In his speech at the United Nations this week, Iranian President Ali Khamenei had a great deal to say about his country's war with Iraq. Unfortunately, he had nothing to say about another compelling topic, and that is the six-year history of grievous human rights violations by the government that he heads. That government's record of abuse has earned it six consecutive condemnations by the U.N. Human Rights Commission and has generated censures by the U.N. General Assembly for two years running.
As president, Khamenei has chalked up a record of some of the most extreme human rights violations in modern history. Among his government's practices in this regard, the exploitation of torture techniques stands out. The U.N. special representative on Iran mentions "64 different forms of physical and psychological torture applied in prisons," and Amnesty International reports that "a recurring image in the many testimonies gathered is of rows of prison detainees sitting on the floor blindfolded with swollen and bleeding feet."
Torture victims have described their ordeals and exposed their scars to U.N. commissions and the press. Every protest has been ignored by Khamenei and his government, and every request from outside sources to investigate Iranian prisons and torture chambers has been rejected.
When called upon by the U.N. General Assembly to account for its practices, the Iranian government's only response has been scorn and ridicule. In the words of Sa'eed Rajai-Khora'assani, Iran's ambassador to the U.N., "We do not pretend to observe human rights standards because we do not base our decisions or judgments on the Declaration of Human Rights. . . . We urge our critics to stop faulting us for violating what we do not accept."
This attitude is underscored by an estimated 70,000 political executions and 140,000 imprisonments. Schools, office buildings and even stables have been used as prisons to contain the overload.
During his six years in office, Khamenei has also presided over war policies that include the bombing of civilian centers, the mobilization of children as troops, the mining of international shipping lanes and a flagrant disregard of his own citizens' lives. The war has so far involved some one million Iranian wounded and a half-million killed.
The U.N. Security Council has issued eight pleas for an end to the carnage. None has visibly influenced the Iranian stance. "As far as we are concerned," we are told, "there is no such thing as a victorious peace." This succinct statement of official policy was further clarified by Khamenei: "This latest commotion to end the war is pointless. . . . I declare that our last word is that the war will continue until the Iraqi regime falls."
Since such a victory has proved elusive on the battlefield, Khamenei's government is waging a war of nerves in the Gulf. From the prayer podium he stresses the vulnerability of smaller Gulf states: "Kuwait's facilities, its capital city and its shipping are within Iranian firing range. . . . We have yet to pressure Kuwait with the means available to us."
Let us hope that the United Nations will insist upon some clarification of the Iranian view on human rights. If, as was said, the Iranian government rejects the principles of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Khamenei should be pressed to explain what principles it accepts. Also, if the Iranian government refuses the latest Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire and the beginning of negotiations to end the war with Iraq, the United Nations should proceed at once to formulate sanctions strong enough to yield some hope of compliance. Had such sanctions been imposed several years ago, the people of Iran and Iraq might have been spared a frightful blood-letting and the Iranian people the terrible repression that the present government imposes. The writer, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard, was a winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1967.