to death for crimes committed before they were 18 years old. Indeed, authorities have executed four juvenile offenders, three boys and one girl.
And on top of all that, women’s rights in Iran are just as shameful. By law, women in Iran are restricted from going certain places and from working certain hours, and are required to seek their husbands’ permission to travel, work, and attend university. And when a husband is abusive, women face huge legal hurdles in getting a divorce.
Despite these problems, Iran is refusing to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms. Iranian authorities have fully or partly rejected the majority of the recommendations on civil and political rights made by the international community during the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Moreover, no special rapporteur, the United Nation’s mandated human rights experts, has been aloud to visit the country in a decade. This is why the continued attention of the international community, including Malawi, is so pivotal in ending Iran’s pattern of violations and noncooperation with the UN.
Malawi has traditionally supported human rights in Iran, consistently voting in favor on the resolution at the General Assembly. Surprisingly, this year Malawi did not vote for the resolution on human rights in Iran at the committee level. Still, Malawi has an opportunity this week to vote yes on the same resolution as it moves from committee to the General Assembly itself.
I personally know how important the voices of foreign governments like Malawi can be. I myself was arrested in Iran for things I wrote as a journalist. I was charged with crimes of threatening national security, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to all forms of psychological pressure. But the international community quickly learned of my case and called for my release. I was freed largely because other governments spoke out.
Malawi must not pass up this opportunity to cement its role as a global human rights leader; it must assert that the Iranian people too have inherent dignity and worth. Standing up for human rights at home and abroad can solidify the image Malawi projects globally and increase international engagement, as well as make a difference in real people’s lives.
Roozbeh Mirebrahimi is an Iranian journalist, former prisoner of conscience, and the Media Advisor for Impact Iran, a coalition of organizations promoting human rights in Iran.