Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism

By Samii, A. William | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism


Samii, A. William, The Middle East Journal


Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism, by Reza Afshari. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. xxi + 302 pages. Notes to p. 343. Sel. bibl. to p. 352. Index to p. 359. Acknowledgments. $49.95.

Reviewed by A. William Samii

In November 2001, the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution calling on the Iranian government to abide by its international human rights obligations.' Tehran's Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed the committee's resolution, saying it contained "repetitive, baseless, and false allegations."2

The spokesman added: "Certain countries are making every endeavor to impose a single culture hegemony and a biased interpretation of human rights which is unacceptable and contrary to international norms." Two months earlier, the UN's Special Representative on Iran described "a significant degree of paralysis in the implementing of critically needed human rights improvements."3 In rejecting a similar report six months earlier, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was part of an attempt to impose a "mono-cultural system.114

Reza Afshari's Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism points out that such statements by Tehran are hardly a recent development. By 1980, just one year after the Islamic Revolution, international human rights organizations were expressing concern about Iran, and Iranian diplomats were issuing flat denials (p. 147). In 1984 Iran became one of the few countries to be investigated by a UN country rapporteur - the Special Representative - and since 1996 he has not been allowed to visit the country.

Chapter 17 of Human Rights in Iran examines the UN's "Mixed Results." At the same time that Tehran denies access to the UN Special Representative, it permits other UN officials to visit the country. Iranian diplomats reject UN human rights reports about Iran, but cite adverse reports about human rights in the United States. Iranian diplomats, furthermore, strike deals with their foreign counterparts to gain votes in UN meetings. Many observers would see this as manipulation of the system. But the fact that these officials become aware of international human rights standards could be, in the long run, positive. Moreover, the Iranian government itself established human rights organizations in the 1990s, although they were "mostly smoke-and-mirrors" (p. 279).

Afshari rejects arguments that human rights are not universal and are an attempt to impose Western cultural values at the expense of local cultural tradition (p.

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