As the situation at Camp Ashraf in Iraq deteriorates, United Nations
protection weakens. Camp Ashraf is home to 3,400 refugees from Iran,
members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) or the Mujahedin e
Khalq (MEK), a group opposed to the regime of the clerics. The UN
needs to reverse course to counter the threats the residents of the
Camp face from the governments of both Iran and Iraq.
The situation of the residents is this:
- Since January 2009, when the protection of Ashraf was transferred
from the United States to Iraq, Iraq has refused to issue visas for
the families, lawyers and foreign Parliamentarians to allow them to
visit the Camp while also preventing those who came to Iraq on their
own from entering the camp.
- In July 2009, Iraqi forces attacked the Camp, killing 11 persons and
- Iraqi authorities have stated that the residents of the Camp will be
forcibly displaced within Iraq.
- The Iraqi authorities recognize no legal status for the residents of
Ashraf and consequently no rights for the residents flowing from the
existence of a status.
- In Iran, hundreds family members of Ashraf residents have been
arrested. Several have been sentenced to long-term imprisonment.
Seven have been sentenced to death as 'mohareb' (enemies of God) for
either contacting their loved ones or visiting Ashraf. Three of the
seven death sentences have been confirmed on appeal.
- From February 8, 2010, Iranian agents outside the gates, with the
cooperation of the Iraqi Army, have been shouting through loud
speakers to threaten the residents with mass murder, burning down
Ashraf and a repeat of the July 2009 attacks. Patients hospitalized
at Camp Ashraf clinic, located near the main gate, have been deprived
- The Iraqi authorities have imposed severe restrictions on delivery
of basic needs of the residents. Several patients with serious
diseases, including cancer, have not been allowed to see specialists
or receive the treatment they needed.
- Former Iraqi National Security Advisor Moaffaq al-Rubaii, shortly
after the Iraqi government gained control of Ashraf, publicly stated
that the plan of the Government of Iraq was to enter the Camp and
start patrolling the camp with the intention of making the continued
presence of the Camp Ashraf residents in the Camp "intolerable".
- Iraqi military forces and armed anti riots police since then have
entered the Camp and, on several occasions, beaten up residents
leading to injuries. They have also set up check points harassing the
- According to July 2010 reports, the Iraqi Criminal High Tribunal
issued warrants of arrest for 38 members of the PMOI. The Tribunal is
not independent from the Prime Minister of Iraq. The Iraqi Supreme
Judicial Council announced that it had not issued any warrants of
arrests. Subsequently, another Iraqi court issued six more warrants
of arrest. The Iranian regime has been pressing the Iraqi government
to implement these warrants.
The UN response to all this, regrettably, has been the reverse of what
it should be, responding more feebly over time as matters get worse.
After the attack of July 2009, the United Nations Assistance Mission
in Iraq (UNAMI) did issue a report on the attack, calling it
excessive. The very label "excessive" suggests that a more moderate
attack might have been warranted. Yet, there was no justification for
such an attack even in a milder form.
As well, UNAMI after the attack did establish a permanent observation
post in the Camp. However, that post has now been withdrawn.
UNAMI left shortly before US forces, on 2 July 2010, quit Forward
Operating (FOB) Base Grizzly situated inside Camp Ashraf. The
explanation given was that the UNAMI post relied on the logistical
support the base gave.
It was predictable that FOB Grizzly would be shut down and that its
logistical support would disappear. It was also, unfortunately,
predictable that the risk to the residents of Camp Ashraf would remain
grave, indeed accelerate with the closing of nearby FOB Grizzly. The
failure of the UNAMI to plan for this closing and have alternative
plans in place immediately speaks ill of UN foresight.
Nonetheless, better late than never. Now that FOB Grizzly has gone
the UN has to allocate resources so that UNAMI can replace the
logistical support it lost and re establish its observation post at
UNAMI is not a blue helmet peacekeeping force. It does nonetheless
have protection to offer, legal, if not military. UNAMI promoting of
international human rights standards and reporting of international
human rights violations can have an impact on Iraqi government
behaviour towards Camp Ashraf.
That impact is lessened if the UNAMI reports on Camp Ashraf do not
have meaningful content. A UNAMI monitoring post in the Camp means
little if the monitors fail to report what they see.
