“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boldly declared to a public gathering in 2007. He continued his disparagement in September 2011 when he told a group of American journalists that homosexuality is a “despicable act … dirty and harmful to humanity.”
The Iranian government, to soften the rhetoric when violating human rights, relies on a spurious excuse: cultural difference. According to its logic, human rights standards are irrelevant to countries like Iran, whose ancient civilizations and cultural norms are rooted in religion or tradition. This argument posits that human rights are by definition a Western priority and cannot be considered universal. But a West-bashing argument just doesn’t hold up. From the Quran to the Bible, from the Torah to the ancient texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern philosophies and faiths, the call for respect of life and human dignity is universal.
Iranian authorities have long tried to justify the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals under the ruse of cultural relativism. Under the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, sexual activity between people of the same gender is a crime punishable by death. The method of enforcing these laws is equally grotesque. According to documentation gathered by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, individuals are forced to confess to same-sex relations under conditions that amount to torture. Those targeted may be members of the political opposition falsely accused by the government, or they may be individuals who are assumed to be guilty simply by virtue of their sexual identity or self-expression.
Iranians suspected of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are targets of systematic discrimination by the government. Iranian authorities — including the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Office of Book Licensing, and the Monitoring Board of the Press — have banned publication of material related to homosexuality. The ban extends to facts about sexual orientation and gender identity, safe sex and the history of homosexuality in Iran. Websites containing such information are summarily shut down; individuals who produce the website or simply visit are threatened with arrest. Public demonstration for LGBT rights is an impossible fantasy, and even private social events like birthday parties can be raided by the morality police, who arrest and charge attendees with criminal acts. Some Iranians are left with no choice but to leave their native country and embark on the arduous and often futile task of seeking asylum abroad.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, meeting in Geneva earlier this month, refused to condone the language of Ahmadinejad. And, such theories and justifications of abuse rarely hold water at the United Nations. The truth is that human rights obligations are defined by UN treaties that States themselves ratify, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This treaty has been ratified by 167 states around the world, including Iran. All nations who have joined such treaties have an obligation to protect the rights preserved within them.
Tehran has so much confidence in its justification for state-sponsored homophobia that it takes this stance even before human rights authorities. In a letter submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors state compliance with the treaty, the Iranian government refused to answer the Committee’s questions regarding capital punishment for homosexual acts and severe punishments for related, so-called “moral” crimes. Though the Committee has addressed LGBT rights since at least 1994, Iran audaciously argued that the Committee’s questions were “beyond the mandate and subject matter of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Iranian authorities have long ignored their obligations to honor human rights.
Eighteen years ago they submitted an alleged State report on human rights. Since that time they have stonewalled on their commitment to comply with the treaty, refusing to submit a required State report on the status of human rights in Iran. Finally, during the 103rd session of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, with a submitted report in hand, the Committee was able to sit face-to-face with the Iranian delegation. Despite questions directly related to sexual orientation and gender identity from members of the Committee, the Iranian delegation repeatedly refused to engage in dialogue on the topic.
While Ahmadinejad may continue to sidestep the issue, the international community has taken notice. In their Concluding Observations the U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed deep concern with the systematic mistreatment of Iranians based on sexual orientation or gender identity by officials. It specifically asked the government of Iran to “repeal or amend all legislation which provides for or could result in the discrimination, prosecution and punishment of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The Committee made apparent that the government couldn’t prosecute people “solely on account of freely and mutually agreed sexual activities or sexual orientation.”
The message is loud and clear: when it comes to human rights, there is no excuse for any nation to punish individuals for their sexual orientation, gender identity, consensual sexual conduct, and/or gender expression. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has called on Iran to immediately address the long-standing, grave human rights violations it has committed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and to finally recognize that human rights are for everyone, everywhere.