Bachelet urges Iran to focus on addressing water crisis in Khuzestan rather than crushing protests

GENEVA (23 July 2021) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday called on the Iranian authorities to concentrate on taking urgent action to address the chronic water shortage in the province of Khuzestan, rather than using excessive force and widespread arrests to crush the protests about the situation.

“The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the Government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” said Bachelet. “I am extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention.”

Khuzestan Province – where a large number of the 5 million inhabitants belong to Iran’s Arab minority – used to be the country’s main and most reliable source of water. However alleged mismanagement over many years, including the diversion of water to other parts of the country, coupled with nationwide droughts, has drained the province of its precious life-saving resource in a manner that has proved to be unsustainable. In recent months, the Karkheh and Zohreh riverbeds in western Khuzestan have dried up, as has the Hoor-al-Azim wetlands (or Hawizeh Marshes).

As a result, protests over the water shortage and mismanagement erupted on 15 July in several cities across the province, with protesters including children chanting, “I am thirsty, Water is my right,” along with other calls clearly related to the current crisis.

In response, state security forces appear to have reacted with disproportionate force against unarmed and peaceful protesters, leading to the killing of at least four individuals, including one minor, and injuries to several others. In addition, state media has reported that one police officer has been killed. Unconfirmed reports suggest there may have been a higher number of killings, as protests have spread over the past week to at least 20 major towns and cities in Khuzestan, with further protests breaking out in support elsewhere in Iran, including in Tehran and Lorestan province.

“Water is indeed a right*,” the UN Human Rights Chief said. “But instead of heeding the legitimate calls by its citizens for that right to be upheld, the authorities have for the most part concentrated on oppressing those making those calls. The situation is catastrophic, and has been building up for many years. The authorities need to recognize that and act accordingly. Shooting and arresting people will simply add to the anger and desperation.”

“When you hear reports that injured protesters are avoiding hospitals for fear of being arrested, it is an indication of just how bad the situation is,” Bachelet said, stressing that the authorities have an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that any use of force in response to protests is a last resort, strictly necessary and proportionate.”**

While noting that the outgoing President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, recently stated that citizens have a right to express themselves and protest “within the framework of the regulations,” Bachelet pointed out that Iran in general lacks effective channels for people to raise their grievances in any way other than through protests. Severely restricted civic space, lack of participatory processes and lack of a free media make it impossible for people to bring attention to dire situations such as this through any other means. The internet and other forms of communication have been disrupted during the current crisis, and Government officials have been labelling protesters as rioters and secessionists.

“It is never too late to change tack,” she added. “And the Government of Iran desperately needs to change tack, beginning with issuing clear instructions to security forces to abide by international standards on the use of force. It should also take immediate steps to first of all mitigate the impact of the crisis and to put in place policies that can ensure the right to water in Khuzestan in the long term. These policies must be based on consultations with affected populations and take the already deplorable socio-economic situation of Khuzestan province – which extends far beyond the water shortage -- seriously.”


* Access to safe drinking water is recognized as a basic human right “essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” by the United Nations General Assembly, derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has been ratified by Iran. According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” In addition, the Committee (General Comment No. 15 on the right to water), has stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfil” the right to water can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”

** Iran is also a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and is obliged to respect the right to exercise freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Under international law, firearms should only be used to defend against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and intentional lethal use of firearms is only justified when strictly unavoidable to protect life. It is unlawful to use lethal force when there is no threat to life or serious injury.