Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and International Federation of Human Rights in Paris (FIDH) have issued a number of statements on the Iranian government’s suppression of demonstrations and related issues following the June 12, 2009 presidential election.
- Amnesty: 19 publications (8 stories, 4 press releases, 7 urgent action appeals);
- HRW: 5 statements;
- FIDH: 3 press releases.
This represents a major increase in NGO activity and focus on Iran, illustrating the degree to which these “human rights” organizations respond to events, rather than setting their agendas on the basis of independent assessments.
Background: NGOs have generally neglected Iran in their activities and agendas
Despite the repression and denial of human rights by the Iranian regime, these issues have generally received relatively limited attention from the major global NGOs that claim to be active in these areas. For example, while HRW has a large and very active Middle East and North Africa division, until 2005, it devoted relatively few resources to Iran. Following NGO Monitor’s detailed study of HRW’s agenda and resource allocation in the Middle East, and the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005, focus on Iran increased. Still, allegations directed at Israel continued to receive more attention from HRW than Iran in 2006 and 2008. 
Similarly, as NGO Monitor research showed, between 2003 and 2006 FIDH issued twice as many statements and condemnations of Israel than was the case with Iran.
In contrast to HRW and FIDH, Amnesty placed somewhat greater emphasis on Iran in 2006, 2007, and 2008 through “Urgent Action” alerts sent to its members, reflecting Amnesty’s original mission of defending “prisoners of conscience” and “detainees.”
However, if these narrowly focused, low-impact “Urgent Action” items are removed, the coverage of Israel was more intense than Iran’s in 2006 and nearly identical in 2007 and 2008. In terms of in-depth reports, which have the greatest impact, and Wire articles, Amnesty paid less attention to Iran in 2007 and 2008, in comparison to Israel.
In addition, these NGOs have failed to report on antisemitism and incitement promoted by the Iranian regime, or Ahmedinejad’s violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. They have similarly remained silent on Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in Iraq, its funding and logistical support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and its nuclear ambitions threatening all countries in the region.
Iran in 2009
In the first half of 2009, Amnesty, HRW, and FIDH devoted about the same limited attention as in previous years to oppression and the violation of human rights in Iran. Iran was not a high priority for HRW and FIDH, while Amnesty continued to focus on the country’s “curtailments of freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and a high recourse to the death penalty.” Amnesty was the only of the three to publish a statement in anticipation of the election, reflecting its distinct agenda on Iran.
- Amnesty condemned a wide variety of “human rights concerns” in Iran, including unfair trials, juvenile execution, imprisoned journalist Roxanna Saberi, the death penalty, women’s rights, and minority rights.
- HRW also commented on discrimination against Bahais, political prisoners, and flogging.
- FIDH focused on human rights defenders and incommunicado detention.
Following the 12 June 2009 elections, allegations of fraud, mass protests and the violent response, the interest by these NGO superpowers in Iran increased significantly.
- Amnesty statements called for “restraint” and for an end to “attacks on students,” detailed “abuses” by the Basij militia, and demanded that “the deaths of the demonstrators killed...be urgently investigated by an impartial body”
- HRW repeatedly called for the “immediate investigation [into] the deaths” of the protesters and “acts of violence by security forces.”
- FIDH protested “fraudulent confiscation of the election results”, called for new elections “in the presence of international observers”, and a UN special representative on Iran, to examine “recent events in order to establish the responsibilities for those dead and injured during the peaceful protests.”
Iran is one of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes, with a dismal human rights record, but international NGOs have generally paid less attention to Iran than Israel, reflecting their political agendas. The increased attention to Iranian human rights issues and repression, beginning in June 2009, is a positive first step towards correcting this imbalance. In order to restore their claims to leadership and universality in human rights, these NGOs will need to continue to focus sufficient resources on Iran.