Middle Eastern regional rivalries spilled over Wednesday into a U.N. meeting on human rights in Iran, when a Syrian diplomat’s outburst brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
The meeting, an annual exercise in the U.N. committee that reviews the human rights situation in some of the countries with the worst records, began predictably enough.
Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir outlined concerns about the rate of executions in Iran — 435 since January this year — that included some women and juveniles. She also detailed reports she has received about the harassment, intimidation and prosecution of human rights defenders.
Jahangir, who took up her mandate in November last year, addressed the dangerous conditions for journalists, bloggers and social media activists, noting that more than two dozen were in Iranian jails as of June.
She went on to address discrimination against women, who must wear garments that cover them in public, are not allowed to watch sporting events at stadiums, are excluded from some occupations and face double the unemployment rates of men. When they do work, they are paid 41 percent less than their male counterparts.
She also expressed concern about the situation of ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Baha’is, who face “unabated discrimination” and even arbitrary arrest, torture and prosecution.
Some praise for Iran
Jahangir, an independent human rights expert who received her mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council, also had some positive things to say.
She noted high participation rates in the May presidential and local elections and President Hassan Rouhani’s pledge to address the rights of women in Iran. She also welcomed the relatively good communication she has had with the government in carrying out her mandate, although a request to visit the country has not been granted.
Regional disputes erupt
When the discussion was opened to the floor, regional disputes came into play.
“Iran would like to divert the international community’s attention through stoking tension and instability in other countries and also through fueling hate crimes,” Saudi Arabia’s representative said. “Iran is sponsoring all problems in the Middle East.”
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch enemies. They support different sides in the Syrian civil war and are fighting each other directly and indirectly in Yemen. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia backs the legitimate government, while Iran arms the militant cum political movement Hezbollah.
Syrian diplomat Amjad Qassem Agha began by accusing the Special Rapporteur of relying “on fabricated reports provided by intelligence agencies in countries that seek to destabilize Iran.”
Agha then suggested that before appointing a Special Rapporteur for Iran, there should be one assigned to look into Saudi Arabia or countries that were involved in Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s representative asked to address the remark about his delegation and the chair allowed it.
“We are now discussing the report on human rights in Iran, I do not think it appropriate to refer to other countries in this context,” he said. “I ask the Syrian representative not to address countries that have nothing to do with this item.”
“What is his country’s concern to talk about Iran in this way?” Syrian diplomat Agha shouted. “How he has to dare to talk about Iran and he needs other countries not to talk about Iran, to protect Iran!” he yelled. He lost all composure and continued shouting for four minutes.
The committee’s secretary, Moncef Khane, could be heard speaking to the chair saying, “He’s completely out of line; it’s never happened (before),” expressing his shock at the undiplomatic outburst.
Syria is Iran’s main regional ally. Iran, along with Russia, intervened militarily in the conflict to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, when it appeared it might fall to the opposition.
The Syrian representative’s microphone was ultimately shut off, but he could still be heard screaming, ultimately provoking the committee secretary to warn that if he continued, U.N. security would be called. Ultimately, the chair suspended the session.
After a 10-minute hiatus, that included both the Iranian representative and committee secretary Khane speaking to the Syrian diplomat, the meeting resumed and so did the insults.
“If only one reason was needed to prove how debased the third committee has become to consider country-specific situations, the Saudi intervention provides that,” said Iranian envoy Mohammad Hassani Nejad Pirkouhi.
“Saudi — a bad child killer that has recently upgraded to a good child killer — kills more children in Yemen than al-Qaida, ISIS and al-Nusra put together around the globe,” Pirkouhi said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s listing on a U.N. blacklist of countries that kill and maim children in conflict.
This year, Riyadh was listed for coalition bombings in Yemen, but the U.N. noted it has put in place measures to improve child protection.