Four days before WikiLeaks revealed 400,000 documents of war crimes and egregious human rights abuses in Iraq, the country’s power-hungry Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a one-day trip to Tehran to meet with another power-hungry leader, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - fitting bedfellows. Both are deeply loathed at home, with little or no support; both are leaders of regimes that preside over killing, torture and rape of their fellow citizens. One day, those responsible for these crimes deserve to be arraigned before the International Criminal Court.
This sinister meeting of minds had one objective: bolstering the ebbing status of Mr. al-Maliki in Iraq and his unlawful power grab of the premiership. Such an outcome would, of course, benefit Ayatollah Khamenei and his ruling clique because the continued reign of Mr. al-Maliki ensures Tehran’s continuing domination of Iraq.
On his return to Baghdad, however, Mr. al-Maliki unexpectedly found himself faced with the leaked reports, which detailed his abuse of power as well as Iran’s direct assistance to his death squads in Iraq. The documents have disclosed the type of crimes that could not have been committed without the full knowledge of the highest authorities in Iraq. They refer to special forces in the prime minister’s office, which acted and perpetrated atrocities under the direct orders of the prime minister. No wonder that Mr. al-Maliki called WikiLeaks’ revelations a plot to undermine his bid to stay in power.
For their part, these revelations and the prime minister’s role came as no great surprise. The real surprise was the United States‘ knowledge of these events and its lack of action to stop them. The sentiment was shared by the international community. Amnesty International expressed concern that the U.S. authorities committed a serious breach of international law when they summarily handed over thousands of detainees to Iraqi security forces who, they knew, were continuing to torture and abuse detainees on a truly shocking scale.
One area of concern that needs immediate attention is the fate of Camp Ashraf residents in Iraq. Ashraf is home to 3,400 members of the main Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). They were protected by the Americans until the end of 2008. When the United States handed over the “protection” of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government, humanitarian law experts, jurists and parliamentarians kept warning that the al-Maliki government is highly influenced by the Iranian regime and received instructions from Tehran to physically eliminate the camp’s residents. These sources kept pointing out to the U.S. authorities that there was a special committee in the Iraqi prime minister’s office tasked with suppressing Ashraf.
And guess what? All the warnings went unheeded.
Indeed, the premonition about the dangers of such a hand-over became bitter reality when just six months after the U.S. military relinquished the protection of Ashraf, heavily armed Iraqi forces attacked the unarmed residents in July 2009, killing 11, wounding 500 and taking 36 hostage, who were brutally tortured for 72 days in various detention centers and safe houses, quite similar to the ones where Iraqis had been tortured and raped since 2004. Even worse, a U.S. detachment that was witness to the assault did nothing to stop it despite being approached by a number of wounded residents.
As the United Nations secretary-general and a host of international human rights organizations have demanded, an immediate and independent investigation must be launched into these atrocities and officials responsible must be held to account. And that includes Mr. al-Maliki.
These revelations have seriously undermined the legitimacy of Mr. al-Maliki’s quest to continue his grip on power. The world community must ensure that those who have been implicated do not assume power again.
Our attention should also continue to be focused on the fate of Ashraf. Article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that if the protecting power “fails to carry out the provisions of the present Convention in any important respect, the Power by which the protected persons were transferred shall, upon being so notified by the Protecting Power, take effective measures to correct the situation or shall request the return of the protected persons. Such request must be complied with.”
Clearly, in the current circumstances, compliance with this article requires U.S. forces to reassume the protection of Ashraf residents without further delay or at least provide protection for a United Nations team to be stationed in Ashraf in order to guarantee the safety and security of the residents.
The Obama administration does not have the luxury of claiming to be unaware. It should act before a human catastrophe recurs in Camp Ashraf - encouraged by Tehran and executed in Iraq. Surely, the United States will now see through Mr. al-Maliki’s hollow promises and written guarantees.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Lord David Alton of Liverpool is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords of the United Kingdom.