Over fifty days ago, protesters in the United States began a hunger strike to bring attention to the treatment of Iranian refugees at the hands of the new Iraqi government. The hunger strike was prompted by a violent Iraqi incursion into Camp Ashraf on July 28-29, 2009. HUMAN EVENTS reported that the event resulted in eleven deaths, more than 500 wounded and 36 residents taken hostage.
More than fifty days later, strikers are still going hungry and the hostages have not been released.
Eight of the strikers, dressed in matching yellow “Free Ashraf Hostages” shirts, were present at the launch of the Near East Human Rights Initiative (NEHRI) on Wednesday, Sept. 16, where a challenge was issued to President Obama to live up to his criticism of former president Bush: “to be accountable, to stand up for basic human rights, and to deliver the transparency which has been a hallmark of the goals that he has established,” said activist Barbara Forster.
Members of NEHRI present for the official launch included Dr. Gary Morsch, president of Heart to Heart International, Reverend David Lowry, Director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation at the Desmond Tutu Center, Bruce McColm, Director of the Institute for Democratic Strategies, and Forster. Guest speaker and former presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, along with Saleh Mutlaq, a Sunni member of Iraq’s Parliament, made brief appearances to show their support.
The founding cause of NEHRI is Camp Ashraf, the home of about 3,500 residents Iranian dissidents exiled to Iraq. It is an issue that the speakers believe should be imminently solvable. “I see this as a key to that goal … for peace in that troubled area of the world,” Tancredo said. “If we can resolve the problem in Ashraf, I think we can solve the problem in Iran.”
Camp Ashraf became a refuge for Iranian dissidents fleeing their country in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq War. The camp remains the home of exiled members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), a guerilla group opposed to the government of the Shah. The Iranian government still considers them enemies.
The PMOI was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) in 1996 under the Clinton administration. The PMOI remains on the FTO list, despite the fact that when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the residents of Camp Ashraf were categorized as protected persons under the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention and treated as such by the U.S. Army. Before being given the protected status by the American government, every resident of Ashraf was individually subjected to an “extensive investigation” and passed easily. The fact that they remain on the FTO list remains a mystery to the members of the NEHRI. According to Forster, “The PMOI has stood from the beginning for democracy, for human rights, for women’s rights, for a two-state solution. They’re the very issues that this country, that the West, would embrace in the Middle East.”
The goals of NEHRI, as stated by Morsch, are to pressure the Iraqi government to release the 36 hostages, advocate that the U.S. government fulfill its responsibility to the people of Camp Ashraf, and remove the PMOI from the State Department’s FTO list. NEHRI also intends to push for a humanitarian fact-finding mission to Camp Ashraf, where access is difficult. Several members of the panel, including Tancredo, had been denied Visas to make the trip. The lack of general knowledge is why part of the NEHRI’s Mission statement includes bringing “awareness to the general public about the state of human rights in the Middle East.”
However, McColm said that the issue is not just a human rights violation. “We actually do have a legal responsibility, and that responsibility goes back to the Fourth Geneva Convention,” he said. “The people of Camp Ashraf deliberately signed documents, individually, that they would denounce terrorism, give up their arms, in return from the United States’ Forces,” he said. “Not only do we have a moral responsibility, but we actually do have a legal responsibility, and that responsibility goes back to the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
According to Article 45 of the Geneva Convention, when protected persons are transferred to another Power, it may only be under the conditions that the Power has agreed to the Convention. It also states that if the provisions of the Convention are not kept as stated, the original authority must “take effective measures to correct the situation.”
Footage shot of violence in Ashraf over the course of July 28 and 29 was shown at the NEHRI launch in order to prove that the conditions of the Convention have been broken. Tancredo’s emphasis on the “real people” involved was underscored by the reactions of those in attendance who are family, friends and supporters of the 36 hostages.
McColm and Lowry emphasized the affect that the United States’ treatment of Camp Ashraf could have on its international reputation. McColm said the international community is waiting to see whether “we are good to our word, whether when we sign an agreement or a treaty that we will enforce its obligations.”
It is a matter of “international clout,” according to McColm. The NEHRI seeks to emphasize to the Obama administration that they need to live up to the commitments of the past in order to maintain the clout of the United States.