refugees in Camp Ashraf, in Iraq close to an hour's drive from both Baghdad and
the Iranian border, are at serious risk. They are members and supporters of the
main Iranian opposition, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI),
formed in the 1960s in opposition to the shah's absolute monarchy and currently
seeking to replace the Iranian regime with a secular and democratic government.
The PMOI became the largest democratic political movement in
the country following the 1979 revolution. Soon, however, it found itself in
opposition to Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini's religious tyranny. After June, 1981, its members were
persecuted mercilessly by his regime and its Revolutionary Guards. Many
thousands of PMOI supporters, including children, have been murdered by the
regime both inside and outside Iran in the following years.
In 1986, the French government, as part of a quid pro quo
with Tehran to secure the release of the French hostages in Lebanon, put
pressure on the PMOI, which by then had offices and supporters in France since
1981, to leave. The PMOI, therefore, relocated to Iraq. Camp Ashraf was built on
a piece of arid land in the northeast of Iraq. Before the U.S.-led invasion of
Iraq in 2003, the PMOI officially declared its neutrality in the conflict.
Later that year, the PMOI agreed to consolidate all of its
supporters within Iraq at Ashraf. Following a 16-month investigation by seven
U.S. government agencies, every resident of Ashraf was cleared of any violation
of American laws and all were recognized as "protected persons" by the U.S.
government under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Ashraf has since 2003 been
protected by a detachment of U.S. soldiers.
Recent assaults on Ashraf by Iran's regime have included the
bombing of its water supply station (February 2008) and two missile attacks (May
and July 2008), which luckily caused no deaths. In mid-June of this year, more
than 3 million Shiites in southern Iraq signed a petition condemning the
meddling by the Iranian regime in Iraq and declaring support for the PMOI and
Ashraf. Such support underscored the positive role played by the PMOI at Ashraf,
seen as welcomed guests assisting with the rebuilding and providing of support
for surrounding Iraqi communities.
Matters have not gone as well diplomatically. In 1997, the Bill Clinton
administration added the PMOI to its list of terrorist organizations. In 2002,
at the request of the U.K. government, the European Union included it on its
list. In 2005, the Paul Martin government did
so in Canada. Fortunately the Court of First Instance of the European Court of
Justice ruled in December 2006 that the PMOI was wrongly listed. Then the
Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission (POAC), a branch of the U.K. High
Court, ruled in late 2007 that the listing of the PMOI in the U.K. was
"perverse," unlawful, null and void.
The U.K. Court of Appeal later agreed with POAC, noting that
neither the classified nor unclassified evidence provided a basis for terrorist
activity or intent for such activity by the PMOI since 2001. Both houses of the
U.K. parliament accordingly de-proscribed the PMOI in June 2008. In mid-July,
however, the EU council of ministers, claiming unspecified "new evidence," left
the PMOI on its terrorist list.
The Tehran regime relies on the continuing terrorist labeling
of the PMOI in the European Union, United States, Iraq and Canada to insist that
its supporters in Ashraf and elsewhere around the world be harassed by
This includes pressuring the outgoing George W. Bush
administration to turn the protection of Ashraf over to the government of Nouri al-Maliki in
Baghdad, whose ministers' comments have created no confidence whatsoever in
their willingness to provide continuing adequate protection to Ashraf residents.
On June 17, for example, the Iraqi council of ministers
issued a statement saying that the PMOI "will come under the full control of the
Iraqi government until it is expelled from Iraq." The interior minister declared
recently that the present joint patrols by American and Iraqi forces indicate
that "Iraqi forces have taken control of Ashraf and that its residents have a
six-month deadline to leave the country."
During a visit to Iran in August, the Iraqi justice minister
added: "If it were not for the presence of coalition forces at Ashraf, you would
have seen that the people of Iraq attacking and destroying Ashraf."
A legal opinion by Eric David, professor and president of the
Center on International Law at the Free University of Brussels, concludes that
under both The Hague and the Fourth Geneva Conventions the United States must
ensure the protection of the refugees at Ashraf. No other authority in Iraq, he
adds, is capable of this protection except the American forces.
The opinion of the law firm Greenberg Traurig in Washington
this September concluded, "The United States may not hand over the people of
Ashraf to the Iraqi government without becoming legally responsible for the
humanitarian catastrophe that is virtually certain to result."
The International Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf,
representing numerous concerned lawyers in Europe, the United States and Canada,
wrote earlier this month to the outgoing commanding general of the Multinational
Force-Iraq, stressing that "the transfer of the protection of Ashraf by the U.S.
forces to Iraq would pose major risks to the safety and security of the
residents there…. We are gravely concerned about a wholesale slaughter of the
residents of Ashraf."
There are terrible examples in recent years of what can
happen when the international community and the United Nations fail to protect
vulnerable communities, including Rwanda, Bosnia (Srebrenica), Kosovo and
Darfur. The residents of Ashraf must not be added to this "list of shame."
David Kilgour is on the advisory board of the International
Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf and a former Secretary of State for
Africa and Latin America for Canada, as well as Secretary of State for Asia