Much attention is being paid these days to the situation of the refugees within Camp Ashraf. This camp, comprised of about 3,500 Iranians, is located in Iraq -- approximately 120 kilometres west of the Iranian border -- and is currently guarded by the American military occupiers of Iraq.
What will happen to these individuals when Barack Obama pulls American troops out of Iraq?
They are actually members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) -- or the People's Mujahidin Organization of Iran. This group, formed in the mid-1960s by educated Iranian leftists, blended Islamic and Marxist ideology. But its primary intent was to overthrow the monarchy of the Shah and replace it with a democratic, secular government.
Members of the MeK helped to oust the Shah in the 1979 revolution. However, once the Shiite government of Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, the goals of the MeK were dashed.
After 1981, it was heavily persecuted by the very regime it helped install. Approximately 120,000 MeK members and supporters were killed and the remainder fled into exile in France.
However, the French government, wanting to improve its relations with Iran, expelled MeK rank and file in 1986. The leadership, with several thousand followers, relocated to Iraq, where they established a number of bases, the largest being Camp Ashraf.
During the Clinton administration, MeK was declared a terrorist organization as a "goodwill gesture" to the Iranian government. This designation continued under George W. Bush until July 2004, when the U.S. cleared all members of Camp Ashraf of any violations of American law. U.S. forces in Iraq recognized Ashraf refugees as "protected persons" in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But now, with a Status of Forces Agreement being negotiated between the al-Malaki government in Iraq and the U.S., which would see U.S. forces out of Iraq early in Obama's first term as president, questions are being raised about who will protect the members of Camp Ashraf.
Handing over the refugees to the Iraqi government might result in their being deported to Iran, whose attitudes regarding the MeK have not changed or improved. And this could mean torture or death sentences for many of the 3,500 Camp Ashraf refugees.
Camp Ashraf speaks to a larger question which is of vital importance to many stakeholders internationally; that is, whether or not every vulnerable population must be protected according to international law.
David Kilgour, a lawyer and former Edmonton MP, has argued that MeK members are seriously at risk and ought to be protected by the UN. Kilgour asserts that international law requires the U.S. to do all it can to protect these individuals. Although he doesn't say this explicitly, one assumes that Kilgour is suggesting that, as the U.S. leaves Iraq, it should ensure some form of UN protection for Camp Ashraf residents.
Kilgour is right to point out the many examples of the international community's failure to protect vulnerable populations, such as in Rwanda, Bosnia. Kosovo and Darfur.
But the residents of Ashraf should not be added to this "list of shame."
If we truly believe in this shared sense of global citizenship and affirm the responsibility of the international community to act when vulnerable populations are at risk, then Camp Ashraf would have to take a back seat to far larger and more pressing threats. While we should not ignore the plight of the 3,500 people in Camp Ashraf, why have we not done anything to protect the over 200,000 in Darfur who have been killed in what the U.S. has called "the first genocide of this century?"
After all, there is, according to the UN, a new norm in international relations -- the Responsibility To Protect (R2P).
According to it, core crimes such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity should not go unpunished. If a government is either unable or unwilling to protect people living within its boundaries from these threats, then the international community has a responsibility to find a way to protect them.
In the case of Camp Ashraf, none of those core crimes has occurred as yet, but we shouldn't wait until they happen to do something about them.
After all, the R2P norm has three distinct parts to it: the responsibility to prevent these core crimes; the responsibility to react if prevention fails and those core crimes are being committed; and the responsibility to rebuild the community after successful intervention to stop the core crimes.
Since R2P places the initial responsibility on the state to protect people within its borders, the onus is on Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to devise a clear plan to prevent the refugees in Camp Ashraf from the persecution and wilful mass slaughter that is bound to result if these refugees are forced to return to Iran.
Failing to do this, the U.S. should work with the UN to prevent the potential core crimes, even if that means finding a neutral country where these individuals can resettle.
If we make the argument that the people in Camp Ashraf deserve this kind of attention, we must also be willing to extend such consideration to the millions of people around the world who are in danger of wilful mass slaughter.
Otherwise, we are embarking upon a system of "selective humanitarianism."
To avoid such accusations, the UN system needs to walk a fine line between reserving the invocation of R2P for core crimes already committed and using R2P to stop incipient or potential core crimes.
So why not invoke R2P to prevent a potential slaughter of the refugees of Camp Ashraf, as well as to react to the slaughter already in train in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
And, why not invoke R2P to stop a potential bloodbath in Zimbabwe, even if that means finding a way to remove President Robert Mugabe from office?
These are not easy questions to answer because they raise serious concerns about whether or not there is political will to make all aspects of the responsibility to protect norm truly operational -- that is, to turn this norm from rhetoric to reality.
W. Andy Knight is professor of international relations at the University of Alberta. Robert W. Murray is a PhD student in political science at the U of A