House of Lords debates human rights in Iran

Extracts from yesterday’s debate:

Lord Alton: …Think, too, about the massive violations of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to believe, not to believe or to change your belief. On 30 November, a group of 19 human rights organisations called on the international community and United Nations to particularly protect the rights of Christians in Iran. This reinforces the findings of the Westminster all-party inquiry into Article 18 issues in Iran, in which I participated last year. After taking evidence and witness statements, the committee concluded:

“Sadly, we have been disappointed that”,

Hassan Rouhani’s,

“positive promises and moderate language have not translated into any meaningful improvement”.

Many of the report’s recommendations apply to Iran’s other suffering religious minorities, such as the Baha’is, Sufi dervishes and Sunni Muslims.

That the situation has not improved in the intervening 12 months is illustrated by the cases of Ramiel Bet Tamraz, Mohamad Dehnay, Amin Nader Afshar, Hadi Askary and Amir Sina Dasht. During the summer they went fishing and to have a picnic with their wives and friends. Security officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security raided the picnic and arrested the five men, detaining them in the notorious Evin prison. One is an ethnic Assyrian but the other men are Iranian converts from Islam, and it is believed that their arrest and detention relates to their Christian faith. Vast sums of money are required for bail and two of them remain incarcerated awaiting trial, unable to raise the bail money.

Take also the case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani and three others, all arrested on charges of action against national security. Three of them face charges related to consumption of alcohol for drinking wine during a communion service. After a court hearing on 10 September, they were each sentenced to 80 lashes—a barbaric and inhumane punishment. Their appeal hearing is scheduled for 9 February.

Take, too, the position of Baha’is. Repression against them has accelerated in the past few months, not least during the celebration of their religious festivals. The Iranian state has recalibrated its long-standing tactics in pursuit of its ideological goal of extirpating a viable Baha’i community in the land of its birth through economic means. Can the Minister comment when she comes to reply on the closure of Baha’i businesses and on the hate crimes that led in September, in an appalling act of violence, to Farhang Amiri, aged 63, being murdered outside his home. A Baha’i, he was stabbed to death by two men, who admitted they had attacked him because of his religious beliefs.​..

To conclude, contrary to promises of reforms and a more open society made by Hassan Rouhani when he took over the presidency almost four years ago, the human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate on very many fronts. Britain has restored diplomatic relations with Iran. My noble friend’s question enables us to ask today: how are we using that leverage, and what priority are we giving, to promote human rights in this deeply repressive country?

Lord Ahmed: I am neither a Shia nor a Persian but I speak as a friend of Iran, who has visited this beautiful country on many occasions. During my visits to Iran, I had the pleasure of meeting many senior politicians in recent years, and I must be one of the very few British parliamentarians who has met with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. His eminence very warmly welcomed me to Iran, acknowledging the fact that I am a British parliamentarian of Muslim heritage and he extended his greetings.

I will touch upon the subject of human rights violations and the imprisonment of human rights activists in Iran, and the question of how we address some of these problems and deal with specific issues. However, it is important to have an understanding of Iranian culture and the country’s proud history. Sadly, there are human rights violations and problems around the world, and Iran is not the only country where Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have campaigned in relation to individuals and groups.

The human rights situation in some other parts of the world, including Middle Eastern countries, is growing worse day by day. We can see brutality from Indian forces in Kashmir, where the UNHCR has been refused entry to investigate human rights violations, and where there have been court cases against Amnesty International, which has been ordered to close its offices in India. We have seen children being bombed by their own Government in Syria, and children in Yemen being bombed by Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday just this week, 15 people were sentenced to death for espionage in Saudi Arabia, allegedly for spying for Iran, and 15 others were sentenced to long prison sentences.​

In the United States, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a Harvard University graduate of Pakistani heritage, was sentenced to 86 years in prison for allegedly being involved with a terrorist organisation and with non-state actors working against the US in Afghanistan. She is not mentally fit to undergo this sentence and has been under a psychiatrist for many years. We are aware that President-elect Donald Trump is openly supporting waterboarding and other forms of torture. We also know that political opponents have been badly treated in central Asian republics, as well as in many other parts of the world, under the guise of “terrorism”.

I recently agreed to sign a letter in relation to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe—the wife of Richard Ratcliffe, whom I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday in Parliament—Mr Kamal Foroughi and Ms Roya Nobakht. This letter has been signed by 160 parliamentarians so far. I have raised the issue of Mr Kamal Foroughi at the request of his son, who asked me to make representations on his behalf. My friends in Iran had assured me that Mr Foroughi would be released, and I am confused as to why this has not happened. He is an old man and all his family live in the UK. There is no evidence of spying or of being in breach of any Iranian law.

The noble Lady Baroness, Lady Afshar, has a much better understanding of Persian culture and the political situation in Iran than do many of us. We are aware that the Iranian Government do not like any criticism or open campaigning against the state and its laws, and therefore there are sensitivities in relation to some of our concerns. I am aware that many in the Iranian Government believe that sanctions are like a blockade and that a blockade is like a declaration of war. They believe that for the last 10 years Iran has been in a state of war. Reporting anything about certain issues is seen as sharing information and hence as espionage. We can all disagree with them but that is the situation.

I am sure that threats of abandoning the nuclear deals or imposing new sanctions and continued pressure on the Iranian authorities could have the opposite effect and cause relations in certain quarters to worsen. We have already seen co-operation between Iran and Russia in Syria, with Iranian airbases being used by Russia to bomb the Syrian Opposition. A new regional alliance emerging between Turkey, Russia, Iran and Pakistan could create new challenges.

We have to accept the importance of Iran as a growing regional player and a country that has huge influence on Shia Muslims around the world. We can try to improve our relations with Iran in order to find solutions for Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan. We also need to help reconcile the two major regional Islamic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to find peace and prosperity in the region and in those countries that are under their influence. I held these views long before Boris Johnson’s recent speech, reported in the Guardian this morning.

In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to our diplomats around the world, who work hard to free human rights defenders and raise the difficult issue of human rights. However, will Her Majesty’s Government review their policy of not representing dual nationals in countries such as Iran, where that country does not recognise the dual nationality and individuals cannot abandon ​their nationality of heritage because it would be very difficult for them to obtain a visit visa and claim property rights from their family? Can the Minister say whether there has been any dialogue between the Iranian authorities and Her Majesty’s Government to secure release for our citizens, and whether there is a dialogue with the Iranian authorities on long-term solutions for Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain?

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: In the light of the speech made by my noble friend Lord Ahmed, I start by saying that those of us who are committed to creating a world that adheres to human rights standards and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not pick and choose. We have to be absolutely clear that we are criticising abuses wherever we see them. I know that everyone who has spoken tonight does that without regard for who is involved. Where we see abuses, it is our responsibility to speak out. That is why we have got to our feet today. We should not pussyfoot around the horrors that we see, even when we are trying to draw some nations in to a greater proximity around peacekeeping.

I greatly support the nuclear negotiation and am very glad to see that we have re-established a connection with Iran. I believe it is very important that we are involved in closer dialogue, because Iran’s role in this region is vital. However, it is also imperative that in our discussions with Iran, we talk about the responsibilities that adherence to the rule of law brings. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Alton, describe the circumstances in which people end up in Evin prison, without having had a proper trial or access to lawyers and so on, and that is something that we must not allow to go unremarked upon in our discussions about ending sanctions.

I remind this House that we have a duty to speak out. That is one thing that we can do during the course of these negotiations about sanctions.

Lord Collins: …We all know, especially after hearing the secret recordings of the Foreign Secretary, that any solution in Syria will involve Iran. There is no doubt that this will also apply to tackling the long-term problems of Daesh and al-Qaeda. Have the improved diplomatic relations with Iran strengthened the UK’s approach to tackling security concerns around al-Qaeda and Daesh? I also emphasise what the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, said: whatever the gains of such an improved relationship, they must not be at the expense of our responsibility to challenge Iran’s obligations under international law on human rights. As we have heard, sadly, the truth is that since July 2015, opponents of the regime have continued to be executed. Religious minorities continue to be persecuted. LGBT people have been victimised and murdered with impunity.

The Leader of the Commons, David Lidington, acknowledged in the other place the appalling human rights record of the Iranian Government. He took the ​view that, generally, it is sensible, even when we have the most profound disagreements with the Government of another country, to have diplomatic channels so that there is a means by which to communicate with that Government. We also have the assurance from the Foreign Secretary that he is determined to ensure that human rights remains a key element in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. This debate is absolutely about that. We need to hear from the Minister the steps the Government are taking in our improved relationship constantly to highlight abuses of human rights. That is vital.

