The Return of Iran’s “Bloody November”?
The Aban Tribunal's Judgment on Iran's Violations of International Law in 2019 in View of the Current Situation in Iran
On 30 September 2022, the International People’s Tribunal on Iran’s Atrocities (short Aban Tribunal) delivered its judgment after two years of investigation into the events of November 2019 in Iran. Three years ago, nationwide protests against the Iranian government erupted, sparked by rising petrol prices. Iranian security forces brutally cracked down on the protests. The Tribunal found numerous human rights violations committed by the Iranian government and its security forces. They accuse the government under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei of having committed crimes against humanity, as the unlawful acts were systematic, widespread in nature, and carried out in a planned manner to eliminate protests.
The judgment’s timing could not have been more convenient. In September, nationwide protests erupted again, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini, who was killed in the custody of Iran’s morality police for wearing an improper hijab. Since then, Iranians across the country have been taking to the streets daily, calling for an overthrow of the government. During the third anniversary of the 2019 events, protests have been particularly strong and the country has entered into strikes.
Against this backdrop, this piece will briefly discuss the judgment to argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran is once again committing crimes under international law that urgently require international action.
What Happened in November 2019?
After the nationwide protests broke out, the internet was shut down and security forces intervened violently to quell the protests. The supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued the order to “do whatever it takes to end it”. According to the Tribunal’s insider witnesses, firing orders were given to all security forces (para. 498 et. seq.). The Tribunal’s evidence revealed that snipers were stationed on rooftops to kill civilians (inter alia para. 183), and weapons were used in violation of international law (para. 33). According to estimates, at least 1,500 people died, 7,000 detentions occurred, people disappeared, were tortured, and sexually abused, amongst them minors.
What Is the International People’s Tribunal on Iran’s Atrocities?
In the absence of legal reconditioning the People’s Tribunal was initiated by human rights advocates and organisations. According to the Tribunal’s Statute the primary aim is to “reveal the truth and to determine where the responsibility lies in light of the principles of law, human conscience and justice“ since no tangible action has been taken by the international community. The Counsels, both human rights lawyers, accused 160 Iranian officials, including current President Ebrahim Raisi, of crimes against humanity and gathered evidence that was presented to the panel for evaluation. Members of the panel who delivered the final judgment are renowned and independent international lawyers with experience in international trials. They have taken on the task of investigating and assessing the events of November 2019. The judgment has no binding effect, and Iran has not participated in the trial. However, the judgment and the more than 600 testimonies provide important documentation and legal assessment of the atrocities that could be also useful for the evaluation of the current situation in Iran. Besides, the findings may be used in future proceedings against those responsible.
The idea of people’s tribunals goes back to the Russell Tribunal of 1966, in the context of war crimes committed during the Vietnam War. They have since then become an instrument to hear victims and to hold the perpetrators accountable when they are not granted justice through international accountability mechanisms.
What Are the Tribunal’s Main Findings?
Human Rights Violations
The panel found massive and gross violations of human rights during and after the protests committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its security forces.
According to the Tribunal, Iran is responsible for violating the right to peaceful protest and expression under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (para. 452), which Iran has ratified.
The security forces were found to have deliberately killed civilians and have thus violated the right to life under Article 6 ICCPR (para. 453).
In addition, thousands of protesters were arbitrarily arrested, violating the right to liberty and security of the person under Article 9 ICCPR (para. 455). Witnesses describe the conditions of detention as inhumane (e.g. paras. 348, 370). Cells were infested with insects and lacked sanitary facilities, ventilation, and heating. Detainees were denied proper food, water, and medical care. Security forces have constantly physically and psychologically abused detainees. Numerous testimonies of torture, including electric shocks, sexual violence, beatings, waterboarding, and being forced to stress positions (para. 41), constitute a violation of the freedom from torture and other inhuman treatment under Article 7 ICCPR (para. 457).
Among those arrested are some whose whereabouts remain unclear to this day (para. 294). Subsequently, bodies were recovered in abandoned places and relatives were left uninformed (para. 189). Based on the evidence, the Panel has, therefore, argued that there were several incidents of enforced disappearance, which violates Articles 2(3), 7, and 9 of the ICCPR (para. 456).
The Tribunal further found the violation of Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by Iran, as the authorities prevented the victims’ relatives from burying their loved ones by not releasing the bodies of the deceased (para. 461).
Following the incidents of November 2019, no responsibility was taken, and no compensation was paid. Instead, the authorities actively tried to hide the events from the public. Victims and relatives were denied any legal protection and hence Iran violated the right to access to justice under Article 2 ICCPR (para. 406 et. seq.).
