Last September, seven United Nations human rights experts wrote a letter to the leadership of the Iranian regime and called attention to the ongoing proliferation of issues related to the clerical regime’s massacre of political prisoners in 1988. The document noted that a number of that massacre’s perpetrators remain in positions of great power and influence to this day, due to a trend of impunity that has been actively promoted by regime authorities and has never been seriously challenged by the international community.
“In December 1988, the UN General Assembly passed resolution A/Res/43/137 on the situation of human rights in Iran, which expressed ‘grave concern’ about ‘a renewed wave of executions in the period July-September 1988’ targeting prisoners ‘because of their political convictions,” the letter noted. In this way, it made clear that the international community was aware of the massacre while it was still ongoing, thanks to the efforts of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which has been the main target of the regime’s underlying crackdown on organized dissent.
The MEK’s members and supporters comprised the overwhelming majority of the 30,000 victims of the 1988 massacre. But if serious attention had been paid to the Iranian Resistance warning, the killings might never have reached this scale. Even more importantly, intervention by Western powers or the UN would have demonstrated an early commitment to holding the regime’s authorities accountable for human rights abuses, and the regime perhaps had to halt its abuses during the subsequent three-plus decades.
As it happens, a global conspiracy of silence had exactly the opposite effect. The UN special rapporteurs confirmed as much in their letter, which went on to say that despite the 1988 resolution, “the situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution and the UN Commission on Human Rights did not take any action. The failure of these bodies to act,” the experts concluded, “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”
The letter warned its recipients that if they did not respond within two months, the text would be released to the public and the authors would urge an international investigation instead. It’s not clear whether those authors ever expected a serious reply from Tehran, but in any event, the letter was released in December and it quickly added fuel to recurring calls to action by the Iranian Resistance.
The urgency of those calls has intensified since the outbreak of nationwide protests in Iran at the end of 2017. At least three such uprisings took place before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and there are signs that widespread unrest is now re-emerging, even as Iranian society continues to suffer in absence of serious government measures related to public health. Officially, more than 60,000 Iranians have died from Covid-19, but independent assessments by the Iranian opposition suggest that the regime’s Health Ministry has been covering up statistics on a grand scale and that the true death toll is as high as a quarter of a million.
In fact, the regime’s inaction was a deliberate policy aimed at creating unsuitable conditions for further anti-regime protests. Thus, the public health crisis is yet another indicator of the regime’s contempt for human rights, standing right alongside accounts of the regime’s direct crackdowns on dissent in the preceding months and years.
After the December 2017 uprising continued through much of January 2018, the regime’s authorities adopted a strategy of systematic torture which killed at least a dozen protesters and activists. Several dozen others were shot dead during the unrest, but the scale of the killing turned out to be almost insignificant in comparison to the regime’s hysterical response to the much larger protest movement that spontaneously emerged across nearly 200 cities and towns in November 2019. Faced with the recurrence of provocative slogans like “death to the dictator,” the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps promptly to oppress people, and they opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing 1,500.
This crackdown and the regime’s subsequent efforts to cover it up were recently mentioned in the Iran section of Amnesty International’s report on The State of the World’s Human Rights. The organization emphasized that the regime’s authorities had made concerted efforts to downplay the scale of the killings but had also “publicly praised security and intelligence forces for their role in the crackdown.” Significantly, this observation appeared in a sub-section on “impunity,” just one paragraph removed from Amnesty’s reminder about unresolved issues related to the 1988 massacre.
“Impunity prevailed for past and ongoing crimes against humanity related to the 1988 prison massacres, with many of those involved continuing to hold top judicial and government positions, including the current Head of the Judiciary and the Minister of Justice,” the report noted. The implications are obvious for putting such a figure in a position to directly oversee the legal response to the November 2019 uprising and other challenges to the clerical authority. And those implications are magnified by the fact that leading Western powers have allowed such figures to face no consequences while continuing to rise through the ranks of the Iranian regime.
The consequences of inaction should have been obvious to the international community while the 1988 massacre was ongoing. They should have only become more obvious in the ensuing years and decades, as violent crackdowns recurred over and over again. Now, the scale of that violence is growing at a shocking rate, with the death toll from the November 2019 crackdown being roughly 25 times greater than that in January 2018.
With new forms of unrest emerging all across the country, there is a real danger of the regime’s crackdowns matching or even exceeding the scale of the 1988 massacre. In fact, counting the regime’s deliberate neglect of the coronavirus pandemic as a form of state-sanctioned killing, this has already happened.
If the United Nations or leading Western powers have any interest in slowing the pace of bloodshed in Iran, there is one action they must take ahead of all others, and that is demanding accountability for the blood that has already been spilled. It has been several months since UN human rights experts reminded the international community about the 1988 massacre, and now Amnesty International has done the same. The UN must respond by launching an investigation, and that investigation must lead to charges at the International Criminal Court for the regime’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, and other leading participants in the “worst crime” of the Iranian regime.