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Countries worldwide consider how to help protesters in Iran

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

While young Iranians continue two months of street protests, the U.S. and other countries are looking at whether there are things they can do to support their demands for more freedom. The United Nations Human Rights Council is discussing it today in Switzerland. Beth Van Schaack, who heads the State Department's Global Criminal Justice Office, says that it's a step in the right direction.

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BETH VAN SCHAACK: We know that young people are really in the lead here and that young people have borne the brunt of this crackdown. The Human Rights Council has not in the past really focused its attention in a laser way on Iran. And the recent events have finally sort of woken that institution up.

MARTÍNEZ: But what can the international community really do? Joining us to talk about all this is NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, so first of all, tell us about this meeting in Geneva.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: So they voted to set up a group that can kind of sift through the evidence of human rights violations in Iran and gather material that could eventually be used in trials. There have been lots of reports of violations. These protests began over the death in custody of a young Iranian woman back in September. And activists say several hundred Iranians have been killed since then, including many teenagers. There have been thousands of people arrested, reports of torture, reports of executions and lots of online video evidence. I talked to Iranian American humans right lawyer Gissou Nia, and she told me that a U.N. fact-finding team could help verify these videos and reports. Take a listen.

GISSOU NIA: Having a dedicated team that can do that and sort of put the imprint of an international, independent investigative process is really key, in my view.

KELEMEN: And she says that would give the world a clearer picture of what's happening in Iran and can help shape the international response.

MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. and Europe have also been imposing sanctions on Iranian officials that are involved in the crackdown. Is there any more they can do?

KELEMEN: Yeah. There were actually more names added to a U.S. sanctions list just this week. And that will likely continue. There were also some other kind of more symbolic things that can be done to isolate Iran diplomatically. Many Iranian women and their supporters abroad want Iran kicked off the U.N. Commission on Women, for instance. The U.S. says it's working on that. There's going to be a meeting in New York in early December to discuss ways to get Iran off that commission or at least suspended from it.

MARTÍNEZ: But most of these things are - what? - symbolic, so why not do more?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the U.S. is working with tech companies, for instance, to help Iranians communicate with each other and get around internet restrictions. There's always a danger, though, that this kind of direct support could backfire and put protesters at even more risk because Iranian leaders always accuse the U.S. and Israel of fomenting unrest in the country. They call these protests riots. And activists say that's one reason why it's important to bring these issues up at the U.N. and get non-Western countries on board to pressure Iran.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, before the protest, the big question was whether the U.S. and other world powers and Iran would revive the Iran nuclear deal. And that's aimed at preventing Iran from making nuclear weapons. Where does the nuclear diplomacy with Iran fit into all this?

KELEMEN: Well, Iran's been making major advances to its nuclear program. And the White House says it's watching all that with deep concern. The U.S. still thinks the best way to contain Iran's nuclear program is through diplomacy. But it says Iran has been adding too many demands. And the world's focus now is on the protesters.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.