Time for courage from Europe over Camp Ashraf

PS-Public Service Europe – By Paulo Casaca 18 November 2011

The tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto is about to be repeated in Iraq if Europe, the United States and the United Nations do not step up to the plate

Alexis de Tocqueville once said: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” What the government of Iraq is planning to do with Camp Ashraf, home to 3,400 Iranian dissidents, is frighteningly reminiscent of what Hitler did to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 – and it seems the bitter past is shedding little light on the situation.

 During the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – Ashraf residents, members of the principal Iranian resistance movement the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran – or PMOI/MEK – who had gained refuge in Iraq for the past 25 years remained neutral. The following year, all of them got written guarantees that in return for voluntary disarmament the US would protect them. But, in early 2009, America handed responsibility for the camp’s security to Iraqi forces. Since then, Ashraf has been under a punishing blockade – with residents deprived of such basic services as access to proper medical care.

Prior to this blockade, as a member of the European Parliament, I visited Ashraf periodically between 2004 and 2008. I went on the most visits to Ashraf of any western politician and I know hundreds of residents personally and intimately. I also prepared reports on my trips for the European Parliament. Despite written assurances from Iraqi leaders to the US government – to observe all the rights of Ashraf residents – Amnesty International reported on November 1 that Camp Ashraf had been “attacked several times by Iraqi security forces, causing the deaths of dozens of residents and injuries to others”. Amnesty added: “Iraqi troops stormed into the camp on April 8 using grossly excessive force and live fire. Some 36 residents, including eight women, were killed and more than 300 were wounded. At least nine camp residents were killed and others injured in an earlier attack on July 28–29, 2009.”

At the behest of the Tehran authorities, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set December 31 as the deadline for the camp to close and the clock is ticking. In September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that it considered the Ashraf residents to be asylum seekers and urged Iraq to extend the deadline so it could process the asylum requests. Yet, the government of Iraq has obstructed the UNHCR process at every turn. Iraq’s plan is to disperse the residents throughout the country and then massacre them quietly. This tragic eventuality is rather obvious in a formal letter that the government of Iraq provided to a number of European institutions in November, a copy of which I obtained. The document stated: “The Iraqi government was left with no choice, but to evacuate the camp based on principle of sovereignty – and transfer its residents to other camps in Iraq.”

The Iraqi government again is trying to deceive the international community and the UN agencies by providing “assurances”. Sadly, such assurances from the authorities are worthless. Six hours prior to the assault last April, the American Embassy in Iraq received assurance from Maliki that there would be “no violence”. Needless to say, that lying to the UNHCR is much easier than lying to the U.S. On legal, moral, and political grounds – the US has the most responsibility towards Ashraf residents. Congress has underscored this reality. During a hearing at the Senate on November 15, Senator Carl Levin – the chairman of the Armed Services Committee – said it should be made clear to the government of Iraq that “there’s a real strong feeling around here” for Ashraf residents and “if they violate that commitment to us that is going to have a severely negative impact on their relationship with the US Congress”. Unfortunately, the American government has not provided appropriate response to all these concerns.

During the April raid, despite video vividly showing firing squads assassinating unarmed civilians and armored vehicles rolling over them, Iraq’s official position was first that there were no casualties, and when the dozens of corpses of defenseless refugees could not be denied – Iraq said they had committed suicide. If Ashraf residents are dispersed in small groups, without cameras and phones, Iraqi authorities will be able to torture and assassinate them and claim they committed suicide; this time without any evidence of their lies.
The Iraqi plan is strikingly reminiscent of the “resettlement” plan of the Third Reich for Warsaw Ghetto residents. It was supposed to commence on July 22, 1942, but by June some inside the ghetto wanted to alert the world to the “systematic extermination” underway. Their warnings mostly went unheeded. Those residents who could see what was coming decided to stay in the Warsaw Ghetto rather than be transferred to certain death in obscure locations. The eventual outcome was tragic, but at least the world could see what was happening.

Ashraf residents would have to be suicidal to believe such “assurances” and to be dispersed peacefully. Like the Warsaw Ghetto residents, those in Ashraf would have to resist any deportation order by any means they have. What should be done? Well, the UNHCR should publicly demand that Iraq start to cooperate with it and allow immediate interviewing of Ashraf residents. The US, European Union and UN should demand that the December 31 deadline be extended. For the period of the final disposition and transferring Ashraf residents to third countries, UN monitors should be placed in Ashraf to guarantee their rights. History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; however, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again. This is time for courage.

Paulo Casaca is director of the Alliance to Renew Cooperation among Humankind campaign group. He was an MEP from 1999 to 2009

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