Statement in the House of Lords on Iran – January 7th 2020.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, will the Minister turn his attention for a moment to northern Iraq and Kurdistan, which I visited last month? In particular, is he aware that reactivated ISIS cells killed more than 30 Peshmerga soldiers during the course of December and that they were simultaneously fighting Iranian-backed proxies—Shabak groups armed by Iran—in Nineveh? Given that the vulnerable minorities they have been protecting, including people such as the Yazidis, are facing further genocide, can the Minister say what we can do to work with the Kurdish regional Government to give them reasonable protection and to do what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said earlier: bring to justice those responsible for these appalling crimes against humanity and genocide, who believe that they can continue to act in the way they have done with impunity because we are incapable of upholding international law, which is why we descend into cycles of assassination and revenge?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for keeping me updated on various issues during the Christmas break. I expected nothing less in terms of the questions he asked, and I look forward to our more detailed sit-down to discuss some of the issues he has raised.
The noble Lord is quite right to raise the important issue of the situation in northern Syria. He also mentioned the KRI region. First, I will reflect Foreign Office advice. When it comes to the KRI, we are saying that non-essential travel should not be taken up, but, if travel is essential, stability continues to prevail in the KRI and we continue to offer support.
The noble Lord knows the importance of bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Therefore, during conversations between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Iraqi Prime Minister, we emphasised again that, while we respect the Iraqi Parliament’s decision, we want to ensure both that there is no withdrawal of either US or UK troops, as limited as UK troop numbers are, and that, in a wider respect, the positive impact on the ground of the measures we have taken—in beginning to see accountability and justice for the victims of crimes, particularly those committed by Daesh—is not lost because of these particular actions. I assure noble Lords that we are doing all we can through all necessary channels to keep that very much on the table.
Speech in the Queen’s Speech Debate
7.31 pm: January 7th 2020
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, on her maiden speech. I should declare at the outset that I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and visited Hong Kong in November to monitor the election and that last month I visited Kurdistan and northern Iraq.
Because of time constraints, I have given the Minister notice of several questions relating to Hong Kong, including evidence given in the House by Dr Darren Mann about attacks on and the arrest of medics there, which he says
“amount to grave breaches of international humanitarian norms and human rights law”,
the potential use of Magnitsky powers and a request for an assessment of the post-election situation in Hong Kong.
In the light of events in Iraq, I will use my few minutes mainly to speak about the role of Iran and the increasing belligerence and confidence of new insurgent militias. For 40 years, Iran has been responsible for proxy terrorism, hostage taking and egregious violations of human rights. Thousands of Iranians have long since seen through this theocratic terror state and have been publicly protesting against its leaders, while in Iraq more than 400 people have been killed while campaigning for a more open and democratic and less corrupt Government no longer manipulated by Iran.
Many people I met told me that Iranian Shia proxies and the re-emergent sleeping ISIS cells with Sunni affiliations will ruthlessly oppose any change and endanger the remarkable achievements of the Kurdish Regional Government, who have valiantly protected both Kurds and the minorities. In the north of Iraq, especially in Irbil, the KRG, whose parliamentary Speaker and Deputy Speaker I met, have created a glimpse of what a peaceful Iraq and a wider region respectful of difference and diversity could look like.
I visited some of the multi-ethnic villages on the Nineveh plain.
Iran has already mobilised Shabak proxies, endangering the reconstruction of ancient Yazidi and Christian settlements such as Bartella, and is trying to create a destabilising Iranian canton strategically wedged between Kurdistan and Mosul. The parallel re-emergence of ISIS in northern Iraq’s Hamrin and Qara Chokh mountains led, in December, to the deaths or injury of more than 30 brave Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers, while its ISIS affiliate in Nigeria beheaded 11 Christians in retaliation for the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The signal failure of the international community to bring genocidaires such as Baghdadi or men such as Qasem Soleimani to justice or to challenge countries that arm proxies or bomb civilians creates a culture of impunity, eroding and degrading a rules-based international order.
I saw the consequences of impunity at Bardarash refugee camp where, in increasingly cold weather, tents and makeshift shelters in a desolate location have replaced homes bombed by Turkish—that is, NATO—planes.
Thousands of people who, until weeks before, had successfully supported themselves and their children, now queue up for rations, handouts and medical help. In Bardarash, a mother of four told me that, “As they dropped their bombs and chemicals many children were burnt. Some were killed. I just want to go home with my children, but everything was destroyed, and we would be slaughtered.”
