For Immediate Release: August 31, 2011
As Nisoor Square Anniversary Approaches, CEJA Legislation Lingers in Congress
Washington, D.C.—Today, as the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan released its final findings on U.S. contractors in those countries, Human Rights First is calling on Congress to pass legislation designed to clarify and expand U.S. criminal jurisdiction over U.S. contractors fielded abroad. The organization said that today’s findings in combination with a growing consensus among lawmakers, advocates and private security contractor professionals make a strong case for passage of the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2011.
“The problems identified by the Commission are not going to fix themselves. The time has come for Congress to act, and a good first step would be to swiftly pass CEJA,” said Human Rights First’s Melina Milazzo. “As we learned four years ago in the aftermath of the Nisoor Square tragedy, the United States simply is not prepared to hold to account those contractors who break the law.”
Last year, Milazzo authored State of Affairs: Three Years After Nisoor Square, a Human Rights First report that examined U.S. private security contractor accountability and oversight gaps that became clear following the 2007 Nisoor Square tragedy. In that event, Blackwater private security contractors killed 17 unarmed civilians in Iraq. Today, just weeks before the fourth anniversary of that incident on Sept. 17, Milazzo issued an update to the 2010 report. It details positive developments that have occurred during the past 12 months and provides recommendations for strengthening private security contractor oversight and accountability in the months and years ahead.
“The tragedy of September 16, 2007 should serve as a stark reminder that failing to establish an effective system of oversight and accountability for private security and other contractors undermines U.S. national security interests,” Milazzo stated. “The Nisoor Square massacre revealed the United States’ unprecedented reliance on private contractors to perform military and security functions in a war zone. Unfortunately, there is no commensurate U.S. policy for overseeing this contractor force and holding contractors accountable for serious violent crimes, including incidents like Nisoor Square. This inadequate oversight and inability to hold contractors accountable has alienated local populations and undercut the United States’ efforts to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In its final report, the Commission echoed this concern stating, “Serious public-opinion backlash in the local communities and governments can also occur after contractors are accused of crimes. Public opinion can be further inflamed because jurisdiction over contractors is ambiguous, legal accountability is uncertain, and a clear command-and-control structure is absent. A prime example of this risk becoming reality occurred in 2007 with the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square by employees of the company then known as Blackwater. The armed security guards were under contract by State. Perceptions of improper or illegal behavior by contractors who suffer few or no consequences generate intense enmity and damage U.S. credibility.”
According to Milazzo, passage of CEJA would extend U.S. criminal jurisdiction over private contractors for serious crimes and establish investigative task forces for contractor oversight. She notes that in less than three months, when U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq, private security contractors will take over critical security-related functions once performed by the military, including convoy security, recovering killed and wounded personnel, recovering damaged vehicles and downed aircraft, clearing travel routes and disposing of explosives. Human Rights First urges Congress to pass CEJA now, ahead of that expansion of private security contractors, to ensure that these contractors are deployed knowing that they will be held accountable for their actions in the field.
“The U.S. government has a responsibility and a national interest to act now to ensure that contractors who perform military and security services in its name will be held accountable for serious abuses—just as it does for our men and women in uniform,” concluded Milazzo.