As disappointing as the disappearance of the UNAMI outpost in Camp
Ashraf was, even more disappointing was the content of its last couple
of reports on Camp Ashraf. UNAMI has been reporting publicly every
few months about the human rights situation in Iraq, starting from
July 1, 2005, with now 16 reports in total. Those reports have
included a few paragraphs about Camp Ashraf which have in the past
been useful in promoting respect for the human rights of the
For instance, in its thirteenth report, covering the period 1 January
to 30 June 2008, UNAMI made these points :
- "The situation of the estimated 3,300 members of the People's
Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) residing in the Camp Ashraf in
Diyala...deteriorated on 8 February when a bomb explosion in Zorganieh
interrupted the water supply in an area covering more than 20,000
persons, including residents of the Ashraf Camp."
- "The Camp, under MNF-I protection since 2003, was attacked by a
missile on 26 May."
- "UNAMI has also reminded the concerned parties that the Ashraf Camp
residents should enjoy fundamental rights, including fair trial
principles and due process of the law."
There are a number of noteworthy aspects of these few items. One is
that the report does not just state in a vague and general way that
UNAMI has concerns; the concerns are specified, particularized.
Similarly, the report does not just call in a vague and general way
for respect for human rights; specific rights in jeopardy which need
to be respected are identified.
Third, there is specific reference to the humanitarian needs of the
residents and the need to respect them, in this case the right to
water. Fourth, the report does not hesitate to note Iranian
interference. Though the rocket attack is not identified as coming
from its source, Iran, the attack itself is mentioned.
In its fourteenth report, from 1 July to 31 December 2008 UNAMI stated:
"UNAMI has also reminded the concerned parties that the residents
should enjoy fundamental rights and the protection provided by the
fourth Geneva Convention."
The Multi national Forces have recognized the residents of Camp Ashraf
as protected persons under the fourth Geneva Convention. The 14th
UNAMI report acknowledges that status and the source of obligations
towards the residents.
However, the most recent reports are missing these elements. The
sixteenth report covering the period from 1 July to 31 December 2009
mentions the July 2009 attack on the Camp not in a consistent way. At
one point the report refers to the eleven deaths and "injuries to
approximately 310 residents" . Later the report states "Over 200 were
The report omits mention of the fact that Ashraf residents provided
the UNAMI a list of over 400 residents who were injured but repeats
without analysis or comment or reaction from the Ashraf residents a
claim by the Iraqi authorities that approximately one hundred
policemen and 13 soldiers were wounded. Ashraf residents were unarmed
at the time of the attack. There is extensive video documentation of
the attack. The videos do not show any use of force or even any
resistance from the Ashraf residents. The inclusion in the report of
an unsubstantiated claim of Iraqi injuries without evidence or
assessment and indeed contrary to the evidence creates a misleading
impression of the circumstances of the attack.
The reference to the fourth Geneva Convention is gone. The latest two
reports call on the residents "to be treated in accordance with
international human rights law" but there is no reference to the
source of the obligations or the status of the residents as protected
persons. This omission is significant when the Government of Iraq
takes the position that the residents of the Camp have no status.
Moreover, there is no reference to any particular human right. The
reference to fair trial or due process of law, which was in the
thirteenth report, is also gone though the threat of violation of
these principles continues.
The sixteenth report notes the stated Iraqi government intent of
forcible relocation, but says nothing to recall international
standards opposed to arbitrary forcible relocation. The report states
"The Iraqi authorities announced in October that the residents would
be moved to another location in Iraq on 15 December. On 15 December,
announcements were made by Government officials to residents
encouraging them to depart and offering free transport but without
success. The Government of Iraq has since stated that another attempt
at relocation may be made after the March 2010 elections."
Passing over without comment a stated intention to violate
international standards creates the misleading impression that, to
UNAMI, the intended breach is acceptable. UNAMI would be hard pressed
to protest a violation of standards after it occurred once UNAMI was
aware of the intention to violate those standards before the violation
occurred and said nothing.
The two latest reports assert a list of other principles relating to
forcible movement, calling for protection for residents of the Camp
"from forcible deportation, expulsion and repatriation in violation of
the principle of non-refoulement." The silence about forcible
internal relocation in violation of international standards in this
context is noteworthy.
The ongoing obstacles to delivery of humanitarian supplies are passed
over without comment, except in the context of the July attack. The
sixteenth report states:
"UNAMI also received reports that Iraqi security forces prevented
doctors from entering the Camp to provide assistance during the attack
and the days after."
"UNAMI observed that the delivery of supplies into the Camp,
including food and fuel, was controlled by Government officials on the
basis of security concerns, but that sufficient supplies were allowed
to enter the Camp to ensure an adequate standard of living."
