The U.N. Must Investigate Iran's 1988 Massacre, or Detained Protesters Today Face Same Fate

The United Nations (U.N.) is often criticized for not acting or not intervening promptly to rescue victims of gross violations of human rights. This is an observation I came to register when I was in the field as chief of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Iraq.

This week, I will attend a civil society hearing in Geneva for the purpose of investigating the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran, yet another case where the global body of nations failed to act in a timely manner.

Nearly 30 years after the massacre of as many as 30,000 political prisoners, a group of NGOs are holding a civil society hearing to investigate this atrocity for the first time, next door to the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. Survivors of the massacre, relatives of victims and human rights experts will present testimonies and reflect on the way forward.

This hearing couldn't be more timely, given the perilous fate that awaits the several thousand Iranians who have been arbitrarily arrested since late December 2017, when nationwide protests that sought an end to the theocratic dictatorship began in the country.

So far, 10 protesters have been reportedly tortured to death in prison, although the regime rejects the claims and said most "committed suicide" in the country's jails.

But Iran's regime is notorious for purging its opponents secretly in prison, and the most emblematic case is the 1988 massacre.

At the time, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini had been forced to accept the terms of a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. Fearing that an end to external hostilities would give rise to opposition voices challenging the clerics' chaotic management of domestic affairs, Khomeini decided to immediately purge organized opposition.

Within days, he issued a fatwa to the effect that all prisoners who remained steadfast in their support for the opposition People's Mojahedin (PMOI or MEK) were "waging war on God" and "condemned to execution."

In his decree, Khomeini ordered the formation of three-member panels, known as "Death Commissions," throughout the country to implement his order of executing all political prisoners who remained loyal to their belief and political affiliation. Kangaroo trials of prisoners lasted mere minutes.

Iran protests
Iranian pro-government demonstrators take part in a march in central Tehran after the weekly Friday prayers on January 5, 2018. New pro-regime protests were held in Iran, in reaction to the protests against the government and the cost of living. Portraits carried by the demonstrators show Sajjad Shahsanai, a young member of the Revolutionary Guards killed in unrest in the city of Najafabad last week and Mohsen Hojaji, a member of Iran's elite revolutionary guards Corps (IRGC) who was beheaded in Syria by Islamic State (IS) group jihadists last summer. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, reported last August that Iran's current Minister of Justice Alireza Avayi and other high-ranking officials were part of the commissions that carried out the massacre.

Her report pointed out that the families of the victims "have a right to know the truth about these events and the fate of their loved ones without risking reprisal. They have the right to a remedy, which includes the right to an effective investigation of the facts and public disclosure of the truth; and the right to reparation."

In 2017, at the request of the grieving families, I co-produced two reports, published by Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI), about these mass executions. The reports exposed the identities of dozens of members of the Death Commissions. Some of them are currently holding senior positions in the Iranian administration, including the government and the judiciary. They also provided details and exact map coordinates of 59 mass graves that were used to secretly bury the victims.

The Iranian officials suspected of having committed the 1988 massacre of the political prisoners are enjoying total impunity. The calls of NGOs and the successive U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Iran to investigate and bring perpetrators to account have fallen on deaf ears. The hearing in Geneva this week is a civil society exercise to call for accountability and justice for the victims and their families.

The ruthless and extreme violence the Iranian authorities used recently against peaceful demonstrators is an additional indicator that impunity has emboldened the mullahs' regime in suppressing the opposition. The perpetrators of previous grave crimes in Iran must not be allowed to embark on a new systematic purge of the protesters. The international community must send a firm message to the Iranian authorities that impunity will no longer be accepted nor tolerated.

A U.N. commission of inquiry to hold the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre to account must allow for punitive measures against specific members of the Iranian government and judiciary who have publicly confessed and admitted to taking part in the process that led to the massacre of the political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, under the leadership of Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has made great strides in the promotion of human rights globally, but the issue of timely responses to imminent tragedies remains a serious challenge.

If the U.N. wants to stop another slaughter of innocent Iranians whose only crime is to demand basic rights and an end to clerical rule, then the time to act is now. The High Commissioner should seize the moment, and all U.N. Member States must lend him their support in the formation of a commission to investigate the 1988 massacre and bring an end to the impunity in Iran.


Tahar Boumedra is a former chief of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and legal expert.