Can President Rouhani Promote Human Rights in Iran?
Moderate President Rouhani was re-elected President of Iran on 19 May 2017. In spite of his biggest achievement during his first term presidency —the Nuclear Deal reached on 14 July 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and the EU in Vienna—democracy and human rights have not flourished under his rule. However, by signing the “Charter on Citizens’ Rights” on 19 December 2016, Rouhani promised to advance Iranians’ human rights.
Although fundamental human rights are set out in the Iranian Constitution, none of them have effectively been implemented during the era of the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, there have been widespread human rights violations including the application of death penalty, use of torture, censorship, and the persecution of religious minorities. These continued even during the first term of the presidency of Rouhani, widely seen as a moderate and reformist character.
The Preamble of the Iranian Constitution reads, under the title of “The Form of Governance in Islam”: “[The Constitution] strives to break away from the system of tyranny and to hand over the destiny of people to themselves”. The notion of “handing over the destiny of people to themselves” is the same as “democracy”. Democracy is a universally recognized ideal which provides an environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights and social justice. The essential elements of democracy are: respect for human rights; fundamental freedoms of association, expression and opinion; access to power; the rule of law; a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations; the separation of powers; the independence of the judiciary; transparency and accountability in public administration; and free, independent and pluralistic media.
Since the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has prioritised the survivial of the government over human rights and social justice. In line with this goal, the Iranian judiciary suppresses opponents, human rights activists and civil society organizations. More importantly, Article 56 of the Iranian Constitution provides that ‘[a]bsolute sovereignty belongs to God, and it is He who has made man the governor of his social destiny’. This provision has the effect that the rule of law and fundamental principles of democracy, including the freedoms and political equality of all citizens, can be displaced by religious rules which are determined by the highest religious jurists called “fuqaha” (Article 96 of the Constitution).
Many of Iran’s problems from a human rights perspective stem from the nature of the office of Supreme Leader and its implications for the separation of powers. In other words, the restrictions and abuses of human rights and suppression of the critics of the government’s policies are rooted in the political tradition of the Iranian regime, in which the organs of government are so intertwined that the authority of the Supreme Leader over the president and the parliament is ensured. Iran’s government has a system of councils and committees made up of religious elders, overseen by a council chosen by the Supreme Leader. They give advice, counsel, and overall direction to the traditional branches of government. The importance of the Supreme Leader’s status and his influence on the Iranian political system can be seen in his broad powers, including supervising the proper execution of the general policies of the regime and signing the decree formalizing the election of the President. Any meaningful separation of powers, a key to democratic government, is lacking in Iran.
In a country where the judiciary is not independent, and most power is constitutionally concentrated in one person, true democracy is not achievable. This was recognised as far back as the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights, of which Article 16 states: “Any society in which no provision is made for guaranteeing rights or for the separation of powers, has no Constitution”. The Iranian political culture, and the lack of meaningful separation of powers, therefore means that neither a moderate nor reformist president will be able to promote democracy and human rights in Iran.
Accordingly, the much-hoped-for reform and moderation in the first term of Rouhani’s presidency failed to materialize. Regardless of his continued criticism of the human rights record of the Iranian authorities, he has not practically been able to make any advances. Consequently, Rouhani will almost certainly not be able to keep his promises, set out in the Charter on Citizen’s Rights, as he moves into his second term.