Who would 'voluntarily' exchange his house for a prison, where he would be monitored around the clock by armed forces, with no privacy and no access to lawyers? No-one in their right mind would accept this willingly. But this is exactly what is happening under the watch of the international community.
The case in point is the fate of 400 Iranian dissidents in Iraq. They were among the 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf, 65 Kilometers north of Baghdad, members of the main Iranian opposition movement, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mujaheedin-e-Khalq (MEK/PMOI). In the course of the past 25 years, they turned a barren piece of land into a vibrant, peaceful, and modern community called Ashraf.
The situation goes back to the end of last year. Following two massacres of Ashraf residents by Iraqi armed forces at the behest of the Iranian regime, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to close Camp Ashraf by the end of 2011.
Only as massive cross-Atlantic campaign averted a humanitarian crisis and Maliki extended his deadline, the Government of Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United Nations. According to the MoU the dissidents would be moved to Camp Liberty, a former US military base near Baghdad where they could be interviewed by the UN refugee agency to confirm they qualify for refugee status and then be transferred to third countries.
Even though there were great misgivings, Maryam Rajavi, the charismatic president-elect of the National Committee of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which includes the MEK, persuaded 400 Ashraf residents to go to the new facility - with the assurance of their security by the UN and the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It was a gesture of goodwill. However, the Iraqis reneged on many of the terms they promised and threw every obstacle in the way. Finally the 400 men and women were moved to Camp Liberty, but not until overly-intrusive and humiliating searches by the Iraqis.
The deal struck between the Iraqi government and UN ambassador Martin Kobler promised decent standards at Liberty. Instead, the arriving volunteers discovered they didn't even have drinking water, let alone water to wash. Their living area is much smaller than original plans promised, and the camp is in a perilous hygienic condition. Contrary to what had been shown in the photos provided by UN, the accommodation area does not meet minimum necessities by any means.
In fact, the only standards it meets are that of a prison, with almost inhuman conditions. The compound is surrounded by high concrete walls. There is a police station in the northern gate, one in the southern gate, and another in the northeast of Camp Liberty. Surveillance cameras record the most private aspects of the lives of the Iranian dissidents. They are not allowed to leave the Camp and have no access to their lawyers. Without even being able to move around their new home freely, how can they be considered anything other than prisoners?
Prior to the transfer, the Ashraf residents and the international community were shown pictures of the new place by the UN. The difference between the reality and those pictures is like the difference between day and night.
That must be the reason why repeated requests by a delegation of engineers from Ashraf to visit Liberty prior to the transfer was turned down, and requests from 23 of the most distinguished former US military, political and national security officials to be present as impartial observers, went unheeded.
By providing an unrealistic and rosy picture of the situation in Liberty to the Ashraf residents and to the international community, and by compromising on the most basic human rights and humanitarian rights of the residents, the UN officials in Baghdad, in particular Ambassador Kobler, are helping neither the process, nor the credibility of the institution they are serving. It should be clear to the UN that directing Ashraf residents into a prison is not going to solve this humanitarian crisis.
The UN should embody the ethics and moral high grounds of the international community. But the conduct of its point men so far has been far from these benchmarks. And for that reason, the UN simply cannot expect to gain the trust of the new residents in Liberty, or those who remain in Ashraf.
The United States must also play its part by applying pressure on al-Maliki and his government. It was after all the US government that guaranteed the safety of the residents when it signed an agreement with the residents of Ashraf subsequent to their voluntary disarming.
First and foremost, for this transfer to have any chance of success, Liberty must stop resembling a prison. Iraqi guards must leave the camp and stay outside its walls. The residents should have access to their lawyers and their freedom of movement must be respected.
It is time the U.S. and the UN reciprocate the good will of Ashraf residents by guaranteeing the rights and the minimum needs of those who have gone to Camp Liberty.