When did it become acceptable to break the Geneva conventions, and potentially the Chemical Weapons Convention, illegally occupy territory, ethnically cleanse a population and face no investigation, little censure, no Security Council resolution and no consequences? What outrage must a NATO country commit before we declare it to be unfit for membership let alone seek its referral to the International Criminal Court?
If the rule of law is a casualty of international impotence, consider the phenomenal human consequences. Worldwide. a staggering 70 million people have been forcibly displaced, with 37,000 people forced to flee their homes every single day, while 17 years is the average length of time spent in a camp by a refugee.
These camps are the perfect recruiting grounds for the exploitation of despair, hopelessness and betrayal. Bardarash is a symbol of the breakdown of global leadership.
In asking the Minister how we intend to fill this vacuum, I would also welcome her response to questions I have sent her about memorialising the Simele genocide site and the request of Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yazidis, whom I met, concerning the 3,000 still-missing Yazidi women.
Genocide survivors from Mosul and Sinjar told me that they had never been approached by British or international agencies to give their evidence. How will trials ever take place if we fail systematically to collect witness statements?
There can be no lasting peace and reconciliation without justice and the rule of law, which is why a central plank of our approach must be the creation of a regional court to try those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
Until we do, I echo the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, when I say that lawless militias and proxies will go on behaving with impunity and retaliatory assassinations and killings will be the order of the day, with unpredictable consequences for people who have already experienced appalling suffering and persecution.
DURING MY VISIT, LAST MONTH, TO NORTHERN IRAQ AND KURDISTAN, I REPEATEDLY HEARD WARNINGS ABOUT THE INCREASED BELLIGERENCE AND CONFIDENCE OF NEW INSURGENT MILITIAS – SOME QUARTER MASTERED BY IRAN – PAVING THE WAY FOR FURTHER CONFLICT IN IRAQ AND SYRIA.
Many I met expressed their fears that a combination of Iranian Shia militias and the re-emergence of sleeping ISIS cells – with its Sunni affiliations – would endanger the achievements of the Kurdish Regional Government in protecting both Kurds and the minorities, including Yazidis and Christians – who are in grave danger if Iraq once again becomes the chosen battlefield – this time, for a tit-for-tat hybrid war waged by proxies.
Following Soleimani’s killing in Iraq – from which he was banned under UN Security Council resolutions – the consequences could be full scale war by accident or, more likely, a cycle of retaliatory attacks which amount to war by any other name.
The danger of escalation and the recent sight of joint naval exercises involving Iran, China, and Russia, is hardly encouraging; while Israel feels increasingly at risk from Iranian backed Hezbollah rocket attacks from Lebanon.
Iran thrives and capitalises on any differences that open up between the US and its European allies. It exploits grievances and uses disaffection as a major recruiting tools.
It also uses hostages. Where this conflict leaves Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and 15 British and American prisoners in Iran is anybody’s guess.
Doubtless, it will try and seize other hostages and will be planning cyber-attacks like that carried out on our parliamentary estate in 2017.
Soleimani’s death last week follows the killing of hundreds of US service personnel. His Quds force have been engaged in a war against the US for decades and have wantonly destabilised the region.
Since September 2018, Iran Backed Groups of militants have fired over 30 rockets at U.S. facilities in Iraq, including the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, consulate in Basra, and military training facilities in Taji, Mosul, and Nineveh.
Congress and the White House have repeatedly warned that this would not be tolerated forever.
Article 51 of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter clearly permits a country, in this case America, to act in self defence once attacked – and it has been repeatedly attacked in Iraq
According to The Times, Iran attempted to build or has built a dozen underground missile silos in Syria and was doing the same in Iraq. In Lebanon they have over 100,000 missiles.
Recall, too, Soleimani’s role in the deaths of large numbers of civilians, as Aleppo was starved into submission; his use of Houthi proxies in Yemen; with Hezbollah and Hamas proxies intent on the destruction of the State of Israel.
Soleimani’s fingerprints were on the acts of piracy in the Straits of Hormuz and the attack, in Saudi, on the Aramco petroleum complex – and the US says it was aware of plans to take further American lives.
In the days before Soleimani’s death a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk led to the death of an American civilian contractor. In response, America deployed fighter jets to pound Iranian backed militias in Syria and Iraq.
