GENEVA — Iran’s justice minister, a sanctioned human rights violator, unapologetically took the podium at the UN’s top human rights body Tuesday to berate U.S. and Saudi policies, defying calls for him to stay away in a visit a top U.S. diplomat said made a “mockery” of the body.
Justice Minister Seyyed Alireza Avaei’s visit has been criticized because he’s faced EU sanctions for six years for his role in arbitrary arrests, denying prisoners’ rights, and increasing executions in Iran. Switzerland, which hosts a key UN office and the council, has also handed him economic sanctions — but not banned him from visiting.
UN Geneva spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said Avaei did not face any UN sanctions.
That did not deter other critics of Avaei’s visit. He was on hand Tuesday for the council’s “high-level segment”, a highlight to its March session, which this year is bringing together nearly 100 dignitaries — including many minsters and a few heads of state.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Sunday the rights council “be ashamed to allow Mr. Avaei to address its membership.” Haley used the chance to again criticize alleged shortcomings of the council that she had laid out in speeches in Geneva in June.
“Yet again the council discredits itself by allowing serial human rights abusers to highjack its work and make a mockery of its mandate to promote universal human rights,” Haley said. “This does nothing but reinforce the United States’ call for much needed reforms at the council for it to be viewed as a good investment of our time and money.”
Council spokesman Rolando Gomez said nations can choose who they want to represent them at the 47-member body.
The U.S. delegation to the council doubled down on Tuesday, saying he “oversaw the summary executions of Iranians” in the late 1980s. Today, it said, he oversees arbitrary arrests and imprisonment “in a network of facilities notorious for suspicious deaths, the use of torture, and denial of medical care.”
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a leading group of exile and expatriate opponents of Iran’s Islamic government, staged a noisy and well-orchestrated protest — if small, at about 100 people — outside the gates of the UN building shortly before Avaei addressed the council.
Protester Nasser Razi, a member of the NCRI’s foreign affairs committee, said Avaei was involved in the execution of thousands of prisoners at the end of Iran’s war with Iraq in 1988. International rights groups estimate that as many as 5,000 people were executed, while the NCRI puts the number at more than 30,000.
In his speech, Avaei blasted the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, calling it “illustrative of gross violation of human rights” of Palestinians. He criticized a blockade of Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition involved in a three-year “war of aggression” there.
And in an unmistakable — if indirect — allusion to the U.S., he said: “These self-proclaimed champions of human rights, through finger-pointing, unjustly and widely blame others for violation of human rights, while certain parts of their population, especially blacks, immigrants, foreigners and indigenous people grievously suffer from human rights violations under their watch.”
Shortly before Avaei spoke, the U.N. publicly released a report from the U.N. Secretary-General’s office on Iran’s human rights record, as requested by the General Assembly. It raised concerns about arbitrary detention, executions of juvenile defenders, and limits on rights of freedom of assembly in Iran.
Most of the report’s strongest recommendations had to do with Iran’s use of the death penalty.
In his address, Avaei touted domestic reforms of the legal code that were aimed “to provide effective mechanisms in safeguarding the rights of accused persons.” He also noted that Iran’s counter-narcotics law has been amended, and “as a result, executions related to drug crimes will decrease remarkably.”
“All execution verdicts in this respect have been stopped … and are now being re-considered,” he said.
Avaei declined to answer a journalist’s question after he finished his speech.