Iran condemns German ambassador’s tweets as interference in internal affairs

Published: 13 July 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 31 August 2020, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the two death sentences against 27-year-old Iranian champion wrestler Navid Afkari, who had been convicted of killing a security guard during violent anti-government protests and demonstrations over economic and social hardship in August 2018. Navid Afkari had also been found guilty of “waging war against the State” for participating in the protests. His brothers, Vahid and Habib, who also took part in the protests, were sentenced to 54 and 27 years’ imprisonment, respectively, and 74 lashes each. According to their family and human rights organisations, all three were tortured into making false confessions, a claim denied by Iran’s judiciary.

The ruling by Iran’s Supreme Court caused international outcry. On 10 September 2020, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance at the Federal Foreign Office, Bärbel Kofler, issued the following statement on the death sentence imposed on Navid Afkari:

“I am shocked by the case of Navid Afkari and his two brothers. Once again, three young people in Iran have been sentenced to draconian punishments for protesting against the Government.

I call on those responsible in Iran to suspend the death sentence against Navid Afkari and to enable him and his brothers, Vahid and Habib, to have a fair trial in keeping with the principles of the rule of law. This includes not forcing confessions through torture!

These cases show that the human rights situation in Iran is getting continually worse and falling further and further below the international obligations into which the country has entered.

The German Government is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, as it is a brutal and inhumane form of punishment. Together with our EU partners, we have been working intensively for many years to bring about the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.”

Navid Afkari was executed by hanging on 12 September 2020. The same day, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy tweeted:

“Deeply shocked by the execution of Navid Afkari in Iran. It is not acceptable that the principles of the rule of law are ignored in order to silence opposing voices. Navid’s two brothers who are still in prison need our solidarity now!”

On 13 September 2020, the German ambassador in Tehran, Hans-Udo Muzel, retweeted the above statement of the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy in Persian and English on his official Twitter account, adding:

“Amb. Hans: German Government Human Rights Commissioner Baerbel Kofler issued the following statement on the shocking fate of Iran’s world class athlete Navid Afkari. We share the grief of his family, friends and the international athletic community.”

“Amb. Hans: Clear message of German Government Human Rights Commissioner, and German athletic organizations saddened at the fate of Iran’s wrestling champion Navid Afkari.”

The German athletic organization called on the International Olympic Committee and United World Wrestling to impose sanctions on Iran over the execution.

On 14 September 2020, the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin also condemned the execution. In a statement, a spokesperson said:

“We are deeply shocked by the fact that the death sentence against the athlete Navid Afkari was carried out last Saturday in Iran. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, who are joined by the international athletic community in mourning his death. The Federal Government most strongly condemns this execution, which was carried out despite international protests and requests that it be suspended. There were considerable doubts as to whether the trial was in keeping with the rule of law, and we take the accusations very seriously that Navid Afkari is said to have confessed only after he was subjected to torture. The German Government made repeated diplomatic efforts at the highest level in Tehran urging that the death sentence against Navid Afkari be suspended.

The German Government places utmost importance on the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the German Government has a clear position on the death penalty, namely that it is a cruel and inhumane form of punishment that we reject in all circumstances. We demand that all persons being held in connection with the protests in Iran be given a trial in accordance with the rule of law, and that no more death penalties be imposed or executed.”

The German position was also made clear to the Iranian ambassador in Berlin in a meeting at the Foreign Office on 18 September 2020.

Iran, on the other hand, summoned the German ambassador to Tehran to protest the German embassy’s undiplomatic move to interfere in Iran’s domestic judicial affairs by sending a series of tweets. During the meeting on 14 September 2020, the Director General for Europe at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the “unusual diplomatic action of the German Embassy” and told the German ambassador that “interference in the laws, regulations and independent judicial procedures of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in no way acceptable and tolerable, and the German Embassy is expected to recognize the limits of its diplomatic duties and adhere to them.” Two days later, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry referred again to the tweets by the German ambassador, saying:

“As the interventionist remarks of the German ambassador to Tehran on Iran’s internal affairs as well as on judicial issues were strongly rejected and condemned, naturally, this behaviour will not be tolerated by any other embassy.”

Germany and Iran are parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR). Article 41(1) of the Convention provides that diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving State. Iran considered the German ambassador’s tweets as interference in the country’s “independent judicial procedures”. It is true that interference with an ongoing judicial process is generally seen as an interference in the internal affairs of the receiving State. In the present case, however, the judicial process had already come to an end. The tweets rather conveyed criticism of the outcome of the judicial process, implicitly accusing Iran and the Iranian judiciary of violating principles of the rule of law. Article 41(1) VCDR does not establish a blanket ban on all criticism of the receiving State. In the Barcelona Traction case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) pointed out that “the principles and rules concerning the basic rights of the human person” give rise to obligations towards the international community as a whole. By their very nature these obligations are the concern of all States. The ICJ continued: “In view of the importance of the rights involved, all States can be held to have a legal interest in their protection; they are obligations erga omnes.” The human rights situation in a country is thus no longer a purely internal affair. Ambassadors are therefore entitled to raise issues of fair trial and concerns about the securing of confessions by torture with the receiving State.

It is less clear, however, whether such criticism and concerns over human rights may be communicated via Twitter or other social media directly to the population of the receiving State. Ambassadors must tread a fine line in balancing their right to raise concerns over human rights and their duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving State. Public criticism via Twitter, translated by the embassy into the language of the receiving State and addressed mainly to local followers, may still be considered to fall on the interference side of the line. Thus, when the Saudi Ambassador in Iraq in June 2016 tweeted about Iran’s role in Iraq this was perceived as an interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. Similarly, when the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh in August 2018 translated into Arabic a tweet by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland condemning the arrest of two human rights activists in Saudi Arabia and retweeted it to its approximately 12,000 followers in the country, the Saudi Government recalled its ambassador, barred the Canadian envoy from returning and placed a ban on a new trade deals. The tweet was considered a break with diplomatic norms and protocol and an interference in the Kingdom’s internal affairs. While a small group of Western States, including Germany, may consider Twitter, blogs, and other social media as just another means of communicating their foreign policy objectives, the majority of States still prefers the traditional, more discreet means of diplomacy. Irrespective of its legality, one may also wonder whether “diplomacy by twitter” actually improves the human rights situation or resolves other grievances in the receiving States.

Category: Diplomatic and consular relations

DOI: 10.17176/20220627-172816-0

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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