Why the UN Should Establish an Independent and Impartial Investigative Mechanism into the 1988 Political Prisoner Massacre in Iran

Why the UN Should Establish an Independent and Impartial Investigative Mechanism into the 1988 Political Prisoner Massacre in Iran


The 1988 political prisoner massacre (the massacre, the 1988 massacre) in Iran occurred almost 35 years ago. Yet its relevance remains visible in contemporary debates on Iran’s human rights record, the legitimacy of the government, and the human rights credentials of its leaders. Most importantly, it remains an unresolved issue worthy of investigative and judicial attention for the victims, survivors, their families, the people of Iran, the diaspora, and the international community. The most critical potential question for Iranian domestic and international politics is whether the Iranian leadership is fit to serve its people, specifically President Ebrahim Raisi, who has served on Iran’s judiciary and in his current position. Raisi may eventually replace Ayatollah Khamenei. This means that he will potentially remain in the top echelons of Iranian leadership for years to come. 

In recent years, the UN has established new types of accountability mechanisms in response to atrocities. It may be appropriate for the UN or a regional organization to establish such an institution, which would breathe new life into the possibility of international accountability for human rights abuses allegedly committed by the country’s leadership. Recent innovations include the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM), and the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD). In the early 1990s, the international community responded to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda by creating ad hoc tribunals, and later to conflicts in Sierra Leone and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, for example, by creating hybrid tribunals. Alternative innovations such as the IIMM, the IIIM, and UNITAD increase the international community’s repertoire of responses to severe human rights abuses by increasing its flexibility of response and the range of institutions that may be created. 

The dearth of international efforts to prosecute those responsible for the massacre blights the international community’s record on fighting impunity. However, the recent universal jurisdiction trial of Hamid Nouri in Sweden provides some hope that this trial would shed light on atrocities committed during the massacre. The creation of a formal investigative body with the backing of the UN may also increase pressure on Iran to improve its adherence to human rights standards, especially if its mandate allowed it to investigate more recent alleged human rights abuses inside the country.

This article calls for the international community, specifically the UN, to establish an international mechanism to examine the government’s alleged human rights abuses committed during the 1988 political prisoner massacre. Such an innovation would be timely due to the recent development of the Nouri trial. First, the article provides an overview of the Nouri trial and the massacre. Second, the importance of the massacre regarding the recent election of Raisi and domestic electoral politics will be highlighted. International efforts and statements supporting establishing an independent and impartial mechanism will also be examined.

The Contemporary Relevance of the 1988 Political Massacre to Iran, to the Victims, and to their Families

Despite the continued relevance of the massacre to the victims, their memories, survivors, and Iranian politics, the international community has demonstrated insufficient effort and political will to provide accountability for the massacre to interested stakeholders. Accountability efforts could include the establishment of an international tribunal, an Investigative Team, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or a body specifically designed to investigate continued human rights abuses in Iran perpetrated by or related to the government. The recent election of Raisi to the presidency and the trial of Hamid Nouri regarding alleged involvement in the 1988 massacre have brought the issue to the fore in Iranian politics. The international community should follow through with calls to establish an accountability mechanism to address this impunity gap whose mandate includes the 1988 massacre and ongoing human rights abuses. 

Should the UN Establish an International Mechanism?

Though an international body may not produce the effect of a trial of Khamenei, Raisi, or other members of the Iranian political elite, establishing such an institution would continue the conversation and shine a light on the 1988 massacre under the venerable auspices of the UN. Additionally, it may provide a means of collecting and analysing evidence to produce a verifiable and legally sound narrative of what happened during that period that is unconstrained by the political interests of contributors. Of international organisations, the UN has the greatest political, financial, diplomatic, and legal authority and resources in the world. It is well placed to be the organisation behind an important human rights institution that would prove critical for the people affected by the 1988 massacre, the Iranian diaspora, and the millions of people in Iran. Furthermore, if the UN were to set up a Commission of Inquiry or an investigative mechanism, it would be impossible for Iran to evade international attention regarding the issues under investigation. In a country ruled by a repressive government, attempting to work on these issues inside Iran is far too dangerous. A UN investigative entity would provide a forum for the past to be investigated, analysed, and discussed, thus providing a space constructed on democratic principles for voices of dissent to be heard in a quasi-judicial institution after they have been silenced.

The UN is the most suitable international organisation to assume leadership for the 1988 massacre in light of its responsibilities under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, for example, to maintain international peace and security. The UN, specifically the Security Council, has the gravitas and international resources to establish an international body with temporal and subject matter jurisdiction over the entire history of alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by the government before, during, and after 1988.

The Hamid Nouri Trial and Accountability for the 1988 Political Prisoner Massacre through Universal Jurisdiction 

On August 10th, the universal jurisdiction trial of Hamid Nouri began in Stockholm, hundreds of kilometers from Iran. Nouri stands accused of being involved in the 1988 political prisoner massacre in Iran, which took the lives of prisoners in Evin and Gohardasht prisons around the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The number of victims killed remains unknown. The United States Institute of Peace Iran Primer states that the Iranian government executed between 4–5,000 political prisoners; it has also been estimated that 30,000 people died. Amnesty International reported that at least 5,000 people died

This trial symbolises the slow wheels of justice for the memories of the victims, survivors, and families. Inside Iran, the case also plays a highly political role in the current discourse on human rights – when human rights discourse is allowed – and the role that Iran’s current political leaders played in committing said abuses during the 1980s. The massacre involves those at the pinnacle of Iranian political leadership. Ayatollah Khomeini himself allegedly participated. Further, President Raisi is accused of playing a significant role, as are Ayatollah Khamenei, Mousavi Ardebili, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, at least in terms of a cover-up. It is difficult to conceive of a more powerful attack against the government’s legitimacy than unearthing and bringing to light its potentially criminal past. The human rights group Civil Rights Defenders notes that this is the first time anyone has been brought to trial for these alleged acts.

