A career politician from the Maldives who was a key architect of the remote archipelago's democratic reforms has taken on an extraordinarily daunting task: acting as the UN's first special rapporteur on human rights to Iran since 2002.
Ahmed Shaheed began the eight-month appointment, which will likely stretch further, on August 1. He faces a government that has not agreed to let him within its borders, prisons that still hold dissidents arrested in a brutal crackdown on protests over the country’s disputed 2009 election, and families that seek answers and closure after loved ones died at the hands of the regime.
"As a human rights defender, if you look at Iran’s situation, you have to do what you can to make some progress there," he told RFE/RL. "Of course I have many, many, many worries about the road ahead. It’s a very challenging task. If you look at Iran’s history, in terms of cooperation with the [Human Rights] Council, it’s not very promising."
The Persian Gulf state has not had a special rapporteur on human rights since 2002, when the Human Rights Council decided the government was being transparent enough to ensure that the mandate was no longer necessary.
Shaheed said the council reinstated the mandate because special rapporteurs are no longer invited inside the country, and rights violations are rife and often go undetected.
'A Very Challenging Task'
"We always believe that as a human rights defender you have to step up to the plate and actually take on challenging tasks," he said. "Yes, it is a very challenging task; perhaps one of the most challenging tasks within the human rights mission at the moment. But I also felt that it is a moment that people must start contributing."
Shaheed served as the Maldives' foreign minister under the long-running dictatorship of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
He says that while regime change in the Maldives was "definitely on the cards," his primary goal at the time was to create systems and institutions to safeguard human rights.
He convinced those in power to institute a human rights commission so that the Maldivian people would have international law protecting them.
He was also part of the assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. He said within a couple of years he found that the "old guard" wasn't serious about making progress on human rights.
He resigned from the assembly and from his post in the cabinet as foreign minister and joined with the opposition, eventually running for vice president in the 2008 elections.
Although Shaheed did not win, Gayoom, who had been in power for over 30 years, was successfully ousted.
Shaheed was reappointed as foreign minister by current president Mohamed Nasheed. He held the position until several months ago, when he resigned to take the post of UN special rapporteur.
Shaheed has never been to Iran and has no illusions that his new task will be easy. He said his first order of business is gaining access to Iran.
He sent the Iranian government a request to visit on his first day of work, and has not received a response.
He said, however, that he has heard from other Iranian sources, including parliamentarians, that he will not be allowed in. The government has also accused his appointment of being "politicized."
"Now that’s not true, but that explains the kind of difficulties I will be facing," Shaheed said.
The rapporteur has written a preliminary report to be presented during the General Assembly, and will prepare a full report on the human rights situation by March. At that point the Human Rights Council will decide whether to extend his mandate past eight months.
Closely Monitoring The Case Of Two American Detainees
In the meantime, Shaheed is meeting with Iranians at the UN office in Geneva, where he is based, and attempting to set up meetings with Iranian ambassadors.
Shaheed also said that he is closely following the case of two young Americans -- Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer -- who are currently imprisoned in Iran.
The two men, along with Sarah Shourd, a woman who was arrested with them and released last year on $500,000 bail, maintain that they were hiking on the border of Iraq and Iran and crossed over accidentally.
Americans Shane Bauer (left) and Josh Fattal are currently serving eight years in an Iranian prison on spying charges.
"Their situation fits in with a pattern that is evident coming out of Iran in terms of the deficits in the justice system," he said. "You know -- the complaints about lack of legal counsel, complaints about physical harm or self-incrimination, complaints about the trial proceedings."
"All that fits well with the two Americans who have been convicted there as well, as was the very, very high bail that was posted for the third national who has now left and returned to the U.S."
Bauer and Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison last month, although Ahmadinejad has since pledged their "immediate" release.
Iran's hard-line judiciary, however, has challenged his statement, saying they were ultimately responsible for the decision.
No Plans To Meet With Ahmadinejad As Yet
Shaheed said he hopes to meet with the families of Bauer and Fattal when he is in New York.
He has no plans to convene with Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of this week's general debates at the UN, saying he will set up such high-level meetings after visiting Iran.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
"I must be in such meetings armed, or supplied, with real data coming out of Iran," he said.
Prominent Iranian journalist Masoumeh Alinejad published an article
in "The Huffington Post" pleading with Shaheed to bring justice to the families of those killed and imprisoned amid the unrest that followed Iran's 2009 presidential election. Alinejad maintained that the families are given renewed hope by his appointment that their "voices will be heard and the global silence and dismissive outlook will be broken."
Shaheed said he is willing to meet with families of those arrested and killed, and said he will "leave no stone unturned."
Despite the many challenges lying ahead of him, he remains optimistic about the impact he will have in Iran and is dedicated to the mission he will be pursuing.
"I have stepped into these shoes fully aware of the difficulties ahead of me, he said. "[I am] fully aware of the daunting task ahead of me, but fully convinced of the need to do the job."