Camp Ashraf was created in an Iraqi desert by several thousand Iranians, who in 1980 fled from the terror unleashed on them across Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini. Supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), founded in the 1960s by leftist university students, they had actively opposed the regimes of the shah and the clerics, at times using violence themselves. Tens of thousands of them were executed by the Khomeini regime when it seized power in 1979. In 1986, Paris expelled those seeking asylum in France in order to obtain the release of some French soldiers captured by Tehran proxies in Lebanon. Only Saddam Hussein’s regime would accept them, so they reluctantly relocated to Iraq. The PMOI kept Saddam at arm’s length and was neutral during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Following the coalition forces’ attack, all Ashraf residents voluntarily disarmed and were declared “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention at the request of the American government. They were subsequently guarded by U.S. soldiers. Their personal security collapsed, however, when the U.S. in 2009 handed off protection under the Convention to the heavily Tehran-influenced government of Nouri al-Maliki. Ignoring successor obligations under international law, his forces have since attacked the camp twice, killing 47 and wounding more than 1,000 unarmed men and women.
Late in 2011, I met in Ottawa with nine Canadian citizens of Iranian origin who are former residents of Ashraf. Despite the escalating threat to their own lives as al-Maliki threatened to destroy the camp before the end of 2011, they were all reluctant to leave the 3,400 other refugees behind. They stressed that the others have no other country that will currently accept them, and would doubtless all be killed if returned to Tehran.
They were encouraged when Canada’s all-party House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights unanimously passed, at the end of 2011, a motion calling for Iraq to allow international observers into Ashraf, to extend the deadline, and to ask the government of Canada to push for a UN Security Council resolution to locate a protective force at Ashraf.
Elham Zanjani went from her home and university studies in Toronto to Ashraf in 1999 at the age of 20. In her words, she was wounded in an April 2011 attack: “when an Iraqi soldier threw a grenade at me. The day before the attack, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad told us that the Iraqi forces were going to launch an operation. Despite our pleas to the commander of U.S. forces to stay, his unit was ordered out of the camp. That left us completely defenseless in the face of a massive assault by the Iraqi forces.”
Al-Maliki wrote as 2011 ended: “I would like to see this complex issue (Ashraf) resolved peacefully and with the help of the United Nations. The camp’s residents are classified as a terrorist organization by many countries and thus have no legal basis to remain.” Unfortunately, his words are hollow. Four days before the second massacre at Ashraf, he assured American diplomats in Baghdad that he would not attack the camp.
Al-Maliki has since agreed, under international pressure, not to attack Ashraf for a further period, although its length is now unclear. Offering to bring a number of the residents to Canada might encourage other governments to extend a similar offer, thereby providing enough international pressure to obtain sufficient time for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to process all refugee applicants.
In 1997, as a goodwill gesture to the new Khatami government in Tehran, the Clinton administration added the PMOI to the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Paul Martin as prime minister proscribed the PMOI in Canada in 2005; the Harper government recently extended the ban for another two years. In Europe, seven courts have meanwhile ruled a similar designation “perverse” and removed it for all 27 EU governments. Despite the U.S. federal appeal court ruling in July 2010 ordering the designation to be reviewed, the U.S. State Department has yet to make a decision.
Col. Gary Morsch, who served as a U.S. battalion surgeon at Ashraf, told a Congressional hearing last July: “There were no findings of any terrorist activities, illegal activities, coercion of (PMOI) members, hidden arms, or evidence that (they) were not fulfilling their agreement with the U.S. military to fully cooperate with and support (our) goals in Iraq.” (Residents) “had come to Ashraf to voluntarily serve with the (PMOI) to establish a free and democratic Iran. It was with great sadness that I witnessed the abandonment of the residents of Camp Ashraf by the very government that asked me to risk my life to defend (them).”
In late January, 2012, a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on the Iraqi government not to turn a former American base, Camp Liberty, to which about 400 Ashraf residents have now been transferred, into a prison, and called on the UNHCR to end the long delay in determining the refugee status of all residents. PACE noted that the living conditions in the new location are far less bearable than initially promised. Freedom of movement is denied; there are increasing restrictions for the residents.
Others note that al-Maliki is already reneging on his signed agreement. Camp Liberty has no running water, no electricity, no infrastructure; the allocated size has shrunk from 40 square kilometres to one square kilometre. Concrete walls are being erected. Residents who were forced to move there on February 17th understandably feel betrayed by the UN assistant mission head in Iraq for declaring that the camp met ‘humanitarian standards’ and by the Obama administration for going along with it.
The UN organization as a whole has been woefully weak to date in dealing with personal safety and dignity issues involving Ashraf residents. More ‘responsibility to protect’ and respect for the UN founding documents and purposes are clearly required by the UN, its Security Council and the international community as a whole if the government in Bagdad’s worst instincts are to be contained successfully.
The continuing fear of many of us is that Camp Liberty is morphing into a concentration camp to hold members of most probably the largest Iranian opposition movement before they are slaughtered or returned to the mullahs in chains.
David Kilgour, a former Alberta MP, is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran, a fellow of the Queen’s University Centre for the Study of Democracy and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD).