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Camp Ashraf

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

Before starting my speech, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his statement of 8 April, in which he condemned the attacks on Camp Ashraf. However, I am appalled by what I regard as a conspiracy of silence on the matter. I am at a complete loss to understand why the British Broadcasting Corporation and others have not reported on the subject. It is deeply disappointing and most insulting to the relatives of those who were injured in the recent attacks.

The House will be aware that on 8 April, following direct orders from Nuri al-Maliki and at the behest of the Iranian regime, 2,500 Iraqi armed forces used 140 armoured vehicles to carry out a vicious assault on Camp Ashraf. The camp was home to 3,500 Iranian dissidents, members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, including 1,000 women.

I take this opportunity to add my voice to the international condemnation of that brutal and callous attack, a military assault against defenceless unarmed civilians. It led to the death of at least 35 residents, including eight women, the majority of whom were in their 20s. A further 350 were wounded. Of the 35 killed, 32 were shot in the head, chest or abdomen, and the other three were deliberately run over by Humvees and other military vehicles. At least 225 of the 350 injured suffered gunshots from the Iraqi forces.

The April attack is not over. Iraqi forces are amassing inside the camp, and several Iraqi engineering battalions have completed a 6 km embankment on the northern edge of Camp Ashraf’s main road. Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty International’s middle east and north Africa programme, stated:

“Given the nature and scope of these new military installations, we’re very concerned what Iraqi security forces may be planning.”

I strongly urge the Government to convey the demands that I shall list today to the Iraqi Government and their armed forces. They must stop any form of violence, aggression or attacks, especially using live ammunition against those civilised and unarmed refugees. Further, they must immediately withdraw all armed forces from Camp Ashraf.

Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the Iraqis cannot now be trusted to uphold human rights in Camp Ashraf, and that the Government not only need to act but should act under international law?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but I would go further. I am most disappointed with the American Government’s role in the matter. I am puzzled about a number of aspects, which I shall mention shortly. None the less, I agree with my hon. Friend.

I emphasise that the Ashraf residents have resided in the camp for 25 years. They have turned a desert patch into a small town using their own resources and money. The receipts for all their expenses still exist.

I turn to the Iraqi Government’s position. Iraqi officials claimed that only three residents were killed and that no live ammunition was used during the attack. However, I refer the House to the numerous footages posted on the YouTube website and aired by international television stations, which clearly show Iraqi forces indiscriminately shooting at and running over unarmed residents.

In a statement condemning the attack, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed that, of those killed,

“Most were shot, and some appear to have been crushed to death, presumably by vehicles.”

Simply put, an unarmed civilian population was slaughtered. I shall give my hon. Friend the Minister photographic evidence showing those who were injured in that disgraceful attack. The Law Society’s human rights committee confirmed in a statement condemning the attack that, in footage of it, Iraqi security forces were seen opening fire on unarmed residents, while others were ploughed down by heavy military vehicles.

The US State Department said in a statement on 8 April that

“this crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi military”.

That is all well and good, but what is it doing about it? Why was no assistance given by the hospitals, which could have tended the injured? I remind the House that, when the Iraqi Government took over protection of the camp in January 2009, US officials publicly announced that Iraq had given a written assurance to treat the residents humanely and in accordance with Iraq’s constitution, laws and international obligations. I have evidence of people being killed or injured, but what are the US Government doing about it?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the United Kingdom Government making representations to the United States? Ever mindful of the fact that the UK and the USA fought together in Iraq as a coalition, is it not time for them to do something more constructive? Have our Government made representations to the USA?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I have said umpteen times that I very much regret voting for the war with Iraq, but he is right. The United States of America encouraged Britain to become involved. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will give us an indication of what pressure is being placed on the US Government to help.

The attack of 8 April is the second time that the Iraqi Government have resorted to using live ammunition and violence in brutally attacking defenceless and unarmed residents.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I share his sense of horror at the activities going on in Ashraf. I hear all sorts of appalling stories of terrible crimes against humanity. He may be coming to this point, and I apologise if that is so, but I am most concerned about the treatment of the wounded, the sick and the injured. It is another example of inhumanity to neglect such people, given that they will be non-participants in any shape or form, and I find it appalling. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has it in mind, but I do not want the opportunity to go by without raising the matter.