In an audio file, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri allegedly called the massacre ‘‘the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which the history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands, and they’ll write your names as criminals in the history’’. Montazeri is right. However, the people judging this period of history are seated in Sweden, where the trial is currently underway. While the trial is a useful starting point for holding those allegedly responsible accountable in a public forum, it is marred by several factors. Perhaps most significantly, the trial is being conducted in a country on a different continent from the site of the alleged crimes. It would be preferable to have the trial closer to those most affected: the people of Iran. An international body established with the backing of the UN may be better placed to conduct its work closer to Iran than the Swedish government. Also, the trial is being undertaken decades after the massacre occurred. Why were individuals such as Nouri not prosecuted sooner? The main reason behind the lack of prosecutions is most likely a lack of political will and a lack of international institutions designed to hold individuals accountable for mass atrocities. For example, the international criminal justice system was famously resuscitated in the 1990s, after the 1988 massacre. The lone permanent international penal court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), is ill-equipped to conduct investigations and trials of historic mass human rights abuses such: its temporal jurisdiction is limited to events that occurred after 2002. Further, the possibility of ICC investigations of connected ongoing human rights abuses committed by or connected to the government is limited by the fact that Iran is not a State Party to the Rome Statute.

The Iranian Presidential Election, Politics, and Ongoing Impunity for Raisi’s Alleged Participation in the Massacre

The 1988 massacre is a topic that attracts negative international attention that Iran cannot evade, and it continues to affect significant issues in domestic politics, such as the 2021 Presidential election. Raisi’s alleged role in the massacre and the election received international attention from human rights experts and the media.

President Raisi and Impunity for the 1988 Massacre

In June 2021, Raisi was voted president of Iran. He is an example of a national leader who has exercised power with impunity. The fact that he was allowed to run for president illustrates why people allegedly involved in such human rights violations should be investigated and, if the evidence allows, prevented from assuming and exercising power within the confines of state sovereignty. If this does not happen, people who have committed atrocities will be free to assume political office. In addition, there is nothing to prevent those responsible for the massacre from committing future atrocities. 

What happened in the past should not be erased. A public platform for engagement with the past should be set up by the UN. Any such institution should actively include victims’ families and existing survivors willing to recount their experiences in its work. 

Calls for International Accountability for the Massacre

In June 2021, Rehman called for the investigation of the massacre. Additionally, Amnesty International called for the investigation of Raisi for crimes against humanity. Secretary-General Agnès Callamard stated

It is now more urgent than ever for member states of the UN Human Rights Council to take concrete steps to address the crisis of systematic impunity in Iran including by establishing an impartial mechanism to collect and analyse evidence of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Iran to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings.

Callamard is correct in calling on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent and impartial mechanism to examine this dark period in Iran’s past. That Raisi and others allegedly attached to the commission of the crimes still roam free and sit in government is a blight on international justice and the overall project of ending impunity. A UN–backed international mechanism is necessary to bring justice to the victims, the survivors, and their families, and Iran as a country. Establishing such a mechanism would be the least that the international community could do for those impacted by this tragic history. It is unclear why the UN has not established such a body to address the massacre and further allegations of mass atrocities, such as those that may have taken part during a government crackdown on the 2009 protests that were part of the Green Revolution. Other issues in international relations between Iran and the United States concerning Iran’s nuclear program, for example, have taken precedence over international accountability for the massacre. 

What form will justice and accountability take for Iran? In June of 2021, Special Rapporteur Rehman also called on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent and impartial mechanism. In August of 2021, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the Human Rights Council expressed concerns regarding ‘the ongoing concealment of burial sites of those forcibly disappeared and allegedly executed between July and September 1988 across the country.’ It joined the international call for an independent and impartial investigation.

In February 2021, a group of NGOs also submitted a statement to the UN Human Rights Council asking for a UN Commission of Inquiry to be established. International attention should be drawn to the submission and the voices of victims, survivors, and their families, as their voices should play a role in shaping the international community’s response to the massacre. The statement categorises the massacre as ‘ongoing crimes against humanity’ and calls for an end to impunity for Iranian officials. It argues that ‘High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has a fundamental duty to initiate the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into Iran’s 1988 massacre’ and encourages the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene. Apart from letter writing, the establishment of the mandate of Special Rapporteur, and other symbolic initiatives, such as the Nouri trial, the international community has failed to heed these calls. 

Looking Forward – a Chance for Hope?

The 1988 massacre continues to be a source of condemnation and international scrutiny for the government. Their leaders continue to operate in a state of impunity for their alleged involvement in the massacre. While the Nouri trial represents a step in the direction of accountability, it is a far cry from the international response needed to investigate and potentially prosecute those responsible for the alleged crimes. It is unlikely that a full-scale international tribunal will be established to try individuals accountable for the 1988 massacre. It is possible that the UN, or a regional organisation with similar financial and political resources, could create an investigative body to at least answer questions that have been plaguing survivors and their families. It would also provide them with an opportunity to honor the dead. 

Such a body could take various forms and could be established by the Security Council, which established the ad hoc tribunals in the early 1990s under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Security Council also adopted UNITAD in 2017 under resolution 2379. Alternatively, the Human Rights Council could establish an independent investigative mechanism, such as the IIMM, established in 2018 under resolution 39/2. The UN has the tools and experience in establishing and setting up similar bodies designed to investigate and try those suspected of being most accountable for the commission of atrocities. The most important thing is that the international community acts. 

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Courts & Tribunals, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, Middle East, Organizations, Public International Law
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