The Iran Tribunal: The Case of the Court with Neither Power nor Jurisdiction

by | Apr 16, 2013

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About Guest contributor

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Olinga Tahzib assesses the impact of the Iran Tribunal in promoting a culture of human rights in Iran.

The mass killings of 20,000 political prisoners by the government of Iran in the 1980s went largely unnoticed in western circles. Comparable massacres during a similar period – the Gukurahundi killings in Zimbabwe, for example – received by contrast wide reportage. Most of those executed in Iran were students, liberals, prisoners of conscience. They were tortured and hung from cranes, invariably after unfair trials. The female prisoners were raped and the victims buried in mass graves.

The current regime in Iran refuses to acknowledge the killings. International law, too, has failed the victims. The ICC stands powerless to intervene given the temporal limits on its jurisdiction.  And Iran’s allies in the Human Rights Council have blocked attempts to get the United Nations to investigate the killings. The families of those murdered have had no opportunity for justice and legal redress. This problem is not solely retrospective: without accountability for past crimes, it will be difficult to build a culture of human rights and rule of law in Iran.

So, where to turn when formal courts fail? Five years on, there are lessons to be learnt from the Iran Tribunal, an international people’s court developed to investigate the killings. Founded in 2007 and based on the private tribunal established by Russell and Sartre in the 1960’s to investigate the US war record in Vietnam, the Iran Tribunal represents the first full-scale judicial investigation and documentation of the massacres.  It proceeded in two stages. In June 2012, a Truth Commission – comprised of eminent jurists from around the world – convened in London to hear witness testimonies. Thousands watched as the sessions were broadcast online. The second phase took place in The Hague in October. Here, a Tribunal investigated the findings of the Commission and, after hearing further testimony, passed judgement. The conclusions involved no surprises: it was alleged that widespread and substantial violations of human rights took place between 1981 and 1988; these were committed “within the walls of state institutions and on direct instruction of state officials”; in sum, the violations were devised, instigated and executed by a single central body and as such the Islamic Republic of Iran was the only authority responsible for the acts.

And yet the government stands. The perpetrators of the crimes thrive within the current regime. They sit on the Iranian Supreme Court, in its parliaments and Cabinet.

But despite this apparent lack of justice, we should be careful not to be too quick to denounce the value of the Tribunal. It represents, in many ways, an instance of informal justice in a pre-transitional era and so it may take time for its fruits to become apparent. At the level of the individual, its effect will be cathartic; it is part of the process by which victims of these crimes can regain their humanity.  The process of individual healing, set in motion by the Tribunal is a prerequisite of any future culture of human rights in Iran. At the international level, the Tribunal also served to capture attention and to gather facts that will aid official recognition of this forgotten tragedy of the 1980s. It puts the spotlight on a regime that is, increasingly, showing itself to be susceptible to the scrutiny of international opinion.

Olinga Tahzib is an aspiring public law barrister, currently a graduate student in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.  The OxHRH Blog welcomes Olinga to our team as our new Regional Correspondent for Iran.


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1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    I have no time for the abominable gangsters who call themselves the Government of Iran – but I cannot take seriously a self-appointed body with a selective agenda. In the Sixties and Seventies this “court” was asked to consider the cases of people murdered by the East German regime for trying to leave their own country, or rather the part of their country where they were living, and found reasons not to.

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