Perspective | 70 years of UDHR: Have human rights mechanisms protected the Baha’i community in Iran?


Perspective | 70 years of UDHR: Have human rights mechanisms protected the Baha’i community in Iran?

By Diane Ala’i

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (photo: United Nations Photo)
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (photo: United Nations Photo)
Geneva—22 Mar 2019

With the UN Human Rights Council holding its 40th session shortly after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) celebrated its 70th anniversary, it is timely to reflect upon this seminal document, and consider what progress has been made to raise international awareness and to ameliorate, to some degree, the ongoing persecution of the Baha’i community by the Iranian authorities.

Since 1979, the government of Iran has made it official policy to discriminate against and persecute its Baha’i citizens and to systematize efforts to destroy the Baha’i community as a viable entity. Following the Iranian Revolution, the state-sanctioned killings of hundreds of Baha’is, who were deprived of the right to a fair trial or appeal, was justified through coordinated government propaganda, which portrayed the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority as enemies, spies, unclean and undeserving of equal rights.

Many feel that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaration enshrines principles that have not been effectively upheld, and as such, it is often criticized for its inability to stem the tide of conflict and discrimination. While this may be true, the ideals articulated in that document represent a moment in history in which the international community was called to uphold the rights of all its peoples and leave no one behind. Challenges to its implementation notwithstanding, the UDHR has created a framework that has heightened global awareness around human rights and has instilled in each nation an obligation to promote and protect the rights of its entire population, without discrimination.  

Article 18 of the declaration affirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The inclusion of this right has provided mechanisms through which to highlight the situation of the Baha’is in Iran and to request support from the international community. Although these mechanisms have not halted the ongoing persecution against the community, they have served as the foundation upon which calls for the Iranian authorities to alter their practices have been based.The direct result of this has been a lessening of the overt nature of the persecution and a reduction in lives lost.

In contrast to the Iranian authorities’ assertions, it is clear that the persecution of the Baha’is is based solely upon the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. These tenets have prompted the Baha’is to respond to their persecution with constructive resilience, and to work shoulder to shoulder with Iranians of all walks of life and to contribute to the betterment of their society, in spite of their suffering. These beliefs include equality in all its forms, particularly between men and women, which is an essential condition for economic prosperity. Baha’is also possess a deep respect for, and desire to protect the environment, which they see as part of God’s creation. Moreover, they hold the conviction that humanity is fundamentally one, and this notion defines and affects their participation in the life of society.

In recent years, the Iranian government has been forced to alter the nature of its persecution of the community. When arresting the Baha’is, Iranian officials have constructed specious justifications in response to sustained public pressure, claiming that adherence to the Baha’i Faith is an act “against national security”. While acts of persecution, such as arrests, detention, and execution still persist, the government has been forced to resort to less blatant forms of persecution, such as economic, educational, and cultural discrimination.

Furthermore, the Iranian authorities, owing to increasingly intense international scrutiny, have sought to justify the persecution by artificially separating belief in the Baha’i Faith and membership in the Baha’i community, claiming that only membership in the community is illegal and thus freedom of religious belief has been upheld. When one becomes a Baha’i, however, one automatically becomes a member of the community, and thus, no such distinction exists.

Nevertheless, the international community continues to shed light on injustices perpetrated by the authorities. Awareness has been raised of the government’s policies to deny Baha’i students access to university education, to seal Baha’i owned shops when they close for Baha’i Holy Days, and to desecrate Baha’i cemeteries and graves. International human rights mechanisms have not only raised the voices of those outside of Iran, they have also empowered the more just and moderate members of the Iranian government and judiciary speak out against these discriminatory policies.

Although much remains to be done globally—not just in the case of the Baha’is—to ensure the sustained implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international community should celebrate the collective consensus achieved seventy years ago that ushered in a new sense of optimism and led to historic advancements in the human rights arena. This anniversary also offers a chance to pause and collectively consider how we can continue implementing the principles enshrined in the Declaration and ensure that the rights of all individuals—no matter in what country they reside—are upheld and respected. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to give renewed impetus to our efforts to fulfill the noble ideals laid out in this historic Declaration.


Diane Ala’i is a Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva


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