Rouhani’s “Citizens’ Bill of Rights”: Ignoring citizens whose rights have been systematically denied ( Arya Haghgoo)

President Hassan Rouhani has been actively promoting the drafting of a Citizens’ Bill of Rights since he took office in August. On November 26, his office released this much awaited Bill of Rights and he declared it one of the most significant achievements of his first 100 days in office.

Despite the euphoria associated with Rouhani’s election and the high expectations of his government for “hope and moderation,” I must, regrettably, describe the continued discrimination and apartheid-like separation and marginalization of at least one religious minority, the Baha’is – which is, unfortunately, business as usual.

An examination of the “new” Citizens’ Bill of Rights unfortunately reveals little more than the repetition of the seriously flawed terminology and inadequate clauses of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, full of ambiguous generalities and short on substance.  While I am sure many human rights activists and scholars will soon provide a thorough analysis of Rouhani’s Bill of Rights, I would like to focus here on the legal rights of religious minorities.

It appears that this document will do nothing to address the harsh, discriminatory practices of the regime towards religious minorities, nor will it change the legal status of these minorities under the current Constitution and applicable Islamic jurisprudence.

In this long document, which contains over 160 Articles, there are only 3 clauses, in two short sections, devoted to the all-important question of religious minorities, their rights and standing. Article 116(3) and Article 117(3), under the heading, Ethnic and Religious Minorities, provide:

“It is the State’s duty to respect the ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity of citizenry.”

“Observance and participation in religious ceremonies of those religions recognized by the Constitution are allowed [free].”  

The first clause arguably requires the State to respect religious diversity; however, the second makes it clear that by religion or religions is meant only those recognized by the Constitution, i.e., the “people of the Book” – Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians — the same, longstanding, limited definition of religion.  In other words, the Baha’is, the largest non-Muslim religious minority group in Iran, will remain without civil rights and civil liberties.

Of course, this is no surprise for those who know that Baha’is have been the target of systematic discrimination by the Islamic Republic for the past 34 years.  However, for there to be such a blatant contradiction between what Rouhani proclaimed — a citizens’ bill of human rights and the birth of a new era of civil rights and civil liberties for all  — and what he has now specifically proposed is very disturbing.  Either he never intended to protect all religious minorities or he lacks the political support to deliver on his promise.   In any event, his Citizens’ Bill of Rights only protects those who already are, at least in theory, protected under the constitution.  It does nothing to expand protection to those who have been entirely deprived of it.   

It is also extremely important to note that the term “religion” or “faith” does not appear in the enumerated types of discrimination in this Bill of Rights. Article 1 of the Bill states:

“All Iranian Citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, wealth, social status, race, etc., have guaranteed rights under the law.”

It seems that the omission of the term “religion” is intentional, for if it had been specifically included, it would have raised the immediate possibility of eliminating the distinction between the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims currently viewed as upheld by the Constitution.  This Bill of Rights would have also been in violation of Islamic jurisprudence, as determined by the Guardian Council, as this jurisprudence supports religious or faith-based discrimination.  In other words, if religious discrimination were to be mentioned in Article 1, thereby granting rights and legal status to the Baha’is in Iran, together with enhanced status for recognized religious minorities, it would have been in direct contradiction to the Islamic Republic’s system of jurisprudence.  By eliminating religious discrimination from the enumerated types of prohibited discrimination, Rouhani’s Bill of Rights permits, and, indeed, as a practical matter, is likely to guarantee, continued severe discrimination against Baha’is and no improvement in status for other religious minorities. 

Furthermore, Article 4 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic declares all laws and regulations must conform to Islam and Islamic jurisprudence, which creates various categories based upon peoples’ beliefs or religion, namely, Muslims, non-Muslims, and People of the Book, each having different rights and privileges.

If Rouhani wished simply to declare his commitment to upholding and respecting the rights of citizens that, at least in theory, have already been assured under the Constitution, he did so when he was sworn in as President with the duty to uphold the Constitution.  If he wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessors by respecting and enforcing the laws of the land regarding civil rights and liberties, perhaps he could begin by prosecuting those who have been violating these rights, not only of Baha’is, but also of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims.

In any event, he is currently declaring his commitment to nothing more than the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, as interpreted and implemented in the past in a very flawed manner, and is not committing himself to citizens’ civil rights and civil liberties.

In addition, Rouhani’s proposal of a Bill of Rights for those who, in theory, already have them, while ignoring those citizens who have been systematically denied these rights is, at best, a sign of political weakness and, at worst, deeply troubling as an invitation for further persecution of the latter group with impunity.  He has nullified the effectiveness of his Citizens’ Bill of Rights for religious minorities by making glaring omissions and referencing constitutional limitations without any language providing a fresh interpretation of those constitutional provisions.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Rouhani is using the discourse of rights as a shroud to conceal the further institutionalization of oppression.   

Arya Haghgoo is an Iranian Lawyer and Human Rights activist in Washington, DC. He advocates for human rights with particular emphasis on the rights of religious minorities, especially the Baha’is of Iran, whose human rights have been severely violated and abused in that country. 

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