During the last four decades of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rule, the country witnessed the periodic and scattered uprisings against the regime. By the recently widespread uprisings and anti-government protests of the Iranian people which are called as “the (Iranian year of) 1396 (2018) sedition” the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, once again arose the question as to whether the Iranians demand to change the present political regime or demand for application of the international socio-economic rights within the country as Iran’s primary human rights obligations among competing sources of international law.
In this post, I will argue that the unlimited injustice and serious violations of socio-economic human rights in the country triggered the Iranian people’s willing to regime change over the time.
The Iranians’ recent protests against the government’s economic policies started on 28 December 2017 over the high prices of life in the country which were supposed to be reduced after signing the nuclear deal in 2015 by lifting international economic sanctions against Iran. However, the increasing participation of different categories of people with various demands and wills carried the Iranian people’s 2018 uprising to the other dimensions in which a large segment of the protesters called for changing the Islamic Republic regime.
It is more difficult to recognize the existence of a general tendency to change the present political regime in Iran. However, what is clear is that calling for change originates from unexampled national and international policies of the regime which have directly or indirectly affected Iranian people in and outside the country arose in fact in response to the widespread violations and abuses of the core international human rights instruments including 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which Iran has ratified.
The Decline of Human Rights Standards
Executions of hundreds of people accused of drug-related and political offenses every year in apparent violation of the right to life under the Article 6(2) (which provides in countries that still retain capital punishment, the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes”); discriminations against Iranian women in violation of the right to equality and non-discrimination under Article 3; unemployment and failure to provide the basic conditions for employment in violation of the right to work under Article 6(1) and failure to ensure a minimum wage sufficient for a decent living in violation of the rights at work under Article 7(a/ii); violation of the obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression and foster popular mistrust of the Iranian government under Article 19(2) by attempts to restrict the people’s access to information including internet usage in times of any protests against the governmental polices; restricting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in violation of Article 22(1) and banning the use of indigenous languages by the Iran’s disadvantaged ethnic groups including Azerbaijani Turks, Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Baluchis in an apparent violation of the right to participate in culture under Article 27 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are the main civil and political factors that brought about the rise of uprisings against the general policies of the Iranian regime over the long run.
More importantly, failure to implement national and international environmental protection guidelines and take the required steps in improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene to prevent disappearing lakes and wetlands – including the Urmia Lake as the only endorheic salt lake of Iran – and their far-reaching socio-economic and human health impacts in violation of the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health under Article 12(2/b); spending the country’s wealth and resources outside of the country by providing financial and military support to Hezbollah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which have hit people’s pockets in violation of the inherent right of all peoples to enjoy and utilize fully and freely their natural wealth and resources under Article 25 of 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and intervention in internal and external affairs of other States including Syria, Iraq, Yemen in violation of the principle of non-intervention as the core component of customary international law (ICJ, Nicaragua Case , para. 206) which has created the basis for taking down an international image of the Iranians after the 1979 Revolution, are the key causes which drove them to call for regime change.
Abuses from the above mentioned socio-economic rights are at the same time an evidence of the constitutional violations in line with the general policies of the regime. In other words, welfare and the right to and enjoy and utilize fully and freely natural wealth and resources (Art. 3(12)), the use of indigenous languages (Art. 15), the right to equality and non-discrimination (Art. 20), the right to freedom of association (Art. 27), the right to work (Art. 28), the right of all peoples to enjoy and utilize fully and freely their natural wealth and resources (Art. 43(6)) and preservation of the environment and the right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Art. 50) are the constitutional principles which cannot be claimed that have been applied impeccably by the Iranian regime. Whereas, the Iranian regime justifies the restriction of the mentioned political and socio-economic human rights by an overly broad interpretation of the exceptions finding them as “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam, public safety or national security” which have been foreseen in the Iranian Constitution as exceptional conditions for the restriction. Nevertheless, public safety and national security are about the violent threat to the nation. At this point, it does not seem that the Iranian regime’s restrictions upon the fundamental rights of the Iranian citizens beyond the limits set by international law are legitimate and proportionate, since freely access to the Internet, the use of indigenous languages, equality and non-discrimination, the right to work, the right to enjoy and utilize fully and freely natural preservation of the environment and the right to physical and mental health are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam, public safety or Iran’s national security.
Democratic Recession: Regression from the Rule of Law
In legal perspective, the Iranian government who has adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its “democratic character” is unalterable in line with the Iranian Constitution (Art. 177), it is expected that the government guarantees and recognizes the above mentioned socio-economic and other fundamental human rights since the protection of human rights is a prerequisite of democratic governance. In such a case, it can be seen that the content of the civic political culture in Iran, the rise of illiberal democracy in the country and the economic reduction constitute the core components of the basis for the Iranian people’s demand for the regime change. Particularly, in the countries such as Iran in which civic political culture is based on the support of the supreme leader as the highest ranking political and religious authority whose leadership is based on the divine right improving democratic governance is not feasible due to the lack of political equality. Precisely, in societies with political equality superiority of some people over law is an apparent violation of human rights which is incompatible with the principles of democracy and rule of law. Furthermore, in a country where its political regime combines elements of democracy such as voting and elections at various levels to isolate national policies with non-democratic elements, such as restrictions on political contestation and widespread violations of socio-economic, civil and political rights, I am convinced that these ‘illiberal democratic conditions’ have created the grounds for periodic and scattered anti-government uprisings against the Iranian regime during the four decades of the Islamic Republic’s rule. Additionally, in the countries such as Iran in which the national economic growth is based on the single-commodity (petroleum), demand for change and political conversion due to the uneven resource distribution is ineluctable.
In a nutshell, accordingly, the Iranian society’s civic culture based on the irresponsible leadership, illiberal democratic regime in which economic woes, unemployment, poor wages, fraud, corruption, irresponsibility and abuse of power in result of the widespread violations of the socio-economic and civil rights are normative behavior, will create an adequate occasion for originations of the citizens’ demand for the regime change.
What could be done? As a precaution to prevent the chaos of protests and uprisings which call for regime change, improvement of international human rights standards within the country, commitment to the international human rights institutions, regulation of elections with the political contestation of the opposition, ability of the citizens to willingly elect the opposition parties’ leaders could improve democratic responsibility and propel the present illiberal democracy into democracy.
*Saeed Bagheri is Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow in Law at the Law Department of the European University Institute (EUI). Saeed is an editorial member of the Scholink published peer-reviewed Journal of Economics, Law and Policy. He is also a regular contributor to Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH). He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on LinkedIn.