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Allan Gerson

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A US Pledge of Protection: What Is It Worth?

Posted: 11/04/11 01:07 PM ET

The UN sanctioned US/NATO Libya operation to topple Gaddafi was based on a singular premise: where there is a looming humanitarian catastrophe and the international community has the means to stop it, it should intervene to do so. Whether the US/NATO involvement exceeded that mandate is another story. But what is indisputable is the legitimization of humanitarian intervention in such circumstances.

Today, President Barack Obama has available the same rationale that justified intervention in Libya to justify a non-military response to avert a humanitarian disaster in Iraq where 3,400 Iranian dissidents -- members of the principal Iranian opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK) -- have been subjected to regular shootings and harassment by Iraqi soldiers. Located at Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad, they are threatened with deportation to Iran. Yet, the Obama Administration seems oblivious to their fate, writing them off presumably as the price of better relations with Iraq or perhaps an opportunity for "engagement" with Iran.

On Dec. 31, 2011, the day that the last American soldier is due to leave Iraq, Camp Ashraf is under orders by the Iraqi regime to close down and for its residents to be dispersed to prisons or concentration camps, or to the tender mercies of Iranian executioners. Two unprovoked armed assaults by the Iraqi Army on Camp Ashraf in 2009 and last April resulted in over forty dead and hundreds injured by Iraqi soldiers carrying US-made weapons. There is no reason to hope that the impending closure will be either peaceful or humane, despite the fact that the Ashraf residents were granted protected persons status under the Fourth Geneva Convention by the US military.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ashraf residents were provided with written guarantees by US authorities that, in return for disarming voluntarily, the US would protect them. But, since early 2009, when the US handed over responsibility for the security of Camp Ashraf to Iraqi forces, that guarantee has become a cruel hoax as the Iraqi Army continues to impose a punishing blockade, depriving residents of basic services, including access to medical care.

The hand of Iran's mullahs is easily detectible in this turn of events. Tehran has reputedly insisted that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set Dec. 31 as the deadline for the camp's closure. Iran, rattled by fears of contagion of the Arab Spring and facing a growing international crisis over its drive to develop nuclear weapons and encouragement of terrorist activities abroad (the most recent being the foiled plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington), wants Camp Ashraf and its residents eliminated at any cost.

Fortunately, the United Nations has stepped into this cauldron of abandoned concern. In September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), declared that Ashraf residents are asylum-seekers entitled to international protection, and accordingly urged that, at the very least, Ashraf's closure be delayed. The government of Iraq has ignored these pleas and insists that the December closure deadline is firm.

Yesterday, in a last-ditch effort to head off the impending humanitarian crisis, the top UN envoy to Iraq offered to broker the closing of Camp Ashraf and to prevent Iraqi officials from forcing its residents out at year's end. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will bear any fruit. If they do not, it appears likely that Iraq will continue preparations for another onslaught on Ashraf's defenseless residents, with a bloodbath in the offing.

We are at the eleventh hour. All concerned, and especially the United States, must put press now to assure that the Dec. 31 deadline for the closure of Camp Ashraf is not implemented. Instead, UN monitors should be stationed in Ashraf and the UN should send peacekeeping forces to allow the UNHCR to do its work of peaceably resettling Ashraf's residents.

Surely, the United States, which has expended so much treasure in lives and money in restructuring Iraq as a friend of the United States retains sufficient leverage to influence a more benevolent approach by the Maliki regime. After all, it was the US military that gave Ashraf's residents its written assurances of US protection. The failure of the US State Department to remove the MEK from the US List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (despite the plea of the US Court of Appeals that it act expeditiously to provide a further review based on more credible evidence), is of no consequence: all concede that humanitarian concerns apply equally regardless of any such listing.

What is at stake is not only the fate of the 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf, but the integrity of US commitments of protection. The fate of the Ashraf residents has become the litmus test of whether American pledges of humanitarian protection can be trusted. For the United States to not do its utmost to ensure that the recipients of US guarantees are not massacred, or dispersed so they can be killed in small groups, is innately incompatible with the moral high ground that President Obama staked out in dealing with freedom and democracy in the Arab world.

The US has the means to intervene without the need for military action -- direct or indirect -- by US forces. The only thing needed is the political will and courage to ensure that the integrity of what the United States says and does is not dishonored.

Allan Gerson is the Chairman of AG International Law in Washington D.C. He is presently involved with other attorneys in representing the PMOI/MEK in its efforts to be removed from the State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.