As we have heard, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has given a damning assessment of human rights in Iran, highlighting the “alarming rate” of executions and saying that little progress has been made under President Rouhani. In spite of the President’s achievement in reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, his promises of domestic improvements do not seem to have occurred. They seem to have stalled in the face of resistance from the hardliners in Iran. As we have heard, members of the Baha’i community, described as,

“the most severely persecuted religious minority”,

in the country, face discrimination in various areas, including access to higher education or simply to work.

We need to understand what steps the Government will take to ensure the Secretary-General and special rapporteurs on freedom of religion and human rights in Iran will be able to monitor effectively and report extensively on these violations of freedom of religious belief for the people in Iran, and to work in accordance with their mandates before the United Nations. We need constantly to expose these violations and make sure people understand what is going on.


Baroness Goldie: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, for tabling today’s important debate and welcome the contributions of noble Lords from all sides of the House. The Government welcome the re-engagement with Iran following the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. The deal was a major achievement and we are committed to ensuring that Iran sees the benefit of sanctions relief. However, we are not complacent, and we remain focused on the issue of human rights. It is crucial that we continue to hold the Iranian Government to account for their human rights record, a point made repeatedly by your Lordships. This is why sanctions relating to human rights remain in place. Continued engagement with the Government of Iran by the UK and our international partners is key to achieving change on this agenda.

On a bilateral level, that means developing stronger diplomatic ties and trade links. I want to be very clear about one point, because the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, alluded to it: we do not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights; they can and should be complementary. The noble Baroness expressed legitimate concerns about the significance of law, the rights of women in law and the consequences for women of upholding these freedoms. Those sentiments were strongly echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

Since we reopened our embassy in Tehran last year and upgraded our diplomatic ties to ambassador level, we have seen the relationship grow stronger, but we want more progress on human rights—let me make that crystal clear. That is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has designated Iran one of its human rights priority countries. There is now a diplomatic conduit which did not exist previously. We use it as best we can to urge respect for human rights. The ​noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the important issue of the impact of this improved communication with reference to terrorism. All that I would say in response is that we now have a line of communication which we did not have before. That can only be regarded as an improvement. We continue to monitor closely the threats to which he referred. Interestingly, the noble Lord also raised the prospect and consequence of a Trump presidency. I do not have before me a crystal ball; I am not a prophet. We will have to wait and see how the presidency unfolds, but we hope that it would be an influence for recognition that regard must be had by the international community to that fundamental issue of respect for and enforcement of human rights.

Our effort to improve human rights is not limited to our bilateral relationship; we also continue to take action multilaterally. I welcome the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the resolution on human rights in Iran last month. The resolution passed with an increased number of votes compared to last year, in large part due to United Kingdom lobbying efforts. Likewise, at the last Human Rights Council, in March, the UK strongly supported the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur. I am pleased that the mandate was renewed and I strongly urge Iran to allow the rapporteur to visit.

The special rapporteur’s latest report highlights the causes for concern. From freedom of religion or belief to freedom of expression and women’s rights, it is clear that Iranian citizens do not enjoy all the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled. Progress has been slow—as noble Lords highlighted—and in some areas, tragically, the situation has actually deteriorated. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, addressed in her early remarks the worrying issue of torture. We take such issues very seriously, at both bilateral and multilateral levels. We endeavour to ensure that these issues are kept very much before everyone and are prominent in demanding attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised specifically the persecution of the Baha’i community and referred to the closure of businesses. We are deeply concerned because the Baha’i faith in Iran is subject to mounting persecution. We are also concerned by state efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’is. We have repeatedly expressed concern about the treatment of that community. That is what we continue to do. It is all we can continue to do. I reassure the noble Lord that it is a matter of which we are acutely aware.



The human rights situation in Iran remains dire, and that is an adjective one hesitates to use. Upholding their citizens’ human rights is not only the basic duty of the Government of Iran but an essential part of their engagement with the wider world. The Iranian Government’s willingness to engage internationally is, in turn, linked directly to the country’s future security and prosperity. It is therefore vital that the Iranian Government make progress on human rights. It is likely to be slow, but we will continue to encourage progress, to improve the rights and freedoms of all Iran’s citizens.