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 injuring 500.
Iraqi authorities have stated that the residents of the Camp will be forcibly displaced within Iraq.
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 permission of the Iraq government, 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 of rest.
The Iraqi authorities have imposed severe restrictions on delivery of basic needs of the residents.
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. They have also set up check points harassing the residents.
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 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 the Camp.
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 residents.
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. UNAMI feels that those individuals suspected of responsibility for illegal past activities should be brought to justice in conformity with internationally recognized standards of fair trial and due process of 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, but 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 injured."
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 siixteenth 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 without comment:
"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."
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 is 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."
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.
In a context where security concerns are real, sufficient supplies must nonetheless be allowed to ensure an adequate standard of living. Where security concerns are not real, there should be no arbitrary interference with supplies. Unreal security concerns do not justify interruption of supplies up to a level that allows for an adequate standard of living.
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 eras of Iraqi control, insert Iranian propaganda into the paragraphs about the Camp.
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 pretenses, 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?
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 reports. This element of the two latest reports as written is inherently implausible.
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 respective countries."
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 neither.
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.
The component of the next UNAMI report on Iraq which deals with Camp Ashraf should
either drop all reference to allegations of psychological pressure, intimidation and abuse from the PMOI or include a response to those allegations;
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;
draw the attention of the Iraqi authorities specifically to the need to respect fair trial principles and due process of the law when dealing with Camp Ashraf residents;
note the obstacles to delivery of humanitarian supplies to 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 concerns;
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 other noise making devices;
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 mechanisms.
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 opponents would hardly give them a moment's pause.
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, Manitoba, Canada.
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 Sixteenth report paragraph 52, fifteenth report paragraph 53.
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 Sixteenth report paragraph 52, fifteenth report paragraph 53.
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