By Irwin Cotler -- In a recent encounter I had in Paris with families of those murdered at Camp Ashraf on September 1 the cri de coeur related not only to the horror of the massacre, and the continuing plight of the survivors, but also to the silence of the international community in the wake of such atrocity.
In the early hours of September 1, 2013, approximately 120 heavily armed and uniformed attackers launched a brutal assault against the 101 residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, all of whom enjoy the status of “asylum-seekers” and “protected persons” under international law. In a coordinated military-style attack, 52 unarmed and defenseless Iranian refugees were killed execution-style with armor-piercing bullets, pistols, and explosives and 7 persons, including 6 women, have been disappeared – all 7 remain unaccounted for at this time.
Indeed, there is credible evidence indicating Iraqi culpability, carried out at the behest of high level Iranian officials. 1200 Iraqi soldiers and police officers had been permanently stationed both inside and around the fortified compound, while U.S. intelligence officials have recently concluded that a small number of IRGC commandos were involved in the planning and implementation of the massacre.
The international community has a clear legal obligation to ensure that the safety and security of the more than 3000 Iranian dissident refugees currently residing in Iraq is guaranteed going forward, that the 7 missing hostages are accounted for and their freedom secured, and that the perpetrators of this attack are identified and brought to justice.
Prior to the September 1 massacre, Camp Ashraf was home to 101 asylum-seekers belonging to the pro-democracy Iranian resistance organization Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). For more than two decades, approximately 3400 of these pro-democracy political dissidents – almost all of whom are Iranian nationals – lawfully resided in Iraq but would likely be exposed to persecution, torture, and execution if returned to Iran, where membership in the group is a death-penalty offense.
It should also be recalled that less than two weeks after the September 1 massacre of 52 of these Ashraf residents, the Iraqi Government transferred the 42 remaining survivors to Camp Liberty in Iraq to join their 3100 compatriots now residing there. But this facility is characterized by a paucity of potable water and electricity; unreliable access to medical treatment; inadequate protection from the extreme Iraqi heat; a dysfunctional sewage system; and a dearth of accommodations for the disabled. Moreover, the Residents remain vulnerable to repeated attacks while being undermined at every turn by the Iraqi Government in their efforts to obtain and maintain sufficient security infrastructure.
Let there be no mistake about it: the September 1 massacre was not only predictable – five separate attacks against these protected refugees have occurred since 2009 both at Camps Ashraf and Liberty – but it was also preventable.
For the mass murder of the Ashraf residents was only the most recent – and most lethal – of the five attacks that have together claimed 112 lives and injured more than four-hundred. Indeed, two of these prior attacks were acknowledged to have been directly carried out by Iraqi security forces.
Two years ago, I sought to sound the alarm on the ongoing harassment and intimidation being perpetrated by the Government of Iraq against the defenseless Ashraf refugees and warned about a prospective massacre or forced transfer back to Iran. It is regrettable that my warnings – and these warnings of others across the political spectrum – were not acted upon.
Indeed, this latest massacre was occasioned by the international community’s inaction and indifference in the face of prior attacks, which signalled to both the Iranian regime – and to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki – that the international community will stand aside while crimes against humanity are committed against these defenseless dissidents.
Accordingly, the following initiatives are necessary to avert any further atrocities, while holding the perpetrators accountable:
First, Canada and the United States should demand the immediate and safe return of the 7 missing hostages to Camp Liberty. Indeed, the evidence indicates that the hostages are in the custody of Iraqi authorities who bear responsibility for ensuring that their rights as protected persons are respected and secured and that they are not returned to Iran.
Second, Canada and the United States should champion the case and cause of these Camp Liberty protected persons – and in particular that of the missing hostages – within the U.N. system. In this regard, the international community should work to achieve a permanent UN presence inside Camp Liberty to monitor the situation and to ensure the physical security of the camp residents.
Third, the United Nations must immediately mount an independent and impartial investigation – including a commission of inquiry – to further investigate the facts surrounding the September 1 massacre. Canada, the United States, and the international community must fully support such an investigation so that its findings will be effectively and quickly acted upon. Indeed, such an investigation is urgent, as 18 Iranian Qods Force and Ministry of Intelligence agents were dispatched to Ashraf this week to cover up evidence of the September massacre and the related hostage-taking, in coordination with Prime Minister Maliki and his National Security Advisor.
Fourth, it is crucial therefore that the United Nations take immediate investigative action so as to preserve the evidence of this mass atrocity crime, so that the Iraqi and Iranian governments can be held to account, thereby combatting the culture of impunity that continues to prevail.
Fifth, Canada and the United States should take a leadership role in response to the refugee crisis and should consider admitting some number of the Camp Liberty residents on an expedited basis. While the UNHCR has been working to process the residents’ asylum claims, it has been impeded in its efforts by the Iraqi Government.
Finally, Canada and the United States should urge the UNHCR, which has been processing the residents’ asylum claims, to expedite their resettlement by processing their asylum applications as a group.
The Ashraf massacre is but the latest manifestation of an ongoing legal, political, and humanitarian crisis that must be addressed and resolved. The continuing denial of humane living conditions and basic necessities to the Camp Liberty residents, their exposure to repeated mass attacks, their inability to leave, and the absence of a safe haven violate their rights as asylum-seekers and protected persons under international law. The international community must send a clear message that it will protect these long-suffering pro-democracy dissidents – hostages to human rights violating regimes – and ensure that no massacres will ensue and that there safety and well-being is secured.
Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Emeritus Professor of Law (McGill University), and the former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada. He is co-Chair with Senator Mark Kirk of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and a Member of the Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.