What is Rouhani seeking to achieve with his Citizens’ Rights Charter?

Barely out from the printing press, the Iranian president’s long-promised Citizens’ Rights Charter is coming under fire, and not just for coming five months before his bid for re-election.

al-monitor Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses an audience about the ending of economic sanctions following the nuclear agreement, Yasuj, Iran, Aug. 14, 2016. Photo by Facebook/Pres.Rouhani.

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rights, mahmoud ahmadinejad, judiciary, iranians, iranian society, iranian elections, iranian constitution, hassan rouhani

Dec 28, 2016

The long-awaited Citizens’ Rights Charter promised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was finally unveiled Dec. 19. After the signing ceremony of the charter, a text message from the president was sent to millions of cellphones in Iran. It read, “Noble people of Iran, let’s get more familiar with our rights and powerfully protect them.”

The charter was one of Rouhani’s key campaign promises during the 2013 presidential elections. Following his victory in the polls, Rouhani tasked Elham Aminzadeh, the current presidential adviser on citizenship rights, with drawing up the charter. Within 100 days of taking office, on Nov. 26, an initial draft of the document was made available to the public through the government’s official website. The idea, according to Rouhani, was that the public and experts would review it and contribute their ideas.

The initial draft was, however, met with much criticism, the most important of which were its lack of enforceability and the fact that it was a collection of laws already found in Iran’s legal system that related to citizens’ rights, but were too dispersed and never heeded — critiques that are still being made after the publishing of the final draft.

To alleviate these concerns, Rouhani issued a statement to governmental organizations on Dec. 19. He called for the precise implementation of the charter, saying, “[I] have prepared the necessary bill regarding citizens’ rights and will present it to parliament. I am confident that other [legislative and judicial] powers will cooperate to prepare the grounds for its implementation.” But what is the significance of Rouhani’s Citizens’ Rights Charter, which according to experts is merely a collection and adaptation of existing laws and lacks any guarantee of being enforced?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian lawyer Nemat Ahmadi highlighted that the document was neither a law passed by parliament nor an executive bill passed by the Cabinet. Ahmadi said, “It is called a charter and does not need to be enforced. Its goal is to be informative, which it has been. Also, it is good for laws to be reiterated so that people can see what rights they have based on the constitution and … which [of their rights] are not being implemented.”

Iranian law, and particularity the constitution, has always been attentive to the issue of citizens’ rights. However, the term “citizens’ rights” was only first used in Iran’s legal system on April 8, 2004, by then-judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi who issued a 14-point “Charter on Citizens’ Rights” of his own.

The measure, which was aimed at “protecting the natural rights of accused individuals, preventing different forms of torture or mistreatment by judiciary officers, and observing the law during interrogations, arrests, confiscation of property and unwarranted seizure of the accused individual’s finances” was communicated by Shahroudi to the judiciary, police and intelligence officials. On May 4, 2004, it was ratified by parliament under what came to be known as “the Law on Respecting Legitimate Freedoms and Protecting Citizens’ Rights.” The day after, it was approved by the Guardian Council.

Yet this measure was also criticized for its lack of executive guarantees and for limiting individuals’ rights to a lawful trial. It also came under fire for never being truly observed. In fact, the judiciary — which is the organization tasked with implementing the law in Iran — had come up with the initiative due to concerns expressed by civil and political activists in Iran regarding the violation of citizens’ rights. Given the government’s limited powers over the judiciary, these concerns remain — even following the announcement of the new charter.

Ahmadi, however, believes that the primary organization that is guilty of violating citizens’ rights in past years is in fact the executive branch. He said that "the government’s subordinate organizations” are responsible for these violations, but that “some citizens’ rights are also being violated by the judiciary branch.”

Yet he emphasized, “But at this moment, when we have no power over the judiciary, security and intelligence organizations, it is the best opportunity to hold the government accountable. For example, the violation of rights regarding the formation of unions and their activities or the continued shutdown of the press association of Iran, and so on … have nothing to do with the judiciary or legislature. These are part of the executive branch’s responsibilities. In fact, this charter is a great pretext to question the administration about whether citizens’ rights are abused by governmental organizations. We have to use this charter, and when necessary, ask the government if it accepts its own Citizens’ Rights Charter.”

With parliament’s ratification of Iran's fourth Economic, Social and Cultural Development Plan on Sept. 1, 2004, the drawing up of a Citizens’ Rights Charter was declared as one of the government’s responsibilities. Indeed, Article 100 of this law charges the government with formulating such a charter and having it approved by the relevant authorities in order to “enhance human rights, lay the foundation for growth and advancement, and to create a feeling of personal and social security in society.”

During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), no attempt was made to draw up such a charter and the only thing his government’s legal department did in this respect was to prepare a booklet with a collection of laws and regulations on citizens’ rights.

Ahead of the 2013 presidential vote, the drawing up of a charter — one of the key demands of Rouhani’s supporters — became one of the incumbent president’s main election promises: a pledge that took three years to fulfill and only months before his bid for re-election. As such, the timing of the unveiling of the charter has led to speculations about whether the move is merely propaganda.

However, according to Ahmadi, the Citizens’ Rights Charter is nonetheless “an edited and beautiful” text that is seen as one of the Rouhani administration’s positive achievements. “On the one hand, by announcing this charter through a widespread text message, Rouhani familiarized people with their rights and I hope that the people will demand their rights. In this vein, I see this as a positive step. On the other hand, throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani has either been part of the power structure or in the security apparatus and thus knows the intricacies of working in Iran as well as the relevant responsibilities and restrictions. The reason for writing this charter is to remind the powerful but yet divided sources [of power] in the country that they need to be aware of people’s rights,” he said.

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