Crimes Against Humanity
The Aban Tribunal Statute defines crimes against humanity based on the definition in Article 7 of the Rome Statute as attacks against civilians that are systematic and widespread in nature. The term “widespread” refers to the large scale of the crimes and the high number of victims (para. 470). In addition, the criterion “systematic” presupposes that the acts were not committed spontaneously, but in an organised manner (para. 471).
According to the Tribunal, the security forces’ actions were part of a larger strategy designed to suppress the protests. Arbitrary detentions and killings were recorded in at least 20 of the 31 provinces (para. 478), and the acts followed a similar pattern across the country (para. 491). Furthermore, the panel was able to trace these actions back to the government’s orders by hearing insider witnesses (para. 496 et. seq.). The Tribunal, therefore, found that Iran committed crimes against humanity as the attacks on civilians were widespread in nature and systematic (para 539 et. seq.).
The Tribunal’s judgment concludes with recommendations to Iran and the international community regarding the investigation of the events and the prosecution of the acts (p. 191 et. seq.). These include an intervention of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and a reference to the International Criminal Court by a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN-Charter which is possible under Article 13 (b) of the Rome Statute for crimes against humanity. This would be a welcome step toward addressing the events through an international court and bringing justice to the victims.
What Is the Current Situation in Iran?
Since 16 September, protests have erupted daily all over the country, especially in the streets, in schools, and universities. The internet has been restricted, like in November 2019. Iranian security forces have again intervened violently. Among the dead are many minors. Security forces detained hundreds of school children. Armed units attacked universities throughout the country. The judiciary has sentenced protestors to death. More than 16,000 people have been arrested so far, all at risk of execution since the parliament demanded the judiciary to sentence the protesters to death.
The regions of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdistan, populated by ethnic minorities, are under particularly heavy attack. In Zahedan alone, hundreds of people were shot dead in one day. In Kurdistan war-like conditions have been described, leading to the death of many civilians. On the night of 19 November, videos circulated from the city of Mahabad of machine guns and screams, leading to fears of a major crackdown.
The situation is extremely volatile and makes further brutal intervention very likely. In addition, there is the imminent threat of executions, for which it is questionable whether they are legal under international law.
Is Iran Currently Again Violating International Law?
The findings of the Aban Tribunal show that the government deliberately suppresses protests. Based on these findings, it again seems likely that similar orders were issued in the current situation. The approach of the security forces is similar to that of three years ago. There are again arbitrary arrests, abductions of protesters in fake ambulances, brutal beatings, the use of weapons, and so on. Since all of this was due to peaceful protests, Iran once again violates Article 21 ICCPR, as well as Articles 6, 7, and 9 ICCPR.
The death sentences do not meet the stringent standards under Article 6(2) ICCPR. The sentences were issued for actions, which are inter alia protected by the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. These actions constitute by no means a most serious crime. There is also an absence of fair trials, as sentences are passed in sham trials. Moreover, the Tribunal’s investigations show that the judiciary is obedient to the government.
Given the position of the supreme leader Khamenei, and the very likely issued orders like in November 2019, one could again speak of a systematic approach. The brutal crackdown on protests is taking place in the same manner all over the country and thus is widespread in nature and systematic. This means that the Islamic Republic of Iran is again committing crimes against humanity.
What Does Iran’s Past Teach Us?
Iran has been criticised by human rights organisations for many years and has a long history of human rights violations.
It is accused of a massacre of thousands of political opponents in 1988, in which the current president Ebrahim Raisi, is believed to have been involved. Human rights violations are part of the Islamic Republic’s system and are perpetrated on a daily basis. Moreover, Iran is using the death penalty as a political tool. It is striking that mostly political prisoners and minorities are executed. For instance, Kurds make up 10% of Iran’s population, but at times account for up to 70% of executions. Furthermore, fair legal protection is nonexistent. Accused persons do not get fair trials. Human rights lawyers are persecuted for their commitment and are sentenced to prison terms, as the cases of Shirin Ebadi and Nasrin Sotoudeh showed.
The Aban Tribunal has done important work in shedding light on human rights violations in Iran. Since Iranian security forces act similarly to quell the current protests, Iran is once again violating its obligations under international law. Considering the history, it must further be expected that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not shy away from committing atrocities in the future to suppress politically disagreeable voices and movements.
The international community must stand up against it in the strongest possible terms and condemn the current human rights violations, which lead to more deaths every day. Iranian civil society is again defenceless against the atrocities committed by Iran. Moreover, States must ensure the safety of exiled Iranians, as they are not safe from attacks by the regime even abroad, as the assassination of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna showed.
The sanctions issued, the resolution of the UN General Assembly and the convoked Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council are important first steps. This must be accompanied by more concrete measures to put an end to the killings as soon as possible. In the long term, it must be ensured that those responsible for the atrocities are held legally accountable.