I know the hon. Gentleman to be a good and compassionate man. He is right. Indeed, as a result of the lack of treatment, another injured person has died. I understand that there are further difficulties in seeking adequate treatment, but I shall come to that in a moment.

On 20 April 2009, the Iraqi Interior Ministry signed a statement confirming that it had used its own police dogs in a search of Camp Ashraf and that no explosives or weapons were found. I have a copy of that document and I will hand it over to the Minister. It is crystal clear that the Iraqi Government have neither the intention nor the capability to protect Ashraf residents. The Government are far too weak and they have many Iranian proxies in their ranks. At the end of the day, they cannot be relied on to provide proper protection for their residents in accordance with international law and it would be naïve for anyone to claim otherwise.

On behalf of the majority of Back-Bench MPs and of 200 Members of the other place, I urge our Government to call on the United Nations to take responsibility for providing protection for the camp to ensure that the rights of the residents are not violated and to station a permanent monitoring team at the camp. To avoid any further loss of life or violent attacks, the Iraqi Government should immediately withdraw their armed forces from the camp, which is an unarmed civilian zone.

The Iraqi Government have often justified their totally unacceptable treatment of the camp residents under the pretext of imposing their sovereignty as a Government. Let me state clearly that the residents have respected Iraq’s sovereignty. Ashraf has been their home for 25 years. Photos and films exist to prove that. It is a well-documented and well-known fact. Furthermore, this sovereignty in no way can allow Iraq to breach international law and the residents’ fundamental rights under international human rights laws and the Geneva conventions. I have a copy of a protected person’s status card belonging to one of the residents, which was issued by the multinational force in 2004. It states that, until their final disposition, they are recognised as protected persons.

In a statement condemning the attack, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, described the attack as a “massacre”, and a massacre is exactly what it was. It was the cold-blooded murder of defenceless civilians by Iraq’s military. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

“There must be a full, independent and transparent inquiry, and any person found responsible for use of excessive force should be prosecuted.”

I demand that an international fact-finding mission, rather than one formed by Iraq, which was responsible for the brutal attack, carry out that task so that the perpetrators of this crime against humanity who ordered and carried out the killing of unarmed civilians are brought before international courts to face justice.

I have a list of 11 critically wounded Ashraf residents who could lose their lives, which I will give to the Minister along with a copy of my speech and the DVD of the attack. I ask that he takes action on the demands that we have raised today.

Furthermore, I have some details for the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for our relationship with the UN. Following the massacre in Rwanda, there was regret that the international community did nothing to stop it. In a world summit in 2005, a law was ratified stipulating that it is the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect the population in its territory and that if there are any signs that crimes against humanity, genocide or war crimes are about to happen, every UN member state has a duty to intervene to stop it. Such intervention does not violate the sovereignty of a Government. Rather it provides support for a state to realise its responsibility to protect its population. A massacre has already occurred in Camp Ashraf and there is every sign that the Iraqi Government have not fulfilled their commitments towards Ashraf residents. Instead, they have launched a massacre that has so far killed 35 and wounded hundreds.

I have four points on which I should like the Minister to reflect. First, we call on our Government to demand that the UN take responsibility for providing proper protection for Camp Ashraf and set up a permanent team in the camp. Secondly, the Government should demand that Iraqi forces immediately leave the camp and halt all further such attacks and aggression. Thirdly, I hope that the UN will form an international investigative mission for the perpetrators of this crime to face justice. Finally, the US should urgently provide medical assistance to the injured.

I urge the Minister and the Government to forward those basic demands to the highest levels within the UN, the European Union and the US Administration. I know that there is overwhelming support in the House of Commons and in the other place for the residents of Camp Ashraf to be protected. I cannot understand why there is so little reporting of this situation on TV and on the radio and in our newspapers. Why is there that conspiracy of silence? As far as international jurisdiction is concerned, right is entirely with these poor people in Camp Ashraf.

Following the Minister’s statement on 8 April, I know that I can rely on him to do the right thing and ensure that the injured and wounded in Camp Ashraf are dealt with and that permanent protection through the United Nations is given in future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for securing the debate and for his courtesy in sending me a copy of his remarks in advance. I know that the situation of the residents of Camp Ashraf is important to him, as well as many Members of this House and the other place. I also thank other colleagues who have contributed to the debate. The recent incident at Camp Ashraf is a matter of great concern for the UK Government and others.

