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Iran’s racial discrimination against Ahwazis through the eyes of international organisations


In the wake of World War Two, the field of international human rights law developed rapidly, beginning with the adoption of the United Nations’ General Assembly Resolution 217 which led to the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948.

The UDHR is intended to guarantee the most basic human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, for every human being. Since the declaration is not a legally binding instrument, however, the international community has created various human rights treaties intended to encourage states to enforce the provisions of international human rights law in their domestic legislation. These multilateral instruments have initiated new international mechanisms of observation, control and maintenance, adjudication and documentation for the purpose of realising the rights in question.

As a UN member state, Iran has ratified five of the nine core international human rights treaties, committing itself in principle to protecting and promoting human rights for every individual in its jurisdiction regardless of variations in race, language, gender, colour, religion and other distinguishing features. By endorsing these treaties, Iran has agreed that its governing authorities should not prevent any citizen from benefiting from the rights granted under each treaty. As a signatory, Iran is also bound to protect all citizens, including ethnically non-Persian minorities and religious minorities from any violation of their rights by third-party bodies like investment firms or other companies working in areas involving natural resources such as oil, gas and water, or in any other areas that could affect citizens’ environment and quality of life. In addition, the state is obliged to take positive steps to provide the foundations for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights (OHCHR, 2018).

The UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was the first human rights treaty signed by Iran on 8 March 1967 and ratified on 29 August 1968. According to the analysis of human rights experts, including Dr David Keane and Professor Joshua Castellino, ‘It could therefore be asserted that the ICERD is the most appropriate treaty for what can broadly be termed minority rights.’
The ICERD guarantees protection and provides an umbrella for various groups including ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. The significance of its provisions, the general recommendations and the elaboration of its articles illustrate that the Convention is in fact an international minority rights treaty. In addition, providing that the state wholeheartedly complies with ICERD, ethnic and religious minorities should be able to enjoy their rights more freely and without any discrimination (Keane, 2016, pp. 275 and 294-95).

The ICERD was the first of the core human rights treaties to elaborate upon the equality and non-discrimination clauses throughout its provisions. The main articles of this convention offer a definition of discrimination, explain aspects of the main areas of government accountability, and determine the scope of the implementation of the principles of equality. The ICERD also provides legal remedies and educational programs for the specific purpose of eliminating discrimination.

Despite fifty years passing since Iran gave its formal assent to the ICERD, however, there has been no notable improvement in the systemic discrimination against ethnic groups in the country, including the Ahwazi people. It should be noted that Iran specifically issued a reservation to Article 14 of ICERD which grants permission to individuals to file complaints against the Iranian state for alleged violations of their human rights. This reservation means that Ahwazis and other minorities in Iran facing racial discrimination on a daily basis have no way to present their grievances to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the ICERD in Iran and other member states. Details of the constant discrimination against Ahwazis can be examined in depth in the reporting and communication documents between the state of Iran and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

In the most recent report by the Iranian government to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) from 2008, the government included Khuzestan (northern Ahwaz), Bushehr and Hormozgan among the most undeveloped provinces in Iran (CERD, 2008, para 28 and Table 1). Despite this, successive Iranian governments have denied the existence of an Arab population in Bushehr and Hormozgan; this omission is widely viewed as a deliberate strategy on the regime’s part to mislead the committee about the real population of Arabs in Iran.

While the government’s report states that holding book fairs and literary events is amongst the essential activities to support and promote a culture of book-reading among ethnic minorities, no such events have been approved in Ahwaz, as the information provided by the state confirms. With regard to freedom of expression and of the press, Arabs face the worst discrimination in Iran. For instance, of the 71 publications in minority languages approved by the regime, including newspapers, magazines and periodicals, not one is in Arabic, with Ahwazis having no media representation of Arab culture or identity. The publication and distribution of any Arabic periodicals in universities and other institutions are extremely restricted, supposedly for security reasons (CERD, 2008, para 72-76). The CERD report also highlighted the insufficient nature of the information it had received from the government concerning the realisation of the Convention’s objectives, particularly regarding economic and social indicators about the different ethnic groups in Iran’s population (CERD, 2010, para 3). These points cast grave doubt on the credibility and reliability of the data supplied by the Iranian state and on the extent to which the CERD committee can depend on the veracity of this information.

