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The West Must Challenge the Impunity Iran has Enjoyed Since 1988 Massacre

Families and survivors of the 1988 massacre hold an exhibition in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva
Families and survivors of the 1988 massacre hold an exhibition in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva on September 15, 2017.

Amnesty International recently released its latest report. The document calls attention to conditions in 149 countries, including violations of Human Rights in Iran.

“The authorities continued to commit crimes against humanity by systematically concealing the fate and whereabouts of several thousand political dissidents forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret in 1988. Mass graves believed to contain their remains were subject to ongoing destruction.” The report reads in part about Iran and the massacre of political prisoners in 1988.

In the summer of 1988, the Iranian regime systematically executed over 30,000 political prisoners, many of whom have already served out their sentences. The massacre was part of an effort to stamp out organized dissent. Prisons throughout the country convened what came to be known as “death commissions,” and these tribunals began interrogating inmates over the political views and affiliations, mainly targeting known or suspected supporters of the leading pro-democracy opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Those who failed to demonstrate loyalty to the supreme leader and the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were summarily hanged, often in groups, and buried in secret mass graves.

To date, no one has ever been held accountable for those killings. Worse still, many of the surviving perpetrators of the massacre remain in positions of tremendous power and influence, including that of Chief Justice for the Iranian judiciary. Since assuming that role in 2019, Ebrahim Raisi has overseen what appear to be escalating crackdowns on dissent, driven in part by the regime’s anxiety over recent domestic unrest.

UN experts call for investigation of 1988 Massacre in Iran - December 2020

The international community should be paying close attention to this phenomenon, and leading world powers should think carefully about the roles they could play in shaping outcomes for the Iranian people. They should recognize the prior consequences of having remained entirely on the sidelines during periods of conflict between the Iranian government and its people or only focusing on the Iran nuclear deal and ignoring regimes’ violation of human rights.

The consequences of this international neglect were underscored by the recent report of Amnesty International, which detailed the human rights situations in 149 countries throughout 2020 and early 2021. The section on Iran made multiple references to the 1988 massacre and noted at one point that “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.”

At the time of the 1988 massacre, exiled Iranian activists worked diligently to bring international attention to the rising death toll, but Western authorities were committed to avoiding conflict with a regime that they believed had secured its hold on power. Thus, the overwhelming response was one of silence, and Tehran’s recognition of that response led to a sense of impunity that eroded all constraints on its crackdown. Since then, that sense of impunity has been reinforced with each instance of the massacre being raised as an issue of Western policy, only to be greeted with no new efforts at holding the perpetrators accountable.

This was the case last year when seven United Nations human rights experts wrote a letter to the Iranian government urging domestic investigations and transparency regarding the incident that even one contemporary Iranian official described as “the worst crime of the Islamic Republic.” The letter noted that if no such actions were forthcoming, then it would fall to the international community to investigate the incident and pursue prosecution of those who were determined to be responsible. After more than two months without a response from Tehran, the letter was released to the public in late 2020, yet there has been little sign of it spurring the UN or its leading member states to action.

The consequences of that impunity were more killings. That is a reference to Iran’s nationwide uprising in November 2019, to which authorities responded with some of the worst political violence since the time of the massacre. According to reports from Reuters and also from the MEK, roughly 1,500 Iranian activists and innocent bystanders were killed in a matter of only days when the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered authorities to suppress public calls for regime change by any means necessary.

To Stop Executions in Iran Permanently, World Should Hold Mullahs to Account for 1988 Massacre

The effects of that crackdown proved short-lived, with Iranians rising up in protest across more than a dozen provinces just two months afterward. And although the coronavirus pandemic appears to have done what government repression could not for a time, there is now ample reason to believe that pubic expressions of dissent are on the rise again. These protests will surely have fatal consequences, but the scale of those consequences will very much depend on the international community’s response.

For that response to meaningfully protect the Iranian people, it must address not just recent and ongoing crackdowns on dissent but also the legacy of unresolved Iranian human rights abuses, chiefly the 1988 massacre. It is long past time for the United Nations to follow up on its own human rights experts’ calls for an investigation into that crime against humanity and for its member states, not only focus on the Iran nuclear deal and turn a blind eye on the regime’s violation of human rights but to send the message to Tehran that its decades-long era of impunity is at an end.