Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1988 issued a
fatwa ordering the execution of members and supporters of a leading opposition
force, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the PMOI. Thousands were
executed without trials or sentences while in jail because of politically
The PMOI was part of the national political movement which
overthrew the shah in 1979. But it was marginalized by a purge and became an
opposition force to a regime which would tolerate no opposition.
Today 3,500 members of the PMOI who fled Iran live in Camp
Ashraf in Iraq under the protection of U.S. forces. The U.N. Security Council
mandate given to U.S. forces in Iraq expires by the end of this year. The United
States and Iraq are attempting to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
to allow for the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond that date. The current draft of
that agreement makes no mention of Camp Ashraf. But the assumption of both
parties is that control over Camp Ashraf would shift from U.S. to Iraqi forces
by year's end.
If the Iraq forces were to expel Ashraf residents to Iran,
they would surely be tortured and executed. The Khomeini fatwa against the PMOI
remains in full force.
The multinational forces under U.S. leadership have
acknowledged that international law protects Camp Ashraf residents from forced
return to Iran. Yet, the American forces will be in no position to prevent
return once they cede control of the camp to Iraq.
The government of Iraq on Sept. 1 issued a statement that it
is not their intention to expel Camp Ashraf residents to Iran. However, that
intention could change at any time and, given the makeup of the government,
On June 17, the council of ministers issued a decision that
the camp residents "must be expelled." On Aug. 22, the Iraqi minister of justice
said the same. On Aug. 31, only a day before the government's statement of
intention not to expel, the interior ministry issued a statement saying that the
residents of the camp would be expelled in six months. Even after the
government's statement of Sept. 1, Seyyed Mohsen al-Hakim, a leader of the
largest grouping in the Iraqi parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, as recently
as Oct. 14, called for the expulsion of Camp Ashraf's residents.
Even if the intention not to expel remains the official Iraqi
government position, the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the camp from local
militias sympathetic to Iran or infiltrators is questionable. The minister of
justice has said that if it were not for the presence of U.S. forces, "the
people of Iraq" would attack and destroy the camp.
Complicating the picture is the designation in many Western
countries of the PMOI as a terrorist organization. British and European
Community courts have struck down the designation of the PMOI as "perverse," and
"unreasonable," based on "manifestly insufficient" evidence.
The most recent such judgment was pronounced on Oct. 23 by
the Court of First Instance of the European Communities in Luxembourg. As a
result of these judgments, the PMOI has been removed from the U.K. terrorist
organization list. However, formally removing the terrorist designations of the
PMOI from other lists will not happen quickly enough to resolve the impending
In any case, for arbitrary execution, the terrorist
designation is irrelevant. The international prohibitions against arbitrary
executions are absolute, admitting no exceptions.
The only immediate solution to the impending catastrophe
awaiting residents of Camp Ashraf is maintaining U.S. protection of the camp.
Either the U.S. forces should maintain jurisdiction over Camp Ashraf within the
framework of SOFA between the United States and Iraq. Or the Security Council
should extend the U.N. mandate for the U.S. led multinational forces beyond the
end of this year.
Given the heavy Iranian influence on the Iraqi government and
the commonly held view within that government that Ashraf residents should be
expelled, putting the fate of Camp Ashraf residents into the hands of the Iraqi
forces threatens calamity.
Camp Ashraf residents could avoid this looming fate by
renouncing their affiliation with the PMOI. But, they should not be forced to
abandon their beliefs. No person who needs protection should be expected to
renounce one set of human rights, the rights to freedom of association and
belief, in exchange for another set of rights, the rights to life and security
of the person.
American obligations under international law do not end with
a handover of Camp Ashraf to Iraqi forces. If the Iraqi forces were to expel
Ashraf's residents to Iran, torture and death, the United States would be as
responsible as if it directly handed over the residents to Iran.
About the only justification for the U.S. presence in Iraq,
absent evidence of weapons of mass destruction or Saddam
Hussein connections to al-Qaida, is the claim of improving the human
rights situation in that country. That justification would be severely undercut
if the United States were seen to be instrumental in the mass killing of the
Camp Ashraf residents.
This is not just a matter concerning Americans and Iraqis.
Like all threats of crimes against humanity, it concerns all of humanity. The
relevant international treaties signed and ratified by the United States and
Iraq are not just promises made by Iraq and America to each other. They are
promises by each signatory state to all other states. As a result, when one of
these treaties is violated, the interests of all states are engaged.
Every state, every international human rights and
humanitarian organization should pay heed to this looming crisis. Camp Ashraf is
a disaster in the making. We cannot afford to wait until the disaster happens
and wonder what we could have done to avoid it. We must act now before a reprise
and continuation of the 1988 massacre take place.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.