Exclusive: UN Rights Commissioner Meets Officials in Iran, Despite Activists Warning Her of Propaganda Risk

Exclusive: UN Rights Commissioner Meets Officials in Iran, Despite Activists Warning Her of Propaganda Risk

The U.N. human rights office has issued its first statement about a U.N. rights official’s controversial visit to Iran, telling VOA it is aware of rights groups’ concerns that Tehran will exploit the visit for propaganda but is confident the world body’s work will not be undermined.

In the statement emailed to VOA on Monday, U.N. rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani confirmed that Nada Al-Nashif, deputy high commissioner for human rights, arrived in Iran on Friday and was due to depart later Monday. She said the visit entailed “meeting with relevant state interlocutors, including judicial officials, and U.N. partners.”

Iranian state media had published a preview of Al-Nashif’s visit but did not report anything about her meetings while she was in the country.

Rights activists inside and outside Iran had urged Al-Nashif to use her three-day visit to inspect the conditions of dissidents languishing in Iranian prisons and to meet with political prisoners, injured protesters and other Iranians deprived of basic rights, while ensuring such meetings are held in safe environments free of intimidation from authorities.

It was not clear from the U.N. human rights office’s statement whether Al-Nashif engaged in any such meetings.

Relatives of victims of Iran’s Jan. 8, 2020, downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from Tehran on a flight to Kyiv gathered outside the U.N.’s Tehran office on Saturday holding signs urging Al-Nashif to meet them and demanding justice for the killing of their loved ones. But video sent to VOA Persian by the participants showed Iranian security agents dispersing them with verbal threats. There was no word on whether Al-Nashif met with the protesters.

A coalition of 25 international rights groups had published an open letter to Al-Nashif on Jan. 29 urging her to reconsider the visit, citing uncertainty about whether she might have access to independent civil society actors. The groups also warned that Iran can use its engagement with Al-Nashif to try to convince a U.N. Human Rights Council session beginning later this month that there is no need for it keep authorizing mechanisms to monitor and investigate Tehran for violations of its rights obligations.

“We are aware of concerns expressed,” Shamdasani wrote. “Rest assured that the visit will not undermine our approach in terms of reporting and advocacy.”

Shamdasani said Al-Nashif’s “direct high-level engagement with [Iranian] officials and institutions is a very important tool” for following up with them on recommendations from U.N.-authorized independent rights experts known as special rapporteurs and from the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Iran, launched in November 2022.

Iran has not permitted any visits by special rapporteurs or the fact-finding mission, dismissing their mandates as politicized.

United States.-based group United for Iran, which signed the Jan. 29 open letter to Al-Nashif, reacted skeptically to Shamdasani’s statement.

In a Monday interview with VOA, the group’s managing director, Kevin Schumacher, said, “I cannot imagine that the Iranian government all of a sudden is willing to open a new chapter and use this opportunity [of Al-Nashif’s visit] in order to start a dialogue on its human rights record.”

He said it might have been “wonderful” if a political visit to Iran by a U.N. official engaged in high-level dialogue might be followed by a U.N. fact-finding visit to the country.

“The problem is, Iran is not willing to accept both. And under the circumstances, we prefer to have fact-finding missions rather than political dialogue,” Schumacher said.

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