Camp Liberty: UN is ‘part of the problem’

Public Service Europe – By Baroness Turner 05 March 2012
The UN’s reputation will be tarnished unless there is an inquiry into the conditions at Camp Liberty and the human rights of Iranian dissidents protected, writes a member of the British House of Lords.

“To preserve the food from spoiling you use salt; what would you do when the salt itself is spoiled?” This old Persian idiom that I have learned from my Iranian friends fits well here. Usually in the international arena, whenever there is an unresolved conflict it is time for the United Nations to step in. But the question is: where does one turn when the UN and its staff become part of the problem?

This is the quandary facing Iranian dissidents in Iraq. About 3,400 members of the main Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, or MEK, have been living in Camp Ashraf, 65 kilometres north of Baghdad. Over the past 25 years, they have turned Ashraf from barren land into a vibrant, peaceful, and modern community. Yet on February 17, about 400 of them moved ‘voluntarily’ to Camp Liberty, a former United States military base near Baghdad airport.

The reason for the move goes back to last year. Following two massacres of Ashraf residents by Iraqi armed forces at the behest of the Iranian regime, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to close the camp by the end of 2011. Only a massive cross-Atlantic campaign averted a humanitarian crisis, and Maliki extended his deadline. The Iraqi government signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN, under which the dissidents would be moved to Camp Liberty, where they could be interviewed by the UN refugee agency to confirm that they qualify for refugee status before being transferred to third countries.

Despite great misgivings, as a goodwill gesture Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Committee of Resistance of Iran, which includes the MEK, persuaded 400 Ashraf residents to go to the new facility, with the assurance of their security by the UN and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, the Iraqis – with the help of UN personnel – reneged on many of the terms they promised and threw every obstacle in the way. The deal struck between the Iraqi government and UN ambassador Martin Kobler promised decent standards at Liberty. The UN team in Iraq provided a series of pictures of Liberty to demonstrate its preparedness to receive Iranian dissidents.

The distance between the pictures provided by the UN and reality was the difference between day and night. Once the dissidents are inside, they are not allowed to leave. The whole area is surrounded by almost four metre high concrete walls. There are surveillance cameras and eavesdropping devices monitoring the residents. For 400 residents, there are 150 Iraqi armed forces stationed inside that small section, roaming all over the place, even next to residential bungalows. No area is recognized as private area of the residents. The camp is in a perilous hygienic condition. The arriving volunteers discovered they did not even have drinking water, let alone water to wash. There is a rampant shortage of electricity. And a few days after they arrived, scores of vipers were located near the residential area, a couple of them caught by the residents.

That explains why the requests of residents of Ashraf to send a group of their engineers to check Camp Liberty before the move was turned down, and the written offer of 23 of the most senior former US officials, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, to be present as impartial observers during the transfer was rejected. As Giuliani put it, what they would have seen was not even a prison. They would have witnessed a concentration camp, erected under the auspices of the UN. As Alan Dershowitz, the renowned human rights and criminal lawyer put it in an international conference in Washington on February 25: “If somebody had tried to file a stock offering which showed Camp Liberty in the way it was originally shown when the reality is what we’ve seen, they’d be in jail so fast for stock fraud, for violating the expectations of people.”

Dershowitz called it a scandal and called for “a commission of inquiry to determine how this fraud was perpetrated.” He said: “Who certified – who approved that hell hole, that garbage dump? Who said that it met UN standards? Somebody is responsible for perpetrating that fraud and for getting 400 innocent people to risk their lives and their health to be exposed to that kind of trash and that kind of hazard to their health.” But what makes the case even more dreadful is that some people with a clear political objective are trying to blame the victims, the residents of Camp Liberty. That is the oldest excuse in the world: to blame the victims instead of the perpetrator of the crime.

The UN is a by-product of struggle and endeavours of generation after generation of benevolent people who sensed the need for an international institution above politics as usual. A handful of UN officials should not be allowed to tarnish that reputation, whatever their motives are. The call for an inquiry is warranted. And until that is done and the human rights of Liberty residents are met, including the Iraqi armed forces leaving residential areas, no one should ask other Ashraf residents come to Camp Liberty and exacerbate the problem.

Baroness Turner is a former deputy speaker of the House of Lords and a member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom

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