Lord Corbett: International community will not tolerate breaches of international humanitarian law at Ashraf

In a parliamentary debate at the House of Lords on November 30, Peers expressed their concern over the human rights situation in Iran and threats posed by the Iranian regime against the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq. The following are excerpts from remarks by Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom:

Iran’s human rights record is among the worst in the world. It has been condemned 57 times by the United Nations. It is among the worst, and is worsening. Foreign Secretary Hague noted in June last year, on the anniversary of the stolen presidential election that he was, “gravely disturbed by the deterioration in the human rights situation in Iran”, since the presidential election, adding: “The Government of Iran has further restricted freedom of expression and assembly, and protesters, journalists, students and human rights activists routinely face harassment and intimidation”, with protesters denied due process in their trials.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, whose rulers pervert the true meaning and message of Islam, hangs more men, women and children than the rest of the world put together, bar China-savagery on an industrial scale. Women are stoned to death, amputations are carried out without anaesthetics and eyes are gouged out. This is a regime that is almost literally at war with its citizens. While the economy stagnates, millions of young well-educated Iranians are denied employment. The mullahs use the money from oil on missiles, on nuclear weapons development and on sponsoring terrorism abroad rather than on investing in the future of their citizens.

Our Government and others know that Iran supplies weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and finances Hamas and Hezbollah. It has supplied and smuggled roadside bombs to Iraq-and paid the people who did it-which has killed seven out of 10 of all UK, US and coalition troops who have been killed. It has plenty of money for mischief and murder; little to meet the needs of one of the best-educated populations in the region. The people of Iran deserve and demand better. They demand the right to protest and to enjoy human rights and free elections. That is why millions cry freedom, despite the brutality of the regime’s response.

Iran’s meddling is at its height in Iraq. It pressures the compliant and fledgling al-Maliki Government to lay siege to 3,400 Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf, 60 miles north-east of Baghdad. These are members of the dissident PMOI. They were individually interviewed by US security agencies in 2004, renounced participation in or support for terrorism, rejected violence and undertook to obey the laws of Iraq and relevant UN mandates. In return, they were given indefinite protected persons status – I have here a photostat of the identity card given to one of the residents, which I shall leave with the Minister after this discussion-under the fourth Geneva convention, on behalf of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, by Major General Geoffrey Miller, its deputy-commander.

International law experts argue that that protection remains in operation all the while coalition forces are in Iraq, although I acknowledge that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office disputes that. What is unarguable is that the UK, like every other United Nations member, has a continuing responsibility to ensure that Iraq carries out its duties under international humanitarian law.

The US handed responsibility for the safety and security of Ashraf residents to Iraq last year after Iraq gave written undertakings to continue these protections. Not only has it not done so, but the Prime Minister set up a committee for the suppression of Ashraf in his office to meet agreements that he made with Iran to close Ashraf and remove its residents. In July last year, Iraqi security forces-some, strangely, speaking Farsi-attacked the unarmed residents, killing nine and wounding hundreds. Video shows troops using hand-held chains, wooden staves embedded with nails and scaffolding tubes in the attack, as well as a Humvee to run down protestors. The so-called Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has still not released its report into these events, despite requests from the United Kingdom that it should do so. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will be able to say what the latest position is on this.

Since Iraq took over responsibility for the safety and security at Ashraf, there have been 70 recorded cases of harassment of residents by Iraqi forces, with 29 injured. Medical and other supplies are regularly refused entry to Ashraf, as are relatives and residents’ lawyers wishing to visit. Ashraf is under menacing siege in breach of international humanitarian law, let alone the fourth Geneva convention protections. However, that is not all. The latest pressure is to deny residents with terminal cancer access to the medical treatment that they need in Baghdad and elsewhere. I have a dossier here listing some of the cases and, again, I shall leave it for the Minister and his officials to study after this debate. Dozens of terminally ill cancer patients are refused the services of specialist doctors, and now, night and day, people using 120 loudspeakers around the perimeter of the camp chant threats to kill residents and destroy Camp Ashraf. This is psychological torture, in clear breach of international humanitarian law.

On 25 November, the European Parliament adopted a written declaration condemning Iraq’s failure to ensure the safety and security of Ashraf residents. It condemned the siege imposed upon the camp and urged the UN to provide urgent protection to Ashraf. For good measure, it urged the United States to follow the UK and EU lead in reviewing the continued naming of the PMOI among organisations concerned with terrorism. As your Lordships will remember, we did that in a court action in this country some years ago, and that was followed by the EU doing exactly the same.

Why is Ashraf important? It is important because its residents are a symbol of hope and inspiration to the millions across the border in their homeland who cry freedom. I believe we need to signal that we stand with those millions in their struggle for freedom against the undemocratic fundamentalists now ruling in Tehran. However, I make it immediately clear, not least in the light of WikiLeaks, that this does not imply or mean a call for military intervention. It does not. It is for the people of Iran to find their own way to freedom, and the PMOI offers a secular republic, respect for human rights and democracy, and an ending of the current nuclear weapons programme. That is what it wants to offer in free elections and it has undertaken to stand by the results of those elections, win or lose.

There is a growing and grave urgency surrounding the siege at Ashraf and words are no longer enough. Since the Americans handed over responsibility for safety and security, we know from experience that the Iraqis are not going to fulfil the undertakings which they gave the American forces or which they have given under international law. When the Minister responds to this debate, perhaps he will be kind enough to answer three questions.

As Iraq has demonstrated that its word cannot be relied upon, will he now ask British embassy staff in Baghdad to visit Ashraf and speak to terminally ill patients denied medical treatment in order better to assess the position at first hand? Secondly, will the UK encourage the UN, perhaps using US forces and help from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, to ensure the proper protection of Ashraf residents by maintaining a continued presence around the perimeter of the camp and ending the siege and psychological torture brought about by loudspeakers and interference with essential supplies? Thirdly, will he facilitate a visit by an all-party group of Peers and MPs to Camp Ashraf so that they can talk to residents there, get a first-hand picture and report on the present position when they return?

The situation at Ashraf is headed for a humanitarian catastrophe. We cannot and must not stand by and wait for this to happen and then start to condemn it. The response last July was slow and bad enough, which the then Ministers were good enough subsequently to acknowledge. We do not want that to happen again. It must be made crystal clear to the Iraqis that the international community will not tolerate breaches of international humanitarian law at Camp Ashraf. I look to the Government to say that they support that position.
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