Iranian protesters march in northern Tehran on June 28, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

In our new, multi-polar world, much has been written about South Africa's role not only as a regional power and deal-broker but also as a leading player in the global south.

In the Middle East, South Africa has used its voice to speak up about Israeli violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, most clearly at the UN Human Rights Council's special session on Gaza.

It now has an important opportunity to weigh in on the conduct of another abusive government in the region, Iran, when that country's human rights record is reviewed as part of the universal periodic review at the forthcoming session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

For at least a decade, the Iranian government has been carrying out a full-scale attack on civil society, including the arrest and detention of hundreds of women's rights activists, trade union leaders and human rights lawyers. The government has shut scores of independent newspapers and media outlets, and put on trial a whole generation of young bloggers who have dared to question government conduct.

The growing arbitrary power of the country's notorious "volunteer" militias, the Basij, has made itself felt in unabashed intrusions into the lives of citizens. Examples include arresting teenagers caught holding hands in a park, or letting their chador (the loose, usually black, robe that covers the body from head to toe) slip, and styling their hair in too "Western" a fashion.

Private homes suspected of hosting male-female gatherings have been raided.

But the ferocity of the government's assault on the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in protest after the country's disputed presidential elections in June surprised even long-time dissidents.

Plainclothes Basij descended on anti-government demonstrators with live ammunition, which led to the death of up to 72 people and the arrest of more than 4000 others. They rounded up members of the political opposition, invading their homes at night without warrants.

It is believed that hundreds of people are being held without charge, at both recognised and secret detention centres. We and other human rights organisations have documented hundreds of cases of detainees who say they have been tortured - and some even raped - by Iran's security forces. Many of these detainees have not been allowed access to legal counsel.

The government has prosecuted a number of opposition leaders in show trials. These detainees, visibly beaten and exhausted, were made to "confess" to their crimes before state television cameras.

Though this particularly egregious record of abuse should figure prominently in Iran's forthcoming review at the UN, the country's highly charged political clash with the West over its development of nuclear technology could prove a distraction.

Western states will deliver severe criticisms of Iran's record, but Iran will seek to dismiss these as the propaganda of hostile states threatening it with sanctions and military force.

It is in this environment that the voice of South Africa, as a key member of the Human Rights Council, will be especially important.

A fair and accurate South African statement about Iran's human rights record will help neutral observers to cut through the posturing and focus on the matter at hand: the Iranian government's failure to respect the basic rights of its citizens to freedom of speech and association, and to guarantee freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest.

At the least, and as a first order of business, the South African government could urge Iran to deliver what any government owes its people - transparency and accountability.

How many people did Iran's security forces kill in its recent violent crackdown and, in each instance, why was lethal force necessary? Who are the people it has detained? Where are they held? What are the charges against them? Why have they not been given access to legal counsel or family visits? What is the outcome of the investigations promised by the government into the many allegations of security force violence, torture and abuse?

South Africa is also well placed to encourage Iran to reform repressive laws that it uses to quash free speech and discriminate against women.

And - most urgent for the coming year - South Africa can press Iran to end its executions for crimes committed by juveniles, in violation of its international law obligations.

Ordinary Iranians want to see all this changed and a single judicial decree will suffice to bring it to a halt.

South Africa has close commercial ties with Iran. Perhaps that explains the comments, earlier this month, by Max Sisulu, South Africa's Speaker of Parliament, when he met Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki.

Sisulu noted (perplexingly) that "Africa has always looked up to the Islamic revolution of Iran as a model."

Particularly in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed election "victory" in 2009, these kinds of comment give the Iranian government a vote of international confidence.

So the Geneva meeting in February also offers South Africa an important opportunity to clarify the public record, showing that, however much it values its relationship with the Iranian government, it does not do so at the cost of ignoring Iran's record, or the suffering of its people.

- Whitson is Middle East director of Human Rights Watch