A real chance for accountability for private security contractors

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At the end of December, the human rights movement had some disappointing news. Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the charges against the five Xe (Blackwater) guards accused in the shooting death of at least 14 innocent Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in September 2007.

While his decision indicates the need to examine more closely the conduct of the Justice Department’s prosecutors as well as the State Department’s practice of immunizing contractors’ statements given in the course of investigations, there is now reason for hope. On Tuesday, Rep. David Price and Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced companion bills under the short title of the Contractor Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2010 in the House (HR 4567) and Senate (S2979). The legislation closes gaps in U.S. law to ensure that contractors can be prosecuted for crimes committed overseas.

One of the single biggest hurdles to holding military and security contractors accountable for criminal acts committed overseas has been the duality of systems in place for Defense Department (DOD) contractors versus those working for other government agencies. DOD contractors implicated in crimes are subject, in theory, to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s judicial system, and the jurisdiction of federal courts by way of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA). But what about Blackwater, which was fulfilling the State Department’s Worldwide Personal Protective Services (WPPS) contract at the time of the Nisour Square shootings? Well, many feared that the Justice Department wouldn’t or wouldn’t be able to pull off a case against the shooters because of unsettled evidentiary and jurisdictional issues.

We – the human rights community, Congress, the President, the media, and othershave known about this inconsistent patchwork of laws for some time now. In fact, in 2007 Rep. Price and then-Senator Barrack Obama joined forces to try to amend MEJA to clarify that there would be no impunity for government contractors who commit crimes. While the House version of the bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 389 to 30, it fizzled on the Senate side.

Two years on, we don’t need any more evidence to indicate the importance of acting decisively to make CEJA law. The DOS is about to release the Request for Proposal for WPPS III. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be asking you to call on your members of Congress in the House and Senate to endorse CEJA and end impunity for rights violators. Let’s make sure that the framework is in place to hold military and security contractors accountable for human rights violations before we send out the next round of armed guards in the name of the U.S. government.

Much Ado about Blackwater: Part I – What were they (we) doing in Iraq anyway?

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In a series of blog posts, I will humbly try to contribute clarity to the plethora of news coverage recently devoted to Blackwater Worldwide, a company which, among other things, provides military and security services to the US government in Iraq. Together, we will sift through the criminal prosecution of the Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisour Square killings of 2007, the Iraqi license denial, the contract with the State Department, the US-Iraq Security Agreