UN Experts Take Initiative to Serve Justice for the Victims of Iran’s 1988 Massacre


Recent publication of a letter by seven UN human rights experts that was originally sent to the Iranian government in September drew widespread international attention. In it, the UN experts highlighted the regime’s lack of cooperation with previous inquiries into a more than 30-year-old massacre of political prisoners – an event widely reputed to the Islamic Republic’s worst single crime, and one of the worst crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in the world during the latter half of the 20th century.

This is a meaningful shift in the tone of international communications regarding the massacre. In the past, the predominant tactics within the international community involved casual outreach to the Iranian regime, on the expectation that its officials would launch their own investigations into past wrongdoing. That expectation required the originators of those tactics to ignore the fact that many of the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre still hold powerful positions within the regime, including at the head of both the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.

This fact was explicitly acknowledged by the signers of the recently published letter, thereby strengthening the perception that formerly popular, naïve tactics may be coming to an end. Still, the vast majority of the letter’s content merely re-stated information that was already widely known, even if under-reported.

The will for such an investigation, and for most other actions, has been sorely lacking throughout the past three decades. The letter notes that in the immediate aftermath of the massacre of political prisoners, the UN General Assembly placed references to it into the text of its latest resolution on Iran’s human rights crisis. But the letter goes on to say that nothing was done to follow up on this formal condemnation, and that “the failure… to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran.”

This statement came only a few paragraphs after a section of the letter in which the human rights experts focused attention on six specific cases of persons who were secretly executed on orders from “death commissions” between July and September 1988. The letter identifies those cases as “illustrative” of the phenomenon whereby authorities issue inaccurate or incomplete death certificates as a way of obscuring the legacy of the massacre and creating additional problems for those who dare to seek information about the deceased.

Of course, the passages dealing with those cases also identify some of the defining circumstances behind them, including the reasons why the political prisoners were targeted for execution. In each case, the death commission’s judgment was based on the prisoner’s supposed affiliation with opposition groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), which remains the country’s leading opposition group for more than 30 years after having been the prime target of the 1988 massacre.

During that time, the PMOI has made its own efforts to keep international attention upon unresolved issues related to the massacre. The group and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), have also presented copious evidence supporting essential facts of the case, including the fact that after roughly three months of systematic executions the death toll rose to about 30,000.

This shocking statistic should be sufficient to motivate the UN and its member states to undertake the long-sought investigations. But since this has not happened yet, it is increasingly clear that other tactics are needed. The authors of the recently published statement may have recognized this need when they resolved to draw attention to the six specific cases involving Ali Ashgar Zighami, Ghorban Ali Shokri, Sayed Morteza Mirmohammadi, Heibatollah Moinee, Mehdi Gharaiee, and Asghar Mahboub.

On their own, those six names are merely a drop in the bucket where the 1988 massacre is concerned. At the same time, these or any other names help to humanize the massacre’s victims, especially in light of the fact that their families are still suffering the effects of a crime against humanity for which no one has ever faced accountability. The letter purported to be bringing the six cases to the attention of the Iranian government, but it is likely the actual intended audience lay to the West.

If the letter proves effective with its tactic of highlighting a few victims among many, then that tactic ought to be taken up in order to motivate international investigations into any number of human rights abuses the Iranian regime has undertaken in the 32 years since the massacre of political prisoners.

Amnesty International welcomed the initiative of the UN experts and described it as a “turning point”. The group’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Eltahawy, described the UN experts’ communication as “a momentous breakthrough. It marks a turning point in the long-standing struggles of victims’ families and survivors, supported by Iranian human rights organizations and Amnesty International, to end these crimes and obtain truth, justice and reparation.” She went on to emphasize that, “Top UN human rights experts have now sent an unequivocal, and long overdue, message: the ongoing crimes of mass enforced disappearances resulting from the secret extrajudicial executions of 1988 can no longer go unaddressed and unpunished.”

As other human rights organizations expressing similar sentiments, governments, and decision-makers, especially those in Europe, are also expected to express their support to the demands of the UN experts. To this end, the view expressed by the USAssistant Secretary Robert Destro is very encouraging. In his tweets on December 10, on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, Destro wrote: “The United States echoes the UN’s call for an independent investigation into mass disappearances and summary executions in Iran in 1988… We urge the international community to hold the regime accountable to the UN’s demands.” Hope this will be copied by the Europeans in a more meaningful mannerwith practical steps.

Sourosh Aboutalebi
Sourosh Aboutalebi
Political science researcher with special expertise on Iranian affair


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