THE BLOG
17/05/2012 09:57 BST | Updated 17/07/2012 06:12 BST

Ashton's Visit to Baghdad, is Human Rights on the Menu?

Catherine Ashton will be within a few kilometers from Camp Liberty in just a few days time. Can she succeed where others have failed?

The May 23 talks on Iran and it nuclear crisis provide Europe with the chance to help sort out not one problem, but two. As well as ascertain the extent to which the mullahs are willing to pull back from the brink, the talks, which are scheduled to take place in Baghdad, provide the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with the ideal opportunity also deal with the plight of thousands of Iranian refugees in Camps Ashraf and Liberty. The fate of these dissidents in Iraq is now a solid barometer of human rights in the country.

Baroness Ashton is due to lead negotiations on behalf of the five permanent representatives of the UN Security Council and Germany. While in Iraq, Mrs. Ashton should find the time to visit Camp Liberty, near Baghdad airport, currently home to over 2000 Iranian refugees who have recently been moved from Camp Ashraf.

After the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein and following a 16-month investigation and "screening" process by US security agencies, in July 2004, the 3400 residents of Ashraf - including 1000 women, were all granted the status of "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Therefore the US was committed to protect these unarmed members and supporters of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

This continued until January 2009 when US handed over the security of Ashraf to the Iraqi Government - by now firmly under the influence of its Iranian allies. Iraq launched campaigns of intimidation and repression and twice raided the camp resulting in dozens of innocent deaths and hundreds of wounded. The international community expressed its outrage at these killings of defenseless refugees.

To add insult to its series of deadly attacks, last year Iraqi prime minister Nouri al- Maliki ordered that Ashraf be closed and its residents be transferred to a former US base, ironically named "Camp Liberty", where in theory their asylum requests would be processed with a view to relocation in third countries.

To prevent further bloodshed, Mrs Maryam Rajavi, the leader of Iranian Resistance, urged the Ashraf residents to go along with the plan, despite her personal misgivings, after the UN and US had given guarantees. In reality this entailed the abandonment by the Ashraf residents of almost all their rights. They were asked to agree to move from a place they called home to a camp that resembled little more than a prison with horrid, filthy and oppressive conditions.

However, Iraq keeps exerting pressure on Ashraf and Liberty residents at the behest of Tehran. Al-Maliki has trampled all over the commitments stipulated in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Iraq and the UN. Among the many restrictions imposed on them, paralyzed Ashraf residents have been barred from taking vehicles to Camp Liberty that keep them mobile. There is severe water shortage at Liberty. Those living there are allowed no freedom of movement.

The world community has shown tremendous support for these dissidents, who have been classified as asylum seekers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Support has come from thousands of parliamentarians all over Europe, including the majority of the members of the European Parliament, the majority of the members of the US House of Representatives, and most senior US Senators.

European dignitaries, former US senior national security officials, prominent lawyers, human rights activists and military commanders - many of whom served several tours of duty in Iraq - have all asked to visit Camp Liberty. The Iraqi Government has refused them all at behest of Tehran tyrants.

By visiting Camp Liberty, Ms Ashton could show her concern goes further than the many statements and speeches that have been made in Brussels. Such a visit would send a strong message to Tehran; the mullahs would know that the nuclear talks could not be used to blackmail the West into reneging on its commitments and forgetting its principles, in particular on human rights. It would at least attract the spotlight of the world's media, making suppression of camp residents by the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime more difficult.

Catherine Ashton will be within a few kilometers from Camp Liberty in just a few days time. Can she succeed where others have failed?