This statement is misleading. From October 2009 until late February
2010, no fuel at all was allowed into the camp. Moreover,
international standards justify interruption of supplies for real
security concerns, not just on a security concern pretext. Were the
security concerns real? The report does not say.
One cannot say that international standards are respected simply
because the supplies which were allowed entry were sufficient to
ensure an adequate standard of living. In addition, medical needs of
the civilian population must be satisfied. Though the report does
mention that doctors were prevented entry, there is no mention of
restrictions on entry of medical supplies nor of the list which
residents of Ashraf provided to UNAMI of seriously ill patients
seeking urgent treatment.
The two reports say nothing about the denial of visits of family,
foreign Parliamentarians or lawyers, denials which occurred for the
first time during the periods the reports covered. The fifteenth
report notes restriction on family visits to prisons and expresses
concern about lack of access to defense counsel for those in detention
. The concern about denial to those in detention of access to
relatives and defense counsel is carried forward to the sixteenth
report . It is anomalous for the report to say nothing on
restrictions on access of relatives and counsel to Camp residents
during the same period these two reports cover.
As troubling as what is missing from the most recent UNAMI report,
including elements now gone which are to be found in previous reports,
even more troubling is the insertion of material not found before.
The fifteenth and sixteenth reports, the first to report the era of
Iraqi control, insert Iranian propaganda into the paragraphs about the
The fifteenth report states this:
"In March, UNAMI interviewed former residents of Camp Ashraf who had
escaped from the Camp. They confirmed some of the previous findings
that some residents may have been brought into the Camp on false
pretences, while trying to leave Iran for western Europe or the United
States of America, and once there, were denied the right to leave.
UNAMI was on this and previous occasions told of the alleged
psychological pressure, intimidation and physical abuses that the PMOI
rank and file may be subjected to."
The sixteenth report says this:
"UNAMI also recalls its concern over consistent allegations that the
PMOI engages in psychological pressure, intimidation and physical
abuses against residents of the Camp."
On its face, these elements of the reports are odd. How could this
problem have surfaced first at the time of the fifteenth report? Did
the psychological pressure, the exit controls, the intimidation and
physical abuse just start after the Americans handed over control of
the Camp to the Iraqis?
As well, why was UNAMI reporting on interviews with former Camp
residents but not on interviews with existing residents? UNAMI has
interviewed some residents and could have, if it wished, interviewed
PMOI officials, both orally and in writing, repeatedly urged UNAMI to
talk to the residents. They told UNAMI representatives that residents
wanted to meet with them. PMOI officials report that UNAMI
representatives declined the offers, saying that they did not consider
it necessary to have these meetings.
Following the fifteenth report with its allegations of psychological
pressure, PMOI officials and residents of Ashraf denied the
allegations with evidence in support and once again urged UNAMI to
interview the residents. The sixteenth report ignores all of this.
The continued repetition of allegations without an evidentiary
foundation, contrary to the evidence, all the while ignoring repeated
attempts to rebut the allegations is improper.
One must remember what the PMOI is, an opposition force to the
Government of Iran. The Government of Iran understandably wants to
convey the impression that you have to be coerced to disagree with
them, but most outsiders would say the opposite, that you would have
to be coerced or corrupt or delusional to support them. The notion
that people have to be pressured in order to oppose the Government of
Iran is out of touch with reality, which the Government of Iran surely
is, but which the UN should not be.
As well, it is plain and obvious that the PMOI does not control the
camp. The American forces used to; the Iraqi forces now do. The PMOI
has no exit controls over the camp; only the Iraqi forces do. The
PMOI can not keep anyone at Camp Ashraf against his or her will.
Moreover, the PMOI has no need, no desire, no motivation, no incentive
to keep anyone at the Camp against his or her will. The PMOI gains no
benefit from maintaining those opposed to them in its midst. Any
political force is weakened by the presence of those who disagree.
The inclination of the members of any political grouping would be to
disassociate themselves from those who disagree with them, not keep
them within the group despite their disagreement.
One can say all this without talking to anyone and just by reading the
report. This element of the report as written is inherently
Moreover, those who actually have investigated the matter have found
the exact opposite. European Parliament Vice President Alejo
Vidal-Quadras in a letter to UNAMI dated 15 July 2010 wrote:
"Various US agencies have interviewed with each and every one of the
residents privately and without the presence of a third party in 2003
and 2004. American forces conducted several rounds of private
interviews with the residents up to 2008 in order to inquire about
their intention to remain at Ashraf or leave the camp. Moreover,
representatives of the Iraqi government held private and individual
interviews with every single resident outside the camp's premises from
February to April 2009. Only a few of the residents decided to leave
the camp in the end. Representatives of a large number of foreign
embassies have also visited Ashraf from 2003 to 2009 and held private
meetings with those who had citizenship or refugee status in their
There are agents of the Government of Iran who say the contrary.
