By Natasha Phillips
Charities and civil rights activists took to the internet on World Human Rights Day to highlight the Iranian government’s track record on a wide range of issues including unlawful detention and workers’ rights. Conspicuous in its absence was any mention of the state of child rights in Iran.
Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on 10 December. As concerns grow around the Iranian government’s approach to human rights, an increasing number of charitable and legal organizations use this day as a benchmark to examine how those rights are being respected by Iran’s policy makers.
Amnesty International released a report on 4 December which raised concerns about political dissidents who went missing in 1988. A second Amnesty report published on Human Rights Day highlighted women’s protests in Iran against legislation forcing women to wear the hijab despite ongoing government arrests and detentions of women involved in these demonstrations. Several Western media outlets chose to focus on the release of human rights activists, while Middle East media addressed Iran’s current strikes over pay, working conditions and access to drinking water.
Although concerns from the international community over child rights in Iran have been elevated in recent months, no online discussions about Iran’s efforts at securing the rights of children within its borders were initiated by child welfare charities or individuals on Monday. Children in Iran face several challenges which jeopardize their human rights in 2018. These challenges stem from acute poverty, a lack of access to education and healthcare, discrimination, and child exploitation within Iran’s towns, villages and cities.
Reports on the extent of poverty in Iran vary. Some official figures suggest that 80 percent of the population in Iran lives below the poverty line, while an article in the Financial Tribune published in January offers estimates given by economist Hossein Raghfar that around 37 percent of Iranians live in poverty, with 15 percent of the population experiencing absolute poverty. Those who continue to be most affected by poverty are children located in rural areas, because of limited access to basic services and heightened risks around exploitation and trafficking, all of which encroach on their rights to healthcare, education and personal safety.
UNICEF, which has been active in Iran since the 1950s, produced an action plan together with Iran’s government in 2012 to help the country meet Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which were set up to eradicate poverty within participating countries. The plan included on-the-ground assistance from UNICEF as well as funding from several humanitarian organizations to mobilize initiatives listed in the program.
The plan also hoped to bolster the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) within Iran’s legislative and policy frameworks. These rights ensure protection from all forms of child abuse, neglect, exploitation and cruelty. A progress review of Iran and UNICEF’s action plan published in 2017 showed that Iran had been partially successful in providing nutrition, access to education for child refugees and poverty relief throughout the country, over a period of five years.
UNICEF has been encouraged by what it sees as improvements in these areas and continues to work inside the country through its latest initiative, the Country Program, which runs until 2021. The Program aims to ensure that economic developments inside the country contribute positively to the welfare of children in Iran. However the mandate was drawn up while the nuclear deal was still active and did not take into account the possibility that the US might eventually pull out of the deal and impose financial penalties on Iran.
The onset of demonstrations inside Iran which began at the end of 2017 and the re-instatement of US sanctions have made it harder to protect children’s rights inside the country. In September, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the UN Refugee Agency, called on the international community to help Iran with its Afghan refugee population, of which one million are children.
Child refugees are often more susceptible to human rights violations as their status makes them invisible inside countries like Iran and vulnerable to being targeted by criminal gangs and traffickers. Reports coming from inside Iran of Afghan girls being abducted, raped and murdered are worrying symptoms of an undocumented child population being denied access to their rights which include living accommodation, education and medical care. Research by Iran Human Rights Monitor (IHRM) claims that 80 percent of children in Iran who face sexual exploitation are Afghan child refugees.
Afghan boys are also at risk of exploitation. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2016 documents the coercion of boys as young as 14 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to fight as child soldiers in Syria on behalf of the Iranian government. This policy is in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides the right to special protection in times of war.
Failures to address child sexual abuse, child trafficking and underage conscription are not the only human rights concerns emerging from Iran. The CRC also explicitly prohibits the abuse of children through the criminal justice system. Iran is one of only a few countries in the world to enforce the death penalty and second only to China for carrying out the most executions. Iran’s government also sentences more children to death than any other country in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran is one of four countries known to have executed child offenders since 2013.
Tensions between the West’s perceptions around human rights and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interpretation and implementation of Sharia Law inside the country also pose a challenge to the protection of children’s rights in Iran. While Iran ratified the CRC in 1994, it did so with a Reservation, or legal caveat, which allowed the government to set aside any clauses within the CRC which contradicted its own national and domestic laws. One outcome of the Reservation is that it has effectively allowed the ongoing practice of paedophilia within a home setting. If a father wishes to marry his stepdaughter, he can do so, as set out in The Child and Youth Protection Bill, enacted in 2002.
With so much civil unrest inside the country and difficult living conditions fueled by sanctions and economic policies that have not served the Iranian population well, children in Iran have almost been forgotten in the last 12 months. The United Nations published a largely unnoticed committee paper in October, which urged the Iranian government to implement child-rights-focused legislation to better protect children from human rights abuses. It also called on the government to stop executing children, confirming that the practice was in direct violation of the CRC. The committee also asked the Iranian government to put an end to the country’s child marriage laws, which also breached the terms of the Convention.
The Iranian government remains adamant that its perception of human rights represents the most advanced form of governance in the world today. At a human rights conference in Kerman, southeastern Iran, on Sunday, conservative politician Mohammad-Javad Larijani told attendees that the Islamic establishment was a defender of human rights and rather than being a dictatorship, was “an advanced and rational model of democracy”. The comment was reported on Iran’s official media outlet, The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Larijani, who is secretary of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights and advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in international affairs, also told delegates, “Iran is now the most advanced Islamic nation in science, technology and civil systems.”