The UN Human Rights Council voted on March 24 to appoint a special investigator on human rights in Iran -- a position that last existed a decade ago. A day later, Tehran objected.
The UN move is aimed at increasing international scrutiny of the Islamic republic, which has been accused by watchdog groups and Western officials of increased human rights violations. The United States, which had been pressing for the appointment, welcomed the vote, calling it a "seminal moment." Iran branded the vote "unfair and unjustified."
RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke with Maurice Copithorne, the last person to hold the title of UN rapporteur on human rights in Iran (1995-2002), on the challenging task the new appointee will face.
RFE/RL: The UN Human Rights Council has appointed an investigator to monitor human rights abuses in Iran. How significant is this move?
Maurice Copithorne: It could be a significant first step -- that is to say, to recreate the position of special rapporteur for Iran. Failing that, it could still be very useful if the individual concerned can exercise a significant degree of initiative on his or her own part in order to turn it into a full scale report on human rights in Iran.
RFE/RL: Iran has rejected the UN vote and defends its commitment to human rights. If Iran doesn’t cooperate with the person the UN appoints, what practical measures can the UN take to force Iran to work with the new rapporteur?
Copithorne: To my knowledge, there are no practical measures the UN can take in that regard. The long-standing principle in these areas [is] that [rapporteurs] will not impose upon the country concerned, but that the country concerned has to invite special rapporteurs -- or whatever they may be called -- into the country.
In other words, in my case, I couldn't just walk into Iran. I had to be invited by the Iranian government. And when they read my first report, they were so unhappy that I was never invited for a second visit.
RFE/RL: Were you able to address the human rights abuses from outside the country?
Copithorne: In this day and age you can do an awful lot and I found in my case there were significant advantages from addressing outside. Or let me put it like this: At least one had to address it [from] the outside, and from inside, if one could get in. You can do a lot of work from outside.
RFE/RL: How exactly can a special rapporteur improve the rights situation inside Iran? In the case of Burma, for example, it hasn’t led to any improvements, isn't that correct?
Copithorne: Yes well, that's a different question. That's not the functioning of the rapporteur -- whether he or she can or cannot write a reasonable report. It's got to do with the next stage, which is the implementation, and that is a separate issue. There are not many countries, I think, that have actually implemented the recommendations of special rapporteurs.
RFE/RL: If the rapporteur's work doesn’t necessarily lead to the improvement of the situation inside the country, what would you say is the value of having one?
Copithorne: Well, it does not necessarily lead to an improvement but it is still part of a valid process. I mean, I still believe that we should have special rapporteurs because it does increase pressure on the government.
It may or may not fall short of actually improving things. For example, in the case of Iran, it was very unhappy with my existence, quite apart from what I might have said, because they felt that it was an inferior group to be associated with -- that is, those countries who were made subject to a report by a special rapporteur wasn't where they thought Iran should be and therefore strongly resisted the idea. [It was] more I think for the face value -- or the feeling that it wasn't where Iran belonged.
RFE/RL: What’s the next step after the rapporteur writes his or her report?
Copithorne: Well, in my case I happened to send my reports all the time -- first to the Human Rights Commission, as it was then called, and then to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. So even though I only got in Iran once and even though the Iranian government was trying to ignore my reports, my reports were still circulated very widely within the UN structure and the press wrote it up every time, so if you want to call it [something] -- it was a [form of] psychological warfare [on Iran].
RFE/RL: How would you describe a good rapporteur? As someone who could have some impact on the Iranian government?
Copithorne: Let's leave aside the second half of your question [on] who will have some impact. How I describe a good rapporteur is someone with a suitable background. That's often a lawyer or a legal professor. I think the presence of a legal background in some form or other is important. I don't want to say it's essential, but it's important. Most of the ones that I have known have had a legal background, but certainly not all of them.
Secondly, I think they have to have a pretty thick skin because they will be attacked by various groups, including, of course, the government of Iran. A number of things circulated about me, personally and otherwise, during my time. You have to just take these in your stride and keep writing what you believe are accurate reports on the state of human rights. So you have to be prepared for a degree of this sort of activity -- that is to say, the Iranian government's attempting to justify itself in various forms. It just comes with the mandate.
With regard to having an impact on the Iranian government so that it changes its ways, I came away from my mandate thinking that was highly desirable, but close to being unattainable as an objective. You just don't know when you're having an impact on the Iranian government, but I always felt there were situations in which I was having an impact -- usually a nonpublic impact.