WASHINGTON - Out of the dozens upon dozens of reports of abuses by
private contractors as part of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
only one prosecution of a contractor has taken place.
says a new report from Human Rights First, epitomises the woefully
insufficient response by the U.S. government to hold private contactors
accountable for abuses against local nationals.
"Holding contractors responsible for criminal abuses has not
been a high priority of the U.S. government," said the report, "Private
Security Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity", which is
based on interviews, court records, government reports, declassified
documents and other documentary sources. "At times the government has
appeared to view this issue with shocking indifference."
"There was little in the way of standards for hiring and
training security contractors. There was no oversight of their
activities. And most glaring of all, there was absolutely no legal
accountability for misconduct," said Congressman David Price of North
Carolina at a press conference to launch the report last week.
The report said that while the legal framework to deal with
abuses by private security contractors is already in place, the U.S.
Justice Department and in some cases the Defence Department have done
little to respond to such charges, often forgoing investigations, let
"The Justice Department bears primary responsibility for this
inaction," said the report. "Today most private security contractors
operate in an environment where systems of criminal accountability are
rarely used. This has created a culture of impunity." The now-defunct
Coalition Provisional Authority that ruled Iraq in the immediate
aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein issued CPA Order No. 17 which
gave contractors immunity from the Iraqi justice system, but the report
says that this does not affect the ability of the U.S. government to go
after its own citizens.
Speakers at the press conference and the report itself both
said that the military does take some steps to curb criminal activity
in Iraq. More than 60 U.S. military personnel have been court marshaled
for deaths of Iraqi nationals through the pre-existing internal
military criminal justice system.
However, just one contractor has been tried for violence or
abuse towards local nationals, says the report, which examined over 600
classified Serious Incident Reports (SIRs) on incidents involving the
use of force by or attacks upon private security contractors in Iraq
over a nine-month period in 2004-2005.
Contractors have emerged in recent years as a critical part of
the war effort. In previous wars, contractors played a much smaller
role, but now they make up a major part of the U.S. force in Iraq.
Even following President George W. Bush's troop surge, private
contractors working for the U.S. still outnumber military personnel in
Iraq, with roughly 160,000 soldiers and 180,000 contractors.
The shift was part of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's
doctrine of fighting wars with fewer troops but has its origins in the
"peace dividend" of the early 1990s that saw the end of the Cold War
thereby allowing for less defence spending.
The vast numbers of contractors in the forefront of wars,
however, has not been accompanied by a bureaucratic system to deal with
accountability. The U.S. Code of Military Justice, a Pentagon Criminal
Investigations Unit and the military chain of command do not exist for
When the incidents of alleged contractor abuse began to
publicly surface -- largely focused on the role of contractors carrying
out interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison -- Rumsfeld said that the
contractors were largely responsible for policing themselves.
"Contractors should not be responsible for law enforcement,"
said Columbia University law professor Scott Horton, noting that this
is the primary function of the Justice Department. "The bottom line is
that the Justice Department has gone AWOL."
With the executive branch taking few steps to deal with the
issue, public outrage at news coverage of some of the incidents has
prompted Congress to take some steps to strengthen oversight of
A bill passed in the House of Representatives solidifies
Justice Department jurisdiction over contractors working as part of
U.S. efforts in Iraq, and a nearly identical bill is due for action in
the Senate. But the report warns that jurisdiction has not been a major
obstacle. Rather, the problem has been insufficient "political will and
The report suggests mandating congressional oversight with
regard to private security contractors and creating and funding a
specific office within the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
"This is an issue of resource deployment," said Horton, noting
that of the 200 or so Justice Department personnel in Iraq, none of
them work in law enforcement.
The report came at the end of a turbulent week for
contractors. Human Rights Watch called last week for the Iraqi
government to pass a law rescinding CPA Order No. 17 -- an effort that
passed the Iraqi cabinet but has thus far languished in parliament.
Blackwater Worldwide, one of the best known security
contractors because of its large number of contracts and alleged
involvement in abuses, has retained the services of a third Washington
lobbying firm to deal with the fallout from several violent incidents.
Last September, in a case that garnered widespread attention,
Blackwater employees protecting a State Department convoy reportedly
fired without provocation into a crowd of Iraqis, killing at least 17
people. The shooting led to some discussions about how to deal with
contractor accountability, but the Human Rights First report says the
new agreement between the State and Defence Departments "falls far
short of mandating accountability".
The continuing abuses, said the panelists at the press
briefing, negatively impact the war on terror, creating problems both
for the regular military as well as U.S. foreign policy in general.
Horton said that military personnel in Iraq had called private
security contractors "jackasses with guns". He told IPS that with
insurgent fighters sometimes unable to distinguish between the two,
contractor abuses could bring negative attention to the military.
Retired naval Rear Admiral John Hutson, who served as the
Navy's Judge Advocate General from 1997 to 2000, warned that if abuses
continue unchecked, the U.S. will "suffer consequences to our
reputation overseas and our effectiveness as a fighting force".
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