GENEVA (Reuters) -The U.N. Human Rights Council established a special investigator on Iran on Thursday, a move spearheaded by Washington that will subject Tehran's record to U.N. scrutiny for the first time in nearly a decade.
Activists welcomed the move as historic, underlining the need for a focused investigation into widespread allegations of abuse, including arrests of political opponents and torture.
The 47-member forum, overcoming Iran's objections to a resolution brought by Sweden and the United States, approved it by 22 votes in favor, 7 against and 14 abstentions.
"What we've just witnessed is a real seminal moment for this body with the establishment of a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters.
"Today we've seen the Council able to respond to a chronic, severe human rights violator, which is Iran," she said.
The lack of an investigator on Iran had been a "glaring omission" at the Council which has rapporteurs for countries with poor records including North Korea and Myanmar, she added.
This is the first special rapporteur on a specific country that the U.N. Human Rights Council has set up since its creation nearly five years ago, replacing the Human Rights Commission.
Britain, France and the United States were among those approving the motion, joined by Brazil for the first time in years. China and Russia were among those rejecting the text.
The Council voiced concern at Iran's crackdown on opposition figures and increased use of the death penalty, and called on the Islamic Republic to cooperate with the U.N. envoy to be named to the independent post.
POOR TRACK RECORD
Iran has a poor track record of cooperation and according to U.N. officials and diplomats, has not allowed any U.N. human rights experts to visit since 2005, when hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected, defeating the relatively moderate Mohammad Khatami.
"It would obviously be important for the new special rapporteur to have access to Iran," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.
Even if the new rapporteur is not allowed into Iran, they would still be expected to contact the government frequently about allegations and produce an annual report incorporating testimony from activists and alleged victims of abuse.
Donahoe said that the United States and other countries were deeply concerned that respect for fundamental human rights in Iran had "deteriorated dramatically in recent years."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said earlier this month Iran had intensified its crackdown on opponents and executions of drug traffickers, political prisoners and juvenile criminals.
In a report, he also cited cases of amputations, floggings and the continued sentencing of men and women to death by stoning for alleged adultery.
Iran's ambassador Seyed Mohammad Sajjadi had called for the resolution to be rejected, saying Tehran was committed to upholding human rights but believed in "self-monitoring."
He accused the United States of being "the main organizer of this campaign" and said that Washington's membership in the council since September 2009 had proved to be a "great setback."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lobbied for creating the post in a speech to the Council days after Washington slapped new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities.
Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which links Muslim countries, said on Thursday: "As a matter of principle, the OIC does not support country mandates which we believe politicize the debate and are in fact counter-productive."
But the Baha'i religious minority, which had seven leaders in Iran sentenced to prison last year for alleged espionage after a trial it said was unfair, welcomed the vote as historic.
The now defunct U.N. Human Rights Commission had special rapporteurs on Iran from 1984 to 2002.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)