Iranian Basij Enters into Human Rights Dialogue

Posted by Joseph Klingler – February 7, 2014 @ 10:26.

The paramilitary Basij Resistance Force has long been a central pillar of support for the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the United States Institute of Peace, the volunteer “people’s militia” was formed in 1980 by the regime’s first leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to help defend the country “in accordance with . . . Islamic criteria.” The group now operates beneath the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and assists with “internal security, law enforcement, special religious or political events and morals policing.” Infamously, the Basij played a key role in suppressing, through actions described as “brutal and predatory,” the so-called Green Movement surrounding Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.

By many accounts, the Basij is no paragon of human rights. But it is precisely this reputation that makes the group’s recent publication of a 27-page report documenting alleged human rights violations by the United States so interesting. Indeed, the report is striking not only in its subject matter, but also in its scope and depth. Adopting the rhetoric of human rights, the Basij address a variety of human rights concerns with U.S. practice, ranging from the treatment of minorities, immigrants and prisoners, to civil liberties, torture, and the use of the death penalty. In so doing, the report buttresses its arguments through references to a number of western rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

While perhaps one-sided in its presentation of certain facts, the report takes itself seriously and can be applauded by those concerned with human rights in the United States and Iran alike. It would be premature to suggest that the organization has internalized all of the norms it now espouses, i.e. that the Basij’s identity and interests have been “reconstituted” in line with international human rights norms. At the same time, however, the report does suggest that the organization—and the larger Iranian regime—would like to present itself as a defender of human rights. To that extent, the Basij might at least be said to have begun a process of “acculturation,” a mechanism of state compliance with legal obligations according to which “identification with a reference group”—in this case, the human rights community—“generates . . . cognitive and social pressures . . . to conform.” But whether the Basij is internalizing norms, acculturating, or merely hypocritically propagandizing, the organization’s decision to engage with human rights discourse in this way is encouraging.