By: David Waddington, Special to CNN
London (CNN) — The July 5 ruling by the Dutch Appeals Court on the responsibility of the Dutch government for the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims by the Serb army reminds us of one of the darkest stains on recent history. It will not swiftly fade, not least because the massacre could have been prevented if the governments of the time had not been so spineless and devoid of the will to do what was right.
Now another similar humanitarian catastrophe looms on the horizon; this time in Iraq with the victims Iranian political refugees, thousands of them, in a place called Camp Ashraf. The residents are under great pressure from the pro-Tehran Iraqi government and facing constant threats to their lives.
The similarities are striking.
Sixteen years ago, in Srebrenica, Dutch peacekeeping troops handed over a refugee camp to the Serb Army after receiving “assurances” from Gen. Ratko Mladic, that the refugees would be safe in their hands. In the days that followed up to 8,000 men were slaughtered.
In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led Coalition Forces, the residents of Ashraf, agreed to hand over their weapons to US forces in exchange for U.S. promises of protection, and the U.S. recognized the residents as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
And yet in 2009, despite a chorus of warnings from rights organizations and noted legal experts, the U.S. handed over the protection of Ashraf residents to Iraq, citing “assurances” from the Iraqi government that it would treat the residents humanely. It was all eerily reminiscent of the Dutch action in 1995.
Since the hand over, Baghdad’s definition of “humane” treatment has found expression in two large-scale massacres, persistent psychological pressures, non-stop abuse from the hundreds of loudspeakers mounted round the camp, and what amounts to a complete siege, which has sealed off the residents from the outside world and cut off their access to fuel and medical supplies.
In July 2009, Iraqi troops overran the camp, killing 11 residents and injuring hundreds more. The U.S. did nothing to prevent the attack.
In April 2011, buoyed by America’s inaction, Iraqi troops attacked Ashraf again. This time armed troops claimed 36 civilian lives, including eight women, and wounded over 350 residents. Senator John Kerry described it as a “massacre,” and the international community was almost unanimous in its condemnation of what had occurred. The exception was of course the Iranian regime which uses its agents in the Iraqi government to urge complete annihilation of Ashraf and its residents.
In April the U.S. again failed to act, even though Article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention required it to reassume the protection of the defenseless residents of Ashraf if the Iraqi government was either unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations. So, the threat of yet another massacre is looming.
In its ruling, the Dutch appeals court said that after the fall of Srebrenica, “an extraordinary situation” had been created which should have prompted the Dutch forces to take on a more active role. The Dutch forces had witnessed “multiple incidents” in which the Serbs mistreated or killed refugees, and that called into question their decision to hand over Srebrenica.
Under international law, U.S. responsibility for Ashraf is even greater than that of the Dutch in Srebrenica. American forces should not have handed over control of the camp to those whose “assurances” they knew could not be trusted. And, upon witnessing the July 2009 and April 2011 massacres, the U.S. should be demanding that Iraq hand back protection of the camp to the U.S. forces.
Following the April attack, US officials condemned the violence: in a statement the US Department of State said: “We reiterate our call for the Iraqi government to live up to its commitments to treat the residents of Ashraf humanely and in accordance with Iraqi law and their international obligations.” But it also said the camp was a matter for the sovereign government of Iraq.
Even worse, a top State Department official Ambassador Lawrence Butler has called for the residents to be relocated in Iraq to a camp entirely under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s control. That would be like cutting off the residents’ communications and sending them to certain death at a concentration camp. In response, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee late last month adopted an amendment into the Foreign Relations Authorization Act to make it the policy of the United States to take all necessary and appropriate steps to prevent the forcible relocation of Camp Ashraf residents inside Iraq and “facilitate the robust presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq in Camp Ashraf.”
Surely also there are two other factors which cannot be overlooked. First, the United States signed an agreement with all the residents vowing to protect them until their future was decided. Second, when after the invasion, the U.S. collected the residents’ weapons, thereby preventing the residents from defending themselves, they increased their own responsibility for the safety of the residents, who were then not only defenseless civilians, like the refugees in Srebrenica, but entitled to protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The U.S. should admit responsibility for the tragedies that have occurred in Ashraf. But, more importantly, it should act to avert more tragedies. It must reassume Ashraf’s protection, and support the European Parliament plan for a long-term solution to the issue.
America has an opportunity to turn the darkest pages of human history and herald a new age where international law and human rights are respected by all in the community of nations. To that end, leading a humanitarian initiative in Ashraf is essential, lest in years to come Courts are blaming the U.S. for a Srebrenica-style massacre at Ashraf.
Editor’s Note: David Waddington is a former UK Home Secretary and a former Leader of the House of Lords. He is a member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom.