European Voice – By Struan Stevenson
Iraq appears to prefer to shed the blood of Iranian refugees than to seek a solution with the EU.
The photographs and videos that circulated across the internet in the aftermath of the recent massacre at Camp Ashraf in northern Iraq testified to a sickening level of violence perpetrated by the security forces of Iraq’s nascent democracy.
The scale of violence was later confirmed by the United Nations, which concluded that 35 people died on 8 April when five Iraqi army divisions moved into the camp, which is home to 3,400 Iranian dissidents who fled their homeland and were allowed to enter Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
In the aftermath of Saddam’s downfall, they were afforded protected status by both the US and the UN. After US troops handed responsibility for their security to the Iraqi government in 2009, the UN urged the Iraqi government to respect the human rights of the political refugees in the camp, as did the European Parliament, in two resolutions.
The violence is the government’s response. And, in the weeks since, Baghdad has repeatedly turned away medical teams and international observers seeking to treat and question those trapped in the camp, which remains surrounded by heavily armed troops.
When, after two years of requests, a European Parliament delegation was allowed to visit Iraq in late April, we sought explanations for the attack and answers about what was being done to assist the numerous severely injured people who remain in the camp.
The Iraqi government refused either to explain its actions or to provide information about conditions inside the camp.
Climate of fear
What was clear when we arrived in Baghdad was that we were entering a place of fear, where Iraqi leaders, and visitors like us, hurtle around at speed in heavily armoured vehicles driven by men clad in body armour and armed with sub-machine guns. Baghdad remains a war zone, where missiles, mortars, suicide bombs and assassinations remain a part of daily life.
It was evident that the political scene also remains fragile. The unity of the national-unity government formed in December remains questionable and a wide range of powers are concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. This combination of a weak political system and of a concentration of power leaves marginalised groups vulnerable to abuse.
Among those marginalised groups are the Camp Ashraf refugees, supporters of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) who fled Iran in the 1980s when the clerical regime in Tehran executed more than 30,000 political prisoners.
Clearly, according to many senior politicians we spoke to in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is under constant pressure from Iran to take action on Ashraf. This pressure has resulted in the basest violence and intimidation in order to expel the refugees. This amounts to an international crime whose perpetrators should be brought to justice after a fully independent inquiry.
Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, refused to let us enter the camp or to hear first-hand accounts of the massacre.
The way forward
Despite these setbacks, I believe a solution is possible. The Iraqi government made it clear that it is seeking to close the camp; we are keen to help make that happen and to help re-settle its occupants. Many of those in Camp Ashraf were formerly resident as refugees in the EU. That is why we offered to seek the agreement of the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Commission to re-settle some of the Ashraf residents here in Europe.
While some EU governments have historically viewed the PMOI as a terrorist group, a series of legal victories for the PMOI in Europe’s courts removed it from European blacklists and the protected status accorded Camp Ashraf by the UN should make re-settlement possible. Now, with the help of the US, Canada, Australia and countries like Norway and Switzerland, it should be relatively simple to re-settle 3,400 refugees, many of them university-educated, to save them from what appears to be almost-certain annihilation.
But we made it clear to the Iraqi government that we cannot and will not start negotiations with other EU institutions about re-settlement until it allows access to the camp and removes troops from around the camp.
If the Iraqi government is serious about a solution for Camp Ashraf, it will heed our offer without delay. So far, it has preferred to shed blood and to disregard the international community rather than to pursue a bloodless solution.
Struan Stevenson is president of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Iraq. He is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the Parliament.