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Iraq: Camp Ashraf

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2011


Asked By Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made regarding events involving Iraqi security forces at Camp Ashraf on 25 and 26 December 2010 and 7 January 2011.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, we are aware of reports of disturbances at Camp Ashraf on 25 and 26 December last. Embassy officials in Baghdad regularly discuss the situation with the United Nations, the United States and the European Union; our UN contacts met the Iraqi Government’s Ashraf Committee on 9 January and raised their concerns about these and other recent events. 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.

I thank the Minister for that response. Can he tell me what representations the UK has made to Iraq about the round-the-clock use of about 180 loudspeakers constantly blaring out threats to kill Ashraf residents, amounting to psychological torture? Given Iraq’s breaches of its undertakings to secure the safety and security of these pro-democracy refugees, will the UK now ask the United Nations to station a monitoring force inside Camp Ashraf to prevent further abuse of residents by Iraqi thugs in uniform?

We have made, and indeed are making all the time, representations through our work with the United Nations and we are also planning another direct meeting with Iraqi government officials. I know the noble Lord appreciates that this is Iraqi government sovereign territory and therefore we have to make our approaches, apply our pressure and express our concerns, which he expresses so well, through the Iraqi Government. As to the United Nations, it has taken certain views about withdrawing the regular monitoring operation it had when the United States and the allied forces were there. Now that they have withdrawn it makes fairly systematic and regular visits but it is not at the moment ready to return to a monitoring system. That is the current position but I would be the first to agree with the noble Lord that it is far from satisfactory.

My Lords, I have the feeling that since the Question was put by a Member on the opposition Benches, the mood of the House is that the Cross Benches should have an opportunity to speak, perhaps followed by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner.

I am grateful to the House and to the noble Baroness. Has the Minister had the chance to study the decision of the Spanish authorities to bring before the Spanish courts on 8 March some of the officials of the Iraqi Government because of the violations of human rights which have occurred at Camp Ashraf, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale? Given that this is in breach of Article 4 of the Geneva Convention—it is on that basis that those officials are being brought before the Spanish courts—why are other members of the international community, other members of NATO and the European Union not taking the same position as the Spanish authorities?

I have not had the chance to study in detail the Spanish decisions. As to Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, there is a difference of view on that. As I think he knows well, the advice we have been given is that the people at Camp Ashraf are not protected under the fourth Geneva convention and therefore cannot be put in that category. There is a difference of view there but I will certainly draw to the attention of my colleagues the procedures of the Spanish Government and see if we can learn something from them.

Is it not a fact that the unfortunate people in Camp Ashraf, who include women and children, have been subjected to a long campaign of persecution and harassment by the Iraqi authorities, with food and medical treatment being denied to them? This is really quite insufferable and something ought to be done about it.

I agree it is a miserable situation and I hope it does not turn into an even worse tragedy. The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, has rightly drawn our attention to it and to the organised disturbances apparently promoted by the Iraqi official authorities outside the camp in December and again in January. I myself had an opportunity—not of course to visit the area as it is very difficult to get to—to see the rather grim videos available on the internet, to any noble Lord who cares to watch them, about what was going on and the apparently deliberate provocation: the heaving of stones and the damaging of people in a most unpleasant way. The noble Baroness is also right that there are a lot of women and children in this camp. We have pressed the Iraqi authorities again and again and they undertake that medical, food and all other vital supplies continue to be delivered to Camp Ashraf. That is what they tell us and we will continue to hold them to that. However, in the longer term they have also made it clear that the camp cannot stay as it is and those involved may have to be moved. This is the prospect we will have to deal with.

My Lords, in his original reply the Minister referred to disturbances, which gives the impression that this is something going on with the notice, but not the support, of the Iraqi Government. In fact it appears, from all the evidence which the noble Lord has cited, that this is being done with the cognisance of the Government; it is not just harassment, it is physical assault. It is the sort of thing that was the precursor to the most dreadful things under the Nazi regime. It is something of which the United Nations should be not merely cognisant but actively oppose.

I agree with the sentiments of my noble friend. Having people gathering and parking outside the entrance to Camp Ashraf, with the loudspeakers and the throwing of stones, is something more than a disturbance. It is a sort of provocation and it appears to be organised or permitted by the Iraqi Government. My noble friend is right—this is a pattern which could build up through intimidation to something much more serious. I repeat that, although this is Iraqi sovereign territory and the Iraqi Government must act, all the authorities outside, including ourselves and all those countries and institutions that uphold civilised values, must press for this to avoid becoming a tragedy which it otherwise threatens to become.

Why are the detainees in Camp Ashraf not subject to the Geneva Convention? The Minister said in his original reply that they were not protected. Why are they not protected?

It is a legal matter. It has been ruled that the convention is not applicable as the residents of the camp are not prisoners of war. This is apparently the ruling that has been laid down by the United Nations. I could fill in more detail, but this seems to be the basic reason why they are not deemed to be covered by the fourth Geneva convention.