For 40 years Iran has supported acts of terror and been responsible for egregious violations of human rights. And we ca be certain that it will not balk at carrying out more.
Our failure to tame the crocodile has simply emboldened it.
Thousands of Iranians have themselves long since seen through this theocratic terror State -and have been protesting publicly against its leaders.
Kata’ib Hizbollah is Iran’s proxy in Iraq and, although its leader was also killed alongside Soleimani, it is his death which turns this into a fight between the US and Iran, not just their proxies. Having recklessly escalated the violence Iran almost certainly misread the US’s earlier reluctance to be provoked into retaliation..
But Tehran has been misreading other signals too.
In recent months, millions of people have demonstrated against the oppression of that regime—both in Iran and across the Middle East, in Lebanon and Iraq.
Consider the rising generation in Iraq – where, in recent weeks, over 400 people have been killed as they have campaigned for a more open and democratic and less corrupt government – one which is no longer manipulated by Iran.
We must hope and pray that a political strategy now emerges to empower those – especially Iraqis, Lebanese and Kurds, who wish to throw off Iranian hegemony and run their own societies and govern their own countries. And that is also true for the people of Iran – who want a prosperous and peaceful society which respects diversity and difference..
In the north of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government has created, especially in Erbil, a glimpse of what a peaceful Iraq – and wider region – could look like.
I visited its Parliament and held talks with , Dr Rewaz Faiaq the Speaker, and Hemin Hawrami , the Deputy Speaker.
Both drew attention to the threat to the stability of the region by armed militias – and the consequences of further waves of displacements and refugees. I visited multi-ethnic villages on the Nineveh Plain. Shabak militias supported by Iran – and exploiting pre-ISIS Shabak grievances – have endangered the reconstruction of these ancient Christian settlements – places like Bartella, where a school has been erected named after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini – and are an attempt to create a destabilizing Iranian canton in the Nineveh Plains, strategically wedged between Kurdistan and Mosul.
The re-emergence of ISIS – exploiting the disaffection and isolation of Sunni Muslims has seen its renaissance in northern Iraq, carrying out guerrilla attacks in the Hamrin mountains and Qara Chokh mountains – leading to more than 30 deaths or injuries of brave Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers during December.
And its ideology mutates and spreads. In Nigeria, jihadists were responsible for the beheading of eleven Christians executed in retaliation for the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proclaimed the Caliphate in 2014.
The failure of the international community in bringing men like Soleimani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to justice – has created the circumstances where countries like the US, sensing themselves to be under attack, inevitably invoke the doctrine of self-defence.
There are, of course, times when military options must be used but, in the increasing absence of international law and its enforcement, it is being used as a first resort rather than a last resort – and perhaps with too little strategic sense of the consequences.
And other nations have been embarking on undeclared wars, too.
In Kurdistan, in meeting refugees, I saw for myself the consequences of Turkey’s illegal invasion of north east Syria. The misery which they have inflicted has been compounded by the appalling consequences of airstrikes and shelling by Russian backed Syrian forces in Idlib.
More than a quarter of a million souls have fled a province which had becomes the last bolt hole of around 3.5 million people who had been displaced from other contested areas of Syria.
During my visit I went to Bardarash refugee camp. It was established less than two months ago to provide a place of safety for refugees fleeing Turkey’s bombardment and invasion of North East Syria.
In a desolate location, it is home – if that is a word that can accurately be used – to 2,520 families – some 9,894 individuals with more arrivals expected.
Tents and makeshift shelters – in increasingly cold weather – have replaced homes bombed by Turkish – that is, NATO – planes and people who, until weeks before, had successfully supported themselves and their children queue up for rations, handouts, and medical help.
As always there were handfuls of dedicated volunteers and aid workers trying to apply poultices and bandages to keep people going.
But these people should never have had to become refugees in the first place, and until we address the fundamental causes, and get angry with those who are responsible, the numbers and attendant suffering and heartbreak will increase exponentially.
What were our friends in the United States thinking of in walking out on our Kurdish allies in north east Syria – and what message did they think that was going to send to Tehran?
And if Turkey can get away with illegality is it any wonder that Iran thinks it can do the same?
