Critics of capital punishment have long claimed that the utilization of such measures are inhumane and disregard certain human rights. One state at the center of this debate has been the United States.
Since 1976, when the death penalty was re-enacted in the U.S., America has executed more than 1,400 individuals, all of whom were convicted of wide range of highly evil crimes. However, when compared to the Caspian Five, this number is extremely small.
Across the Caspian one can observe a dire human rights record. According to the 2015 Human Rights Risk Atlas, the five littoral nations can be categorized as holding an “extreme risk” or “high risk” of committing human rights violations. These risk classifications are based upon a scale of 1 to 10, where extreme risk is determined to be 0-2.5 and high risk is 2.5-5.0. Moreover, these classifications are based upon certain criteria which include state repression of assembly, speech, and religion; continued conflict; judicial corruption; torture; executions; and failing to uphold civil rights for workers. Russia and Iran both are categorized as extreme, while Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are categorized as high. Just to put it into perspective the United States currently is considered a ‘medium risk’ (5.0-7.5) country. This is due to human rights violations in the areas of criminal justice, immigration, and national security—the criminal justice criteria include harsh sentencing and capital punishment. In comparison, capital punishment has been outlawed in Russia. However, the nation’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate. This is because the state suppresses the media, internet, and civil society, while at the same time turns a blind eye to the harassment of activists and corrupt legal and economic practices. Now, while capital punishment may be outlawed, Russia’s seemingly systemic human rights violations on multiple levels earn it the title of ‘extreme risk.’ Iran, on the other hand, is a nation currently attempting to gain international legitimacy and have a say in global political dialogue. However, while Western powers, and more specifically the United States, are attempting to engage Iran, the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric compared to its actions on human rights garners well-earned criticism.
Just one year ago Iran carried out the second highest number of executions in the world, trailing just behind China, who was the world’s leading executioner per capita. Despite the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013—a moderate in the eyes of many—and the JCPOA nuclear deal being struck with the United States, Iran’s human rights record has not improved. In fact, its record is now considered to be the worst in the world. For example, between January 2015 and September 2015, the Islamic Republic of Iran carried out public executions by method of hanging on more than 694 individuals, a statistic that a United Nations human rights monitor has called the highest rate of executions per capita within the country in the last 25 years. The majority of these executions were due to a surge in drug-related crime, an offense that is punishable by death within the Islamic Republic. In addition to drug crimes, which accounted for 69 percent of all executions in the first half of 2015, Iranian law employs the death penalty for a variety of offenses. These include threats toward the security of the state, any verbal or physical hostility towards God – also known as Moharebeh – and for any insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. Moharebeh specifically has been frequently utilized by prosecutors as a criminal charge against political dissenters, journalists, activists, and bloggers, of which the Islamic Republic remains the one of the world’s largest incarcerators. However, for a nation that is attempting to gain both political and economic clout on the international stage, it still acts as a repressive government and uses wide state powers as tools of control against its society.
So one must ask, when comparing international standards for human rights, why is there not more international outrage about the rate and number of executions being conducted inside of Iran? Furthermore, how is it that despite U.S. leadership’s knowledge of such dire reality for many Iranian citizens and political prisoners, America continued to pursue diplomatic openings that would remove sanctions and allow Iran to engage the global community freely? Does this not signify that the United States is undermining its own professed prioritization of human rights? For example, the ink had not even dried on President Obama’s historical nuclear agreement when in October 2015 United States citizen and Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian was convicted of espionage in an Islamic court in Iran.
However, if the Iranian regime is content with ruling heavy-handedly over its own citizens and moving against their human rights to the point of becoming the world’s leading executioner, how can Western powers trust the regime to not produce nuclear weapons or not act under false pretenses? Clearly, there seems to be a double-standard based upon certain political or economic advantages as deemed by the United States. And while it is not inherently wrong to engage and participate in developmental discourse, it is wrong to overlook what history has taught: evil deeds should not be discounted in an attempt to establish new positions with so-called moderate officials. We do know that under the Rouhani presidency, Tehran has pledged to become more moderate. But when dissecting the nation’s human rights score sheet, violations have become increasingly systemic. Nevertheless, the passing of the nuclear agreement between the United States and Tehran was a legacy-building move on behalf of President Obama and one that may hold the potential to improve global nuclear security and stability. But with the agreement acting as the sole motivator and center of diplomatic openings, it overlooks and arguably even dismisses human rights as an issue of importance. This fact cannot help but allow the expansion of systemic abuse against human rights within Iran. Whether the JCPOA can be a positive facilitator to improve that record remains to be seen, but this author is highly skeptical.
(*)The opinions expressed in this article are not offered as unemotional objective political commentary but as a liberal critique in the long and storied history of human rights scholarship. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily a reflection of The Caspian Project, its other contributors, or Modern Diplomacy in general.