The CERD report also expressed dissatisfaction with the details provided by the government concerning the promotion of ethnic minority languages, insisting that Iran should undertake tangible steps in conformity with Article 5 of the Convention by providing opportunities for children from ethnic minorities to have access to education in their mother tongues. In response to the CERD queries, the government claimed, unconvincingly, that obtaining and providing information concerning the racial and ethnic composition of Iran is complicated. The CERD rejected this reasoning, pointing out these difficulties are not unique and information on ethnic demography can be obtained simply by including a self–identification question on ethnicity in the population census. In questioning the government’s response, the CERD also noted the incompatibility between the definition of racial discrimination provided by Article 19 of Iran’s Constitution and Article 1(1) of ICERD. The CERD report stated that the definition contained in Article 19 ‘does not explicitly cover the forms of racial and ethnic discrimination prohibited under the Convention’ (CERD, 2010, para 6).

Article 1(1) of ICERD reads: ‘In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life’ (ICERD, 1965). The definition of discrimination under Article 19 of Iran’s Constitution, meanwhile, is not comprehensive or clear, stating: ‘All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege’ (Iranian Constitution, 1979).

According to the CERD’s observations, women from an ethnic minority background, including Ahwazi women, may suffer doubly from discrimination in Iran as a result of both their gender and their ethnicity. The report also criticized the lack of compelling measures by official bodies in Iran to combat the routine statements of racial discrimination and incitement to hatred by government officials and in the media against non-Persian ethnic minorities. Furthermore, the committee echoed the condemnation of restrictions imposed on the enjoyment of political, economic, social and cultural rights of the peoples, including Ahwazi Arabs, and the low level of their participation in public life (CERD, 2010, para 6-17). It should be noted that Iran has not yet submitted its twentieth, twenty-first or twenty-second periodic reports to the CERD, which were due on January 4, 2013.

As many Ahwazi activists and writers have noted, racial discrimination against Arabs is an established and systematic practice in Iranian literature and media at every level, by the Iranian elite and leading intellectuals as well as in everyday communications. Explaining the level of discrimination, Yousef Azizi Bani Torouf, General Secretary of the Center for Combating Racism and Discrimination against Arabs in Iran stated that ‘Arab music, customs, theatre, books and newspapers are banned or semi-banned. The non-Arab  minority in the (Ahwaz) region has 100 per cent control of the press, which avoids Arab issues.’ In addition, 80 per cent of management-level positions are occupied by ethnically non-Arab individuals in the Arab-majority region of Ahwaz, with only 20 per cent of these posts going to the Arab people (Bani Torouf, 2013). This is one illustration of the institutionalised discrimination against Ahwazi people that has not yet been acknowledged, let alone combated or resolved, by the Iranian authorities.

The Iranian government’s own statistics indicate that in the last five years alone, at least 200,000 people have emigrated from the Ahwaz region as a result of a number of different factors, including environmental pollution from factories and industrial activities; the absence of adequate employment opportunities for young people; a lack of job-creation and investment initiatives, and inefficient local management, mainly from non-Arab ethnic minorities resettled in the Arab-majority region with the help of the central government (Iran Wire, 2018).

In addition to these problems, according to the indicators on education, Ahwaz is considered one of the most educationally disadvantaged provinces in Iran, with the highest percentage of children deprived of education in all the country’s regions and the highest percentage of teacher shortages; the region is also in third place nationally in terms of illiteracy rates. According to the government’s statistics, 11,614 children are deprived of education in Ahwaz province as a result of government funding shortages, a lack of proper infrastructure, the emigration of skilled teachers, and increasing marginalisation of the population there. A primary factor in exacerbating this educational deprivation is the fact that Arab children are forced to study and learn in the Farsi language and are actively restricted from education in their Arabic language, the native tongue in the Arab-majority region (Iran Wire, 2018).