When did it become acceptable to break the Geneva Conventions – and potentially the Chemical Weapons Convention – and illegally occupy territory and ethnically cleanse a population, and face no investigation, little censure, no Security Council Resolution, and no consequences?
Perhaps the British Government will tell us what outrage a NATO country must commit – just what does it have to do to innocent civilians – before we declare it to be unfit for membership – let alone seek its referral to the International Criminal Court?
If the rule of law is a casualty of international impotence, consider the phenomenal human consequences.
On World Refugee Day, 2019, a staggering and unprecedented 70.8 million people had been forcibly displaced. From Cox’s Bazaar – and the Rohingya – to the Libyan Coast – and a tidal wave of Eritreans, Nigerians, Sudanese, Iranians , and Syrians, some 37,000 people are forced to flee their homes every single day.
This is overwhelming due to man-made conflict or persecution.
My first visit to a refugee camp was in Beirut in 1981. Shatila and Shabra camps had been established for Palestinian refugees in 1948.
A year after my visit the camps were the scene of a horrific massacre.
One of my most heart-breaking experiences was hearing from refugees in Darfur about the genocide which had been unleashed upon them. 300,000 died, 2 million were displaced.
In Dadaab, Kenya, I saw one of the biggest refugee camps in the world teeming with 211,000 refugees – many from Somalia; and in Sudan and Burma I have spent time in camps where people have taken refuge to escape a crisis and end up staying there for years. 17 years is the average length of time spent in a camp by a fleeing refugee.
In Bardarash a mother of four told me that “ the war planes came at 4.00pm. As they dropped their bombs and chemicals many children were burnt. Some were killed. We all started to run. One of my children fell and concussed his skull. I just want to go home with my children- but everything was destroyed, and we would be slaughtered.”
Hamid, another Bardarash refugee, described how he saw people choking as their homes were burnt: “children were throwing up and we had to leave the injured behind as we fled.”
Refugees were incredulous that the international community had allowed Erdogan to force them from their homes. They felt betrayed.
In adding to the global refugee crisis, we have created perfect recruiting grounds for extremist organisations able to exploit despair, hopelessness and betrayal.
Bardarash is a symbol of the breakdown of global leadership and its occupants are paying a high the price. The UK Government should challenge and confront the destabilising activities of Turkey and Iran as their rivalry is contributing to the rise of extremism, sectarianism and the refugee crisis.
I have sent the Government a number of other reflections from my visit to Northern Iraq.
During my visit I went to Simele where the Syrian Christians were subjected to genocide in 1933. The site was in a deplorable condition and there should be a memorial to commemorate the victims. The UK Government could help with this especially since that the massacre took place only one year after Britain terminated its mandate over Iraq in 1932. At the time, the Foreign Office rejected calls for an international inquiry into the killings, cravenly arguing that it might lead to further massacres against Christians. They did not support calls to punish the offenders as they had become national heroes. Here’s an opportunity to belatedly recognise what happens when you ignore genocides.
I also met Baba Sheik, the spiritual leader of the Yazidis. The UK Government could do more to help abandoned Yazidi children and to help find the still missing 3,000 Yazidi women who were abducted and enslaved. We could also do more to help preserve and restore manuscripts and artefacts which were hidden during the genocide and tell the story of these ancient communities.
The UK Government should also be directly supporting schools, women unions and youth organisation of the minority communities. Most of those I met said that they had little contact with UK officials. The UK Government can, and should, work collaboratively with organisations like CSW – and I pay tribute to them and to the Assyrian Aid Society for their help in facilitating my visit to Kurdistan – to provide necessary training to empower and equip local activists and to facilitate reconciliation and inter-community dialogue.
Survivors of ISIS genocide in Mosul and Sinjar told me that they had never been approached by British or international agencies to give their evidence. How will trials ever take place if we have failed to collect witness statements?
I met two men whose families fled from Mosul and another whose home was burnt down in Sinjar. No one from the international community or the Governments in Baghdad or Erbil has ever asked to meet them or to take their statements. Yet we are endlessly told we are “collecting evidence “ and that perpetrators will “be brought to justice”.
In the context of the immediate crisis the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, is right to “urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
But we need a new long term strategy too.
There can be no lasting peace and no sustained reconciliation without justice and the rule of law – which is why a central plank of our approach must be the creation of a regional court to try those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Until we do, lawless militias will go on behaving with impunity and retaliatory assassinations and killings will be the order of the day.