The Mahsa Amini Protests: The Fight for Freedom and Women’s Rights in Iran

Jason Orringer

Senior Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

On September 16, 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died on her third day in police custody after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code rules by wearing her hijab too loosely. While Iranian authorities claim that Ms. Amini died of heart failure, her family and protestors across the country are alleging that she was killed by law enforcement. Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest, which has led to demonstrations in over 40 cities across Iran, resulted in thousands of arrests and dozens of deaths from clashes with security forces, and the implementation of communication restrictions by the Iranian government. Now, the United Nations and its member countries are taking action in response to Iran’s persistent violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty, to which they are signatories.

Iran and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a prominent international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations in 1966 and entered into force in 1976 that obligates countries who have ratified the treaty to protect and preserve basic human rights, including: the right to life and dignity; freedom of speech, assembly, and association; religious freedom and privacy; freedom from torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention; gender equality; the right to a fair trial; right family life and family unity; and minority rights. Iran ratified their signature to this treaty on June 24, 1975. Since then, however, Iran has frequently been subject to scrutiny for its continual human rights violations.

Well before the death of Ms. Amini, Iran has been criticized for failing to uphold their obligations under the ICCPR and have failed to make crucial changes to comply with the treaty. In December of 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that criticized for these abuses and called on Iran to implement a number of reforms including ceasing use of the death penalty, ensuring that nobody is subjected to torture, and releasing persons detained for the exercise of their human and fundamental freedoms, amongst others. Additionally, just last month, the United Nations called on Iran authorities to stop the persecution and harassment of religious minorities and to stop using religion to diminish their Iranian’s fundamental rights. Most recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights demanded that Iran must halt the executions of two LGBTQ+ activists who were convicted on charges of “corruption on earth” and “trafficking”. Iran’s legal system prohibits homosexuality and same-sex relationships are punishable by death under the country’s law. In all of these instances, Iran has failed to acknowledge their human rights violations under the ICCPR.

The Mahsa Amini protests  

The passing of Ms. Amini initially brought calls to hold the “morality police” (who in Iran are known as the Gasht-e Ershad, which is Persian for “Guidance Patrols”) and the Iranian government accountable but have since blossomed into protests demanding more rights and freedoms for women in Iran who have been discriminated against and significantly restricted since the country’s revolution in 1979.  The protests have been met with an incredibly violent response by security forces in Iran, which has led to at least 41 deaths according to state media while activists believe that this number is significantly higher. Iranian forces have also arrested thousands, including many celebrities in the country, ranging from artists to foreign nationals, who have spoken up in favor of the protests.

In response to the nationwide protests, Iran has implemented significant communication restrictions that are affecting landline and mobile usage, the internet, and social media platforms, in the hopes that disrupting communications will disperse the protestors. Cutting off an already tightly-regulated internet from the Iranian people has led to a nationwide blackout, making it harder for people to organize protests, document abuse, and share information.

International response to the human rights violations in Iran

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres stated last week he was concerned about the excessive force that the protests in Iran had been met with. Additionally, the U.N. called on the security forces to refrain from using disproportionate force in hopes of avoiding further escalation. They also called on authorities in Iran to respect the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association of the protestors and to respect women’s rights in all forms and to eliminate the discrimination they face in Iran. Regarding the communication restrictions, the U.N. voiced their concerns on how it has affected people’s ability to exchange information, carry out economic activities, and access public services, all of which undermines numerous human rights. The U.N. has called on authorities to fully restore the internet access for the country for the sake of the right to freedom of expression.

In response to Iran’s blatant and continuous human rights violations, and most recently to the violent suppression of peaceful protests, many countries are taking action to show their support for the Iranian people. The United States has imposed sanctions on the morality police and senior security officials who have engaged in serious human rights abuses. In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has designated two senior officials of the morality police and five political and military figures in Iran who have played a significant hand in suppressing and killing non-violent protestors to impose sanctions on as well. The sanctioned individuals and entities that have property and interests in property in the U.S. must be blocked and reported to OFAC, as the sanctions prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or within the U.S. that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons. Similar to the U.S., Canada has placed sanctions on “dozens” of Iranian individuals and entities, including the morality police, but have not yet said who else has been sanctioned. Elon Musk also announced that his Starlink satellite internet with be activated in Iran after U.S. officials eased certain sanctions in order to allows Iranian citizens greater internet access. This is the same service Musk provided to Ukraine for its fight against Russia’s invasion.

The challenge with international law and treaties such as the ICCPR is how to enforce them. While sanctions are a common response and can be effective in scolding and stopping countries from stepping further out of line, they are not always successful. Just as how the sanctions against Russia have not stopped them from continuing to invade Ukraine, it is not a guarantee that these sanctions will be a strong enough deterrent to stop the Iranian government from responding to protests with violence and disregarding women’s rights, along with their many other human rights violations. Another way that U.S. regulatory agencies could help Iran is by having the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) follow Canada’s lead and bar members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from entering the country, which in turn could likely sway many other U.N. countries to follow suit and implement similar entry bans for IRGC members via their own regulatory agencies. By limiting the number of countries that IRGC members could flee to if the Iranian government is overthrown could be a strong motivating factor for them to stand down and listen to their country’s citizens demanding change. Additionally, the U.S. must continue to amplify the voices of the protesters in Iran and encourage all of our allies to follow suit and continue to help the Iranian people communicate amid the country’s blackout. The louder the international community gets regarding the violence in Iran will not only show solidarity with the protestors but will be a powerful denunciation of the government’s actions.