Irene Khan: … and that is what Ashraf is all about

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In the International Conference on the situation of human rights in Iran and in Camp Ashraf in Brussels last Tuesday (January 25, 1011) Ms. Irene khan, former Secretary General of Amnesty International, raised concern over the human rights situation in Iran and threats posed to the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq in her speech at an international conference in Brussels on January 25 and said: Let's not instrumentalise the human rights of the people of Iran, they have a right to their freedom, they have a right to struggle for their freedom, they have a right to enjoy their freedom and we have an obligation to support them in their struggle for rights and that is what Ashraf is all about.

 

In the conference that was attended by present and former European and American officials to discuss policy on Iran, Irene Khan also said:

Let me begin by thanking the organizers for inviting me, giving me this opportunity to talk to you today. I am not going to ask you to overthrow any government, and I am not going to ask you to give me any applause in advance either. I am going to talk to you about Ashraf and I hope to bring a human and a human rights side to the problem of camp Ashraf.

 

A thorn in the side of the Iranian government, a pawn in the political bargaining between Teheran and Baghdad, a symbol of Iranian resistance; those are three different ways in which Camp Ashraf and its residents have been described by commentators. Now in a game of chess the pawn can either be sacrificed because of its seeming low game value or it can become a force for tactical blocking and support. Now I am not a chess player actually, nor am I a politician so I leave it to others more qualified than myself to say what kind of a chess game is unfolding in that region.

My message is simple; people, women and men should not be used as political pawns. My purpose today in talking to you is to lay out the humanitarian scene and the human suffering in Ashraf. And see what the international community should do to stop it. Now, I haven’t been to Camp Ashraf. I know some of you have. I also know some of you have family and friends there.  So you know better than me what we are talking about. We are not talking about some great political plot. We are talking about 3400 or so human beings living behind barbed wire in a dusty landscape some of them have lived there almost a quarter of a century because of what they believe in, because of their struggle for freedom. A very large number of them are women. Life has not been easy for them.

But never have they been so endangered, isolated, harassed, targeted and attacked as they are now. As we all know from 2003 when the coalition forces intervened in Iraq until the first of January 2009 the residents of camp Ashraf were designated by the US as protected persons under the Geneva Conventions. In January 2009 under agreements signed between the US and the governments of Iraq, the US handed over the security of the country to the Iraqis and along with it, also the control of Camp Ashraf. But the status of the residents in the Camp was left unclear. The Iraqi government has sent mixed signals about Camp Ashraf, in diplomatic circles it says it will respect an undertaking not to deport the residents of Ashraf and to treat them humanely. But in reality on the ground it has sought to create an untenable situation for the Camp residents. It has created a committee for the suppression of Ashraf in the Prime Ministers office and some senior Iraqi officials have made no bones about their intent to close down Ashraf and to move the people elsewhere. Camp Ashraf is under siege, isolated from normal contact. Now from a human rights and a humanitarian perspective let me highlight three major concerns. First, the physical attacks on the residents. Now we all know what happened in July 2009 when there was a two day attack launched on the Camp which left 11 people dead, several hundred people injured and 36 people detained, beaten and tortured. According to reports, armed security guards used bulldozers to force themselves into the Camps in broad day light, they used water canons, batons, tear gas against unarmed residents on the other side. To this day, there has been no independent investigation of the incident, no accountability for the deaths. Now history and experience shows that impunity breads more human rights violations and that is precisely what has happened here too. The Camp is under constant pressure, threats and attacks have continued. The most recent one was earlier this month on the 7th of January when 176 people were injured, including over 91 or so women.

 

Now where is that story on the human rights agenda, where is the call for accountability? Where is the taking of note of what has happened and is happening to civilians? These are civilians, this is a civilian population, no one disputes that, we don’t see that.

 

Second is; concerns about the medical condition. Now a recent Amnesty International report set out the difficulties that people face when they seek medical assistance. The Camp is surrounded by Iraqi security forces. An Iraqi security committee which is responsible for all matters of the Camp decides about medical treatment. Committee members decide who can travel outside of the Camp and who will go with them. They control the influx of supplies to the Camp and for certain serious illnesses people have to seek treatment outside of the Camp in hospitals in Baghdad or elsewhere. Patients cannot attend their appointments because they are not allowed to take anyone with them, they are not even allowed to take an interpreter with them. The Iraqi government doesn’t provide wheel chairs or special beds which patients sometimes need. So an already bad medical situation becomes worse, leaving many life threatening and chronic patients without treatment. Now if that wasn’t bad enough, you have those megaphones you’ve heard about. Loud chants and slogans on 120 loudspeakers are going on about for eleven months. Imagine you have it for an hour, imagine how you feel. And here people are being bombarded with, I would say, noise torture. So it’s not just physically but also auditorialy that the camp is under siege.

 

Psychological pressure is no better, is no less distressing than physical ill-treatment. But yet again that is an issue that doesn’t make it to the news. Governor Richardson said there is a lot that we do not know about Ashraf. Perhaps there is a lot that we do not want to know about Ashraf because it may make us come face to face with our own judgments and decisions, some tough decisions.

