Iranians have right to shape their own destiny

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2009, 12:00am

Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has agonising decisions to make. A sense of injustice is driving thousands of Iranians on to the streets against supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The order from the top has been delivered loud and clear: demonstrations against the June 12 presidential election result will no longer be tolerated. Security forces are using increasing violence against protests, which are taking place with ever-greater defiance. A critical stage has been reached.

The demonstrations have taken on a life of their own. Like it or not, Mr Mousavi has become the leader of the protest movement. His claim that the polls that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were fraudulent and should be rerun are among a multitude of grievances being voiced against the regime. The opposition leader has to act with caution in formulating and rolling out his strategy so that further bloodshed can be prevented.

There have already been a number of deaths - exactly how many is unknown because of the curbs on domestic and foreign media. Dozens of protesters, opposition figures and journalists have been arrested or detained. Ayatollah Khamenei contends that he is the legitimate, unquestioned leader of Iran. But there are splits in the top legislative body, the Guardians Council, and a power struggle is under way.

Despots rarely compromise when under pressure and the ayatollah is no different; the hardline Revolutionary Guard and militias have joined police in using brutal force to fulfil his orders. Demonstrations by students in 1999 were crushed in a similar manner. But the protests this time are the biggest since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the late shah three decades ago. Mr Mousavi's presence has given them a focus; his declared readiness to become a martyr has added impetus and appears to have swollen the ranks of those willing to take to the streets.

Iranians have a constitutional right to freedom of expression. Their protests have been largely peaceful. The nation is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1975. Iran is required, under the UN-administered law, to recognise and protect key human rights, including peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

The government must allow citizens to voice their concerns openly. It must stop arresting protesters and opponents and free those already detained. The violence being carried out in its name must be halted and the perpetrators prosecuted. To ensure openness and transparency, journalists have to be able to do their work unhindered.

Iranians deserve a better regime than the one they currently have. They have the right and must be allowed to shape their own destiny. Demonstrations are only an element of attaining such a goal. As Mr Mousavi steers the process forward, he must ensure the rules as laid out in the constitution and under international law are strictly adhered to.