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Iraq: Camp Ashraf

Volume 721: debated on Monday 25 October 2010


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to Iraq regarding its undertakings to ensure the safety and security of Iranian refugees at Camp Ashraf.

In the absence of my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we have discussed the situation at Camp Ashraf with the Iraqi Prime Minister, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, the Iraqi Human Rights Minister, the Iraqi Minister of Internal Affairs and the Iraqi Government’s Ashraf committee. The United Kingdom has underlined the need for the Iraqi authorities to deal with the residents of Camp Ashraf in a way that meets international humanitarian standards. Officials from the British embassy in Baghdad have visited Camp Ashraf four times in the past year and remain in contact with the United Nations Assistance Mission and the United States. We continue to follow developments.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that account of energetic activity, but does he agree that, since the occupying forces of the Americans and British delivered the residents of Ashraf to the mercies of the Iraqi military, they retain some obligation for their welfare and protection from repeated murderous attacks and the interruption of food and medical supplies? Does he agree that, if we could discharge an obligation simply by saying that we had transferred it to someone else, we could all get rid of our debts instantly and painlessly? Do the Government agree that they retain a responsibility to protect?

We certainly retain a humanitarian concern, but we have to remember, as I am sure the noble and learned Lord will be the first to recognise, that Iraq is now a sovereign state with its own responsibilities and it is within the Iraqi sovereign concern to address this matter in the proper way. That does not mean that we will ignore it. As I indicated, we have constant contact with the Iraqi Government; the United Nations Assistance Mission visits the site once a week, although for the moment it has removed its continuous monitoring; and there is international pressure. However, the facts are the facts: Iraq is a sovereign country now and it lies within that country’s sovereign area to address the problem and solve it in a sensible way.

Does my noble friend not agree that even if the residents in Ashraf are, as some argue, no longer entitled to protection under the fourth Geneva convention, we as partners of America in the Iraqi war have a clear moral responsibility to try to stop any violence or intimidation of the people in Ashraf? I am grateful for what he has said about the representations that have already been made, but perhaps the time has come when we should be urging a permanent UN presence in Ashraf until things are really sorted out there.

I recognise my noble friend’s continuous concern on this issue. It is the concern of all of us that we do not want to see suffering, violence or worse. However, as has been acknowledged by the United Nations, the people of Camp Ashraf do not have refugee status under the fourth Geneva convention, nor are they prisoners of war under any other part of the Geneva convention. Our concern must be the concern of any civilised nation—that this matter can be handled properly. The UN does not find the idea of a permanent military force there acceptable but, as I said, it is keeping the matter under constant monitoring and we shall continue to press it strongly.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, irrespective of our legal obligations, we have an enduring obligation to the people in Camp Ashraf, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, indicated? After all, we do not hand anyone over to any sovereign power if we think that they would be tortured or in any other way mistreated. Does the Minister believe that there is any truth in the allegations that United States officials are not allowed into Camp Ashraf for inspections? I am pleased to hear that our officials have been allowed in, but will he assure us that they will continue to visit the camp? Is there any hope that in the future there will be UN inspectors in Camp Ashraf, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, rightly requested?

I can give hopes and intentions rather than assurances because, as the noble Baroness knows well from her own experience, this is a difficult area. Obviously, we intend to continue having access and monitoring. We intend to continue pressing the UN, which appears to be ready to visit and maintain a close eye on the situation. The overall pattern, however, is governed by the fact that this is Iraqi sovereign territory and Iraq is a sovereign state, although the Iraqis will be watched carefully by the world and will be expected to police and manage this matter in a civilised way.

Does the Minister agree that, since the residents of Camp Ashraf have no refugee status, they are in fact there by choice? Is it not ironic that no member state of the European Union, including the UK, or North America will accept these residents of Camp Ashraf because of the activities of some of them in earlier times? Is it not therefore time for us to move on and leave this issue to the sovereign nation of Iraq?

My noble friend speaks on this matter with a great deal of wisdom and experience. She is right that there is some baggage from the past to carry, which makes it additionally difficult to deal with the status of these people. Nevertheless, having been involved in Iraq for many years, until it restored its full sovereignty, we have a moral concern and must keep the issue alive. I am very grateful that noble Lords keep raising it. We do not want to see it deteriorate into hideous bloodshed in the future.

My Lords, we will all be pleased to hear about the activities that the Government are pursuing through the various bodies that are in control of Iraq, but when we talk about the normal procedures for these things, there is something that we must bear in mind. Does the Minister agree that we should pay tribute to those people—the women—who stood up to the chains with which they were being beaten when the Iraqi people went into the camp? Does he agree that these people deserve more than words? There should be good, sound advice from this House about what goes on when young people are beaten up there. As I have seen on the DVD, chains are being used to hit women who are protesting. Will the Minister, who I know is doing the best that he can, now go to the United Nations and say, “Normal procedures are one thing, but let’s get on and get these people some security”?

The noble Lord is right: all such methods and activities, where they take place, should be deeply deplored. These are not the kind of things that we expect to see in the modern Iraq, which is trying to take its place in the world and the comity of nations as a responsible power. We should never cease to put pressure on Iraq to maintain the highest possible standards and we should not cease to deplore anything of the kind that the noble Lord has described.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that, if these people were in the UK, we would not send them to Iraq, knowing full well that they would be tortured?

That is a hypothesis with which I would have to agree if that were so but, unfortunately, it is not. We are dealing with a much more complex situation, with Iraq seeking to get a new Government and to be a sovereign power. There is also the historical baggage to which I have referred and the malign influence of Iran throughout the Middle East, which we must never cease to safeguard against and watch carefully.

My Lords, one area of concern is the treatment of residents in Camp Ashraf, particularly those who suffer from cancer et cetera. They have no or very restricted access to hospitals in Baghdad. Will the Minister consider, on humanitarian grounds, ensuring that the United Nations Assisted Mission in Iraq is able to assist in such cases?

Yes, I am assured—I have checked this carefully—that all basic and medical supplies are getting in. There is a hospital facility in the camp. Although some items—bicycles and beds, oddly enough—have been prevented from entering the camp, all basic material and food supplies, and the basic essentials of life, are getting into the camp and will continue to do so. The UN is very concerned to see that this situation is maintained.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that visits on behalf of Britain are unannounced and that there is an insistence on meeting people without security guards being present? We all know that there is a danger that a prepared route is available and that prisoners are often too frightened to speak out.

I have not had any clear information about there being a difficulty on that front so far. The visits have been regular and occasionally irregular and therefore unannounced and unplanned for. I do not think that there has been any difficulty, but I will watch out for that carefully in the future to see that these are genuine visits, where evidence is presented and not covered up.