However, the UN should be able to substantiate fact from fiction,
propaganda from reality. The UN should not be reporting propaganda,
even labelled as allegations.
Propaganda, by its very nature, is repeated. That is part of what
makes it propaganda. However for UNAMI to report Iranian Government
propaganda about the PMOI as consistent allegations distorts the
report and demeans the UN.
The fourteenth report has this prefatory statement:
"Following the established practice, this report has been submitted
in its drafting stage to the Government of Iraq...for comments before
it is made public."
Though this statement is to be found in the fourteenth report only,
the "established practice" was presumably followed in the preparation
of all reports.
The Government of Iraq has shown a good deal of hostility to the
presence of Camp Ashraf. As noted, one of its former Ministers has
promised to make life intolerable for those in the Camp to the point
that they would feel compelled to leave the Camp. Elements of the
Government of Iraq have repeated the hostile propaganda against the
PMOI emanating from the Government of Iran.
In that context to submit the component of the UNAMI report about Camp
Ashraf to the Government of Iraq for comment without also submitting
it to the PMOI is unbalanced and unfair to the PMOI. The elements of
the UNAMI report about Camp Ashraf should be submitted for comment in
draft form either to both the PMOI and the Government of Iraq or
The decline in the quality of the reports coincides with the transfer
of control over Camp Ashraf from the Americans and the Multi national
Force to the Iraqis. The timing of the shift to lower quality leaves
the UN open to the charge of imposing double standards, expecting less
now that the Iraqis are in charge, and to the charge of reacting
politically, reporting what those in the Government of Iraq under
influence of the Government of Iran want to hear rather than the
reality of the ground.
The component of the next UNAMI report on Iraq which deals with Camp
- either drop all reference to allegations of psychological pressure,
intimidation and abuse from the PMOI or include a response to those
- request that the Government of Iraq ensure that international
standards against arbitrary forcible internal relocation are upheld;
- remind the Government of Iraq that the residents of the Camp are
protected persons who should enjoy fundamental rights and the
protection provided by the fourth Geneva Convention;
- report on and call for an end to the obstacles to delivering
humanitarian supplies and to meeting the medical needs of the
residents of the Camp;
- refrain from mentioning that these obstacles are based on security
concerns unless either the report concludes there is a basis for these
concerns or allows for a response to the articulation of those
- take a consistent position on denial of access of relatives and
counsel to places of detention and Camp Ashraf, in favour of access;
- call for the Iraqi government to cease permitting Iranian government
agents at the perimeter of the Camp to harass and threaten the
resident of the Camp through loudspeakers and o.ther noise making
- urge the Government of Iraq to reject the statement of former Iraqi
National Security Advisor Moaffaq al-Rubaii that the Government of
Iraq would make the continued presence of the Camp Ashraf residents in
the Camp "intolerable";
- recommend to the Government of Iraq to refrain from any behaviour
that has either the purpose or the effect of making the continued
presence of the Camp Ashraf residents in the Camp intolerable
The UNAMI report is not the final word of the UN on Camp Ashraf. The
specialized mechanisms each have their say and several have made
useful contributions the UN rapporteurs on torture, housing, food
and arbitrary executions. As well, the Office of the High
Commissioner has made efforts behind closed doors.
Yet, the value of a solid UNAMI report for the respect for human
rights of the residents of Camp Ashraf should not be underestimated.
UNAMI reports are much more timely than the reports of the specialized
The fact that the UNAMI reports are public means that they can help to
mobilize public support for the rights of the residents of the Camp.
A bad report, in contrast, can heighten the risk that the residents
face by justifying mistreatment and emboldening perpetrators.
The risks to the Camp can not be ignored. The regime of the clerics
in Iran has already murdered about 120,000 PMOI supporters, including
approximately 30,000 in one fell swoop in 1988. For the Iranian
regime, to kill another 3,400 more innocents would hardly give them a
The threats of mass murder Iranian operatives now shout regularly
outside the Camp with the acquiescence of the Government of Iraq need
to be taken seriously. We have already seen in Rwanda and Srebenica
the mass murder of innocent civilians while the international
community stood by. We should learn from those experiences and do
what we can to prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg,