HRF Welcomes Blackwater Indictments, But Real Contractor Accountability Will Require Much More
New York - Despite the indictments of five Blackwater contractors, and one guilty plea, the United States government continues to foster a culture of impunity for the the approximately 250,000 private security contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan, a leading human rights group said today.
The Justice Department waited two weeks to send an FBI team to Bagdad to investigate in the aftermath of the shootings, following public and congressional pressure. The Department reportedly has had the case under investigation for the last 15 months. This indictment represents the first set of charges brought against non-Defense Department private contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA).
"The United States must take responsibility for the civilian contractors it fields on U.S. government missions abroad," said Deborah Colson, Interim Director of Human Rights First's Law and Security Program. "The Blackwater guards did not act in a vacuum. By failing to hold contractors accountable for acts of violence and abuse committed abroad, the United States has fostered a culture of impunity, which threatens the safety of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, American military personnel and the contractors themselves."
The Nisoor Square shootings spurred increased congressional attention to the impunity with which private security contractors operate in Iraq, including by virtue of "Order 17," an immunity provision inserted by fiat into Iraqi law by the U.S. government-led Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004 - on the day before it handed sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government - and maintained since then largely through continuing pressure by the U.S. government. The shootings undoubtedly also spurred Iraqi government demands in just-concluded status of forces agreement (SOFA) negotiations for its own criminal jurisdiction over U.S. government contractors.
"Contractors perform necessary and often courageous service, but when they are allowed to commit serious crimes without punishment, it undermines the U.S. mission," said Colson. "Criminal prosecutions are an essential part of the formula for ending contractor impunity, but real accountability will require a much broader effort."
On November 17, Human Rights First unveiled a detailed, three-stage blueprint for the incoming administration to effectively end private contractor impunity in Iraq and elsewhere. The blueprint - How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors - offers President-elect Obama a comprehensive strategy for ensuring accountability for U.S. government contractors working abroad. Along with the blueprint, Human Rights First also released a report card grading the performance of Congress, the Defense Department, the White House, the State Department, and the Justice Department in addressing contractor accountability since Nisoor Square. The Department of Justice earned an "F" from the group. Read the full blueprint here and read the report card here.