The Government have closely followed events at Camp Ashraf for some time. Staff at our embassy in Baghdad have made consular visits to Camp Ashraf to inquire about the welfare of those who may be entitled to UK consular services or protection. The last of these visits by embassy staff was on 16 March 2011. We believe that a small number of residents there have some connection to the UK, although no one has yet come forward to request consular assistance. In addition to those consular visits, we hold regular discussions about the situation at the camp with EU and US colleagues, and the Government of Iraq.

The situation poses complex challenges and, as hon. Members will appreciate, there are no easy answers. It has lasted a long time and is very far from clear cut. The Iraqi Government have a long-standing commitment to close Camp Ashraf and they have made that clear to the camp’s residents. Iraq’s sovereignty extends across all its territory, including Camp Ashraf, but along with our EU colleagues, we believe that using force is not the way to resolve the situation at the camp, and I shall say more about that in a moment. However, it is the Iraqi Government’s responsibility to respect and protect the human rights of the camp’s residents.

I want to say something about the residents of Camp Ashraf, who number nearly 3,500, the organisation to which they belong, and why they are there. Camp Ashraf is controlled by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran—the PMOI. As I am sure hon. Members know, the PMOI is an Iranian opposition group with extreme leftist origins that was founded in 1965. It is also known as the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, or MEK. The PMOI is often referred to as the main opposition group to the Iranian regime and it works vigorously to promote that view of itself. However, the UK Government believe that it has little or no support within Iran and that it is not considered a legitimate opposition group by the Iranian people. Furthermore, we are unable to forget the PMOI’s violent history. It was responsible for a number of serious terrorist attacks that led to the deaths of many Iranian civilians. The violent history of the PMOI led to it being proscribed by the UK as a terrorist organisation. The UK Government have strongly opposed the PMOI’s de-proscription on two occasions: first, domestically in 2008; and, secondly, in the EU in January 2009. The organisation remains proscribed in the US. Nevertheless, whatever the history of the PMOI, our views and concerns about Camp Ashraf, the rights of its residents and the violence of the recent incident in the camp are clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West made the point very strongly that, out of concern for the welfare of the residents of Camp Ashraf, the UN and the US should intervene to establish some form of presence there. However, as I am sure he is aware, it was always clear that following the expiry of the UN Security Council resolution mandate at the end of 2008, responsibility for the security and administration of the camp and its residents would pass from the US to the Government of Iraq. Before the handover took place, the US received assurances from the Government of Iraq that outlined their commitment to the humane treatment and continued well-being of the camp’s residents. We recognise that Iraq is now a sovereign democratic state and that responsibility for the residents of Camp Ashraf lies with the Iraqi Government, but we also expect Iraq to act in accordance with its legal obligations. The UN makes weekly visits to the camp and has regular telephone contact with representatives of residents of the camp. The UN also holds weekly meetings with the Government of Iraq’s Ashraf committee.

We are aware that there have been calls for the residents of Camp Ashraf to be considered as protected persons under the fourth Geneva convention. However, under international humanitarian law, that status applies only when there is an international armed conflict or a situation of occupation. Neither of those scenarios applies in Iraq now, but that does not mean that there is a legal vacuum. As I have said, Iraq is obliged to treat residents of the camp in accordance with Iraqi law and the international human rights treaties to which it is a party.

I now turn to the events of 7 and 8 April. Along with our international partners, we have been active—and we continue to be active—in calling on the Government of Iraq to stop the violence against residents of Camp Ashraf. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West was good enough to mention the statement that I made on 8 April, but it bears repeating so that it is in Hansard:

“The UK Government is disturbed to read reports that a number of civilian residents have been killed and many more wounded at Camp Ashraf yesterday. I absolutely deplore any loss of life and my sincere condolences go out to the families of those involved.”

May I finish reading out the statement before I give way to my hon. Friend?

My statement continued:

“The Iraqi Government has provided us with assurances on several occasions that it will treat individual residents of Camp Ashraf in a humane manner, act in accordance with Iraqi law, the Iraqi Constitution and its international obligations. We urge the Iraqi Government to uphold this commitment. Our Ambassador in Baghdad has been expressing our concerns to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the highest levels. We call on the Iraqi Government to cease violent operations in Camp Ashraf immediately and to ensure that the residents have full access to medical care.”

That last comment about medical care addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr Benton) and a number of other hon. Members. The statement went on:

“It is important that the Government of Iraq takes immediate steps to calm the situation and ensure that the human rights of the residents are respected. We are aware of a request by UNAMI”—

the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq—

“to send a humanitarian monitoring mission to Camp Ashraf as soon as possible. We fully support this request and therefore urge the Iraqi Government to quickly grant permission. We call on all sides to engage in a constructive dialogue that can lead to a lasting resolution to the situation.”

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I respect him immensely, so I am surprised that the Foreign Office is continuing to argue against the findings of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which dismissed the Government’s view of the PMOI totally out of hand at the time. Furthermore, for all the talk about international law, at the end of the day Britain and other nations committed themselves and made sacrifices to create the Government of Iraq in the expectation that that Government would be democratic and free. We now know that the Iraqi Government are not willing to uphold international law, and I believe that we ought to be doing much more than the Minister’s statement of 8 April suggests. If I may say so, I believe that the Minister secretly thinks that too.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments. On the first part of his intervention, I stand by the Foreign Office’s belief that the PMOI’s background, history and present activities require it to remain proscribed by the UK—that is our view. Nevertheless, as I indicated very clearly, the history of the organisation does not relate to what is happening on the ground now, which is a matter of fundamental human rights and of ensuring that people are treated properly and decently, as well as having proper access to medical care. The injunctions of my hon. Friend and others in that regard are absolutely right, and we are seeking to ensure that the Iraqi Government uphold that commitment.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s intervention was about the difficult issue of how a sovereign Government, once they have been established, meet their obligations when they have a particular responsibility. It is not the responsibility of those outside the country to do the things that are required to be done by a sovereign Government. The process is difficult, but it is absolutely necessary to get the sovereign Government to live up to the obligations that have been set out. We and our international partners must continue to make that clear.

This is a frustrating situation. The circumstances of Camp Ashraf, including the living conditions of its residents, must be extremely difficult, but it is a complex situation. The history of the organisation involved cannot be completely ignored, which was why I set it out, but our position on the immediate recent issue has been clear, and I have stated both what we did at the time and what we are attempting to do now.

I know that my hon. Friend has very little time left to respond, but I must say that the fact that the PMOI is a proscribed organisation is absolutely ridiculous. One only has to consider the way in which we deal with the Irish Republican Army to see how facile the position on the PMOI is. However, does my hon. Friend think that the Foreign Office could facilitate a small group of British parliamentarians going to Camp Ashraf to see the situation at first hand?

I will not answer my hon. Friend’s question directly, because clearly I would need to take some advice on colleagues’ safety, background and everything else. Ultimately, it would be a matter not for us but for the sovereign Government involved. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will consider it.

In addition to my making my statement of 8 April deploring the loss of life and injury, which I have just read out, Cathy Ashton, the EU’s high representative, did much the same. UK representatives on the ground reinforced the message. The ambassador in Baghdad and EU heads of mission met the Iraqi Prime Minister on 4 April to discuss Camp Ashraf. Our ambassador hosted a meeting with the UN, the US and the EU on 7 April to discuss concerns, and he phoned the Iraqi Foreign Minister to urge the Government of Iraq to allow immediate access for a UN mission to Camp Ashraf. We also called for the violence—from whatever source—to stop immediately, so we have made our position as clear as we can.

Latest reports indicate that the situation in Camp Ashraf remains tense but calm. The Government of Iraq allowed a small US medical team access to the camp on 10 April. I understand that, following international pressure from the UK and other countries, the Iraqis have subsequently allowed medical access. A visit to the camp by UN officials took place on 14 April. Although the Government of Iraq did not allow other missions to participate in the UN mission, a UK military adviser to UNAMI was present. The UN visited a makeshift mortuary within the camp and photographed 28 dead. Yesterday, the UN confirmed to our embassy officials in Iraq that 34 people were killed in the recent incident and more than 70 people were injured. I repeat that we deplore those events.

The current situation in Camp Ashraf is of great concern to the UK and we remain fully engaged with the issue. We hope that UN missions, including the British embassy, will be allowed to visit Camp Ashraf to assess the situation in the near future. We will continue to work with our international partners to press the Government of Iraq to respect the rights of the residents of Camp Ashraf.