Now the third concern is the risk of forced eviction or even expulsion and a risk that continues to grow as the Maleki government reaches out to the Iranian regime. Now in case there is any doubt in any ones mind as to what might happen if people from Ashraf camp were to be returned forcibly to Iran. The regime in Teheran sent us a brutal message  only yesterday by executing Jafar Kazemi and Mohammad Ali haj Aghai . Now what was their crime? Chanting slogans supporting PMOI, photographing post-election protests, distributing them on the internet?  And yes one of them had a son in Ashraf. In late December Ali Saremi as you know was hanged without notice. He had visited his son in Ashraf. He was accused of membership of PMOI. Four others including a woman are on death row for the same reason. All their trials were unfair. International organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have acknowledged that and have also acknowledged reports of torture and ill treatment.

These days are dark days for human rights in Iran. Executions are being carried out on an amazing speed. Since the beginning of the year Iran has executed at least 49 persons. And I may have underestimated, I may have undercounted that number. Iran executes more people per capita than any other country in the world. And in absolute numbers it is second only to China. Even as protests have gathered speed outside Iran the regime has cracked down in vengeance. A noted filmmaker has been sentenced to a long term in prison.

 

Journalists have been attacked. Women activists have been incarcerated for demanding equality. Now here I want to acknowledge the courage of Iranian woman in their quest for freedom and equality and I think we should all acknowledge that. Now the seriousness of the situation in Iran was such that the United Nations General Assembly in a most unprecedented manner actually adopted a resolution expressing its concern about the appalling state of human rights in Iran. It mentions torture, violations against women, oppression of ethnic and religious minorities and lack of accountability of human rights violations that followed the post 2009 presidential elections. Now you might say that is another General Assembly resolution. Yet another paper. But I would ask you to note that we are talking about the United Nations General Assembly where the majority of governments come from developing world. This is not the West criticizing Iran, this is the world criticizing Iran. And there is a shift there and we need to take that shift into account. Now I am an eternal optimist. In the human rights business you have to be an optimist. And I would say that we do see cracks there. Tunisia has been mentioned several times and here we again see a growing realization that human rights matter that what is happening in Iran, the human rights situation inside Iran matters, globally, not just to the Iranian people. So I would take that as a positive sign and one on which to build support. Public opinion matters, you matter.

 

Now coming back to Ashraf, the residents of Ashraf were designated by the US as protected persons under the Geneva Conventions, and there is now some debate as to whether or not that status has lapsed. But whichever way you argue the law, whichever position you take, international law makes it very clear that no one can be returned to a place where he is likely to be tortured, no one can be ill treated, civilians must be treated with humanity, dignity and respect for their rights. That places a clear obligation on the Iraqi government to protect the rights of the residents of Ashraf from any danger and to ensure their humane treatment. Furthermore, Iraq is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which places upon governments the obligation to protect human rights, the obligation not to torture, to treat well, not to expel, deport someone forcibly to a place where they may face torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. The Iraqi government cannot escape that obligation, regardless of whether or not, it recognizes any status for the residents of Ashraf.

 

The most important attribute of sovereignty, is the responsibility to protect people on its territory, the Iraqi government must not be allowed to escape that responsibility and the international community must hold the Iraqi government to account.

 

Pressure and accountability are the tools that the human rights system uses to hold governments to their obligations, those tools have to be now applied to the Iraqi government and I don’t believe the international human rights system is doing that enough in the case of Ashraf. They need to wake up to their responsibilities in that respect.

 

Now there is no confidence among the Ashraf residents that the Iraqi authorities would protect them or assist them. On the contrary, there is fear that the opposite is happening. Of course the behaviour of the Iraqi authorities gives substance to those fears and so what is the role of the international community. As a former UN refugee official and a current human rights practitioner I know from my own experience on the ground that international involvement and in particular international presence is a critical factor in ensuring protection to populations at risk. I have seen in many volatile situations the value that the United Nations or the international Red Cross brings both in protecting civilians and also in creating an environment of trust and confidence in which tensions between the population and the host country can be reduced. I was told that the UNAMI, the UN operation in Iraq only visits Ashraf from time to time because it does not feel that it has sufficient security to be there all the time. Imagine what the residents must feel if the UN doesn’t feel safe enough to be there. So I think the presence will go a long way. Regular presence will go a long way, regular monitoring will go a long way in providing protection to the people of Ashraf. But there is now incumbent on UN member states and in particular on Iraq and on the United States to make it possible for the UN to establish their presence there. To be there….this is precisely the kind of situation where cooperation between the multilateral human rights system and member states like the US can help to defuse tensions, depoliticize the situation and ensure that all sides recognize that this is first and foremost a humanitarian problem that requires a humanitarian solution.

 

Now what should the European Union do, what should the Unites States do. I think we have heard from Americans and Europeans about that so I won't talk about that I am neither American nor European. But what I do want to stress here is the importance of keeping the focus on accountability and respect for human rights.

 

This is a highly charged region. In the bigger picture of global politics, strategic issues like nuclear weapons, Ashraf may seem too small; human rights may seem a secondary issue. Too often we have seen in recent past our human rights are brushed to one side because of security concerns. Just think of Iraq. The issue there was weapons of mass destruction, today the situation, the key issue on the ground, is human rights of the people of Iraq. And so I would beg all of you to not lose sight of what is happening here, yes, nuclear weapons, Iran is a threat, all that is true, but what do the people of Iran want? Let's not instrumentalise the human rights of the people of Iran, they have a right to their freedom, they have a right to struggle for their freedom, they have a right to enjoy their freedom and we have an obligation to support them in their struggle for rights and that is what Ashraf is all about. It is about focusing about the human rights of the people, it is about focusing about the dignity of the Iranian people and that is what we should begin with and that is where we should aim for.

 

 

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