United For Iran: Using Tech and Know-How to Build a Civil Society in Iran

United For Iran hopes to provide tech savvy Iranians with tools to help them combat abuses in their country.

With half of the country owning a smartphone, a civil society NGO wants to give people in Iran the tools they need to effectively stand up to human rights abuses.

Author Mark Newton, 08.08.18

Despite striving to appear more moderate in recent years, the Islamic Republic of Iran is still accused of a wide range of human rights abuses, including violations of women’s rights, political imprisonment and harsh penalties for Iranian crimes such as homosexuality. Such issues are now increasingly at odds with an emerging, young, educated and tech savvy population who wish to express their dissatisfaction at the political status quo. 

Since 2009, a San Francisco based NGO, United For Iran, has aimed to provide these emerging groups with the technological tools and experienced know-how to better mobilise, build their civil society and make their voices heard. In order to achieve this, United For Iran has launched a series of campaigns designed to help the would-be Iranian activist.

Creating Grassroots Tech

One of United For Iran’s most important technological endeavours is helping Iranians to develop smartphone apps to keep people informed, in communication and organised. Often, during times of civil unrest – such as earlier this year – the government’s first response is to clamp down on social media and messaging services. This makes communicating and recording acts of civil liberties violations difficult for activists and ordinary citizens. With this in mind, United For Iran established the IranCubator app contest in 2016 with the aim of leveraging and supporting Iranian developers and activists.

As a result of its first contest, seven apps were developed covering everything from pirate podcasts, to recording incidents of domestic abuse, improving women’s health and providing unbiased information prior to elections. For example, the Hafez app is designed to help activists on the ground by providing updates on human rights news and access to an extensive database of attorneys and experts.

Recording Iran’s Forgotten Prisoners

According to Amnesty International, Iran still regularly and arbitrarily detains and arrests scores of activists for often unclear and poorly defined crimes. Additionally, Iran also regularly executes convicted prisoners, many of which have undergone unfair or unrigorous trials. In order for civil society actors to better combat these issues, United For Iran developed the Iran Prison Atlas in 2012 – a comprehensive database and information center concerning Iranian political prisoners, judges and the judicial system in general. Since its creation, it has provided a wealth of insight into an area which is often marked with ambiguity and a lack of transparency.

Additionally, United For Iran has created a Safe Activism project to help keep activists out of prison in the first place. The Safe Activism: Reducing the Risks and Impact of Arrest campaign combines videos, booklets and infographics to give budding activists the knowledge, tactics and tools they need to safely protest against the Iranian state – including access to legal information and advice from experienced civil campaigners.

All told, the United For Iran project provides a wealth of tools and information to civil actors in Iran. In recent years, Iran has seen an easing of some domestic laws (for example, in 2017 an amendment to the drug offences law that could save hundreds of people from execution) perhaps as a result of it also pursuing a detente with other nations – namely the US – to create the so-called Iranian Nuclear Deal.

Since then, President Trump has announced he will not continue to honour the deal and has recently reinstated full sanctions. This could also lead to reactive domestic developments in Iran, and now, perhaps more than ever, United For Iran’s tools will be pivotal in ensuring Iran continues in the right direction.

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