Due to this systematic discrimination, Ahwazi Arab people in Iran also encounter a multiplicity of other problems, including economic hardships such as underdevelopment and marginalisation which lead to a cycle of poverty, illiteracy and emigration of the population from their villages and towns to different parts of the country. Although the vast majority of Iran’s oil and gas reserves (over 90 per cent of the total) are located in Ahwazi territories, the people face open discrimination in employment, in this field as in others, and see no benefit from the state revenues attained from the sale of their resources, particularly in comparison with provinces with a majority Persian population such as Isfahan, Kerman and Yazd, which receive a massively disproportionate share of that wealth (Burnside, 2014).

Other severe forms of state discrimination noted against Ahwazis are ‘the confiscation of land and the establishment of settlements, not being compensated for loss of land, restrictions on participation in government, restrictions on access to education, deportation, and the destruction of property’ (UK Home Office, 2018).

In its ‘Iran 2017 Human Rights Report’, the US Department of State stated that Ahwazis are disproportionately targeted by the government and are subject to ‘arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse,’ as well as ‘political and socioeconomic discrimination’ (US Department, 2017, pp. 39).

In conclusion, although the Iranian state is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which covers all aspects of combating racial discrimination within a state territory, in practice no progress has been achieved in terms of the enjoyment of human rights for Ahwazi people without discrimination and on the basis of an equal footing with the ethnically Persian majority. Ahwazis face systemic discrimination in all areas of their daily lives and the Iranian state is reluctant or simply unwilling to take positive steps to realise the provisions of the ICERD to respect, protect and promote the human rights of the Ahwazi people.

By Abdulrahman Hetteh, a PhD Candidate in the field of international law and human rights. Hetteh is focusing on self-determination and ending the ethnonational persecution of the Ahwazi Arab people in Iran. Hetteh tweets under @AHetteh 


Bani Torouf, Y. (2013). “Discrimination against Arabs in Iran is institutionalised”. 16 May. Accessed 22 July 2018, <http://www.ahwaznews.tv/2013/05/discrimination-against-arabs-in-iran-is.html>.

Burnside, J. (2014). Country Information Demonstrating the Persecution of Arab Iranian Asylum Seekers. 29 April. Accessed 22 July 2018, <http://www.julianburnside.com.au/?s=arab+iranian>.

Home Office. (2018). Country Policy and Information Note, Iran: Ahwazis and Ahwazi political groups. 6 June. Accessed 23 July 2018, <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/714945/Iran_-_Ahwazis_-_CPIN_-_v1.0__June_2018_.pdf>.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). (1965). GA Res 2106 (XX), 21 December 1965.

Iran (the Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989.

Iran Wire. (2018). Khuzestan; Province of discrimination against Arabs. 3 July. Accessed 22 July 2018, <https://iranwire.com/fa/features/26694>.

Keane, D and Castellino, J. (2016). Is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination the De Facto Minority Rights Treaty? In: C. Buckley, A. Donald, and P. Leach, eds., Towards Convergence in International Human Rights Law: Approaches of Regional and International Systems, Brill/Martinus Nijhoff.

OHCHR. (2018). International Human Rights Law. Accessed 20 July 2018, <https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/InternationalLaw.aspx>.

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). (2010). Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the Convention: Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Islamic Republic of Iran. CERD/C/IRN/18-19. 20 September 2010.

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). (2008). Reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the convention: International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination: Eighteenth and nineteenth periodic reports of States parties due in 2006: Addendum: Islamic Republic of Iran. CERD/C/IRN/20. 7 November 2008.

United States Department of State. (2017). Iran 2017 Human Rights Report. Accessed 23 July 2018, <https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277485.pdf>.


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