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The Iranian Dictatorship and a U.N. Expert’s Double Standards

Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, waits for a news conference to start in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 5, 2018. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

The U.N. human-rights system’s top expert on extrajudicial and summary executions believes that the U.S. targeted killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani is partly to blame for Tehran’s downing of a civilian airliner and its violence against demonstrators.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N.-appointed human-rights official, tweeted her comments yesterday, on the anniversary of the killing. Her posts mostly recapitulated a legal argument that she’s previously made about the legality of such drone strikes. But Callamard’s analysis also lends itself to some specious claims.

Describing the aftermath of the attack and noting that worst-case scenarios of military escalation did not materialize, she writes, “While the worst in terms of a global conflict was avoided, worse struck nevertheless.”

She cites the Ukrainian passenger plane that was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the aftermath of the Soleimani killing and the fact that “A month later, Iranians were killed, and hundreds arrested, as they demonstrated for accountability and truth from the Iranian leadership for this attack.”

It’s worth adding some context to this story. The Iranian government vigorously denied that it blew up the jet — a government spokesperson said that the Trump administration’s claims that the Iranian military group was involved amounted to a “big lie” that added “insult to the injury of the bereaved families.” Three days later, Tehran reversed course, admitting that the missile attack responsible for the deaths of 176 people was an unintentional accident. In response to the government’s initial coverup, Iranians took to the streets in protest, and security forces killed demonstrators.

Callamard misses the point entirely: The Iranian regime, not the United States, is squarely to blame. It turned a horrific accident into a malicious lie into a crackdown on university students protesting its falsehoods. It’s not just, as she writes, that “those demonstrations have been crushed in blood,” it’s that the Iranian government crushed them. (She also cites a crackdown on anti-government protests in Iraq as another second-order effect of the Soleimani strike.)

But the villain here, in Callamard’s view, and therefore in the eyes of the U.N.’s human-rights apparatus, is Washington, not just for illegally killing Soleimani but also for setting off this chain of events.

“So yes, there was no international war,” she writes. “But many paid the highest price, and many more continue, in the name of justice, to risk the same. And didn’t the US attack and its aftermath hammer yet another nail in the coffin of international law and international rule?”

To the contrary, the U.S. government offered its own plausible legal justification to target Soleimani. That may not satisfy Callamard, but it makes for a strong legal argument that it was undertaken in self defense. A stronger legal argument, anyway, than for the Iranian government’s mistreatment of demonstrators.

To her credit, Callamard, has been a constant voice calling for accountability for the grisly assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet even this goes to highlight her selective advocacy for human rights, particularly when taken with the case of Ruhollah Zam, a reporter lured to and abducted from Iraq and executed in December by the Iranian authorities. Callamard last month signed onto a perfunctory statement condemning the act — but she hasn’t said a word about it online, even as human-rights groups appealed to her in the months leading up to Zam’s execution.

This U.N. expert blames the United States for Iran’s bloodletting, while mustering a bare-minimum condemnation of the Iranian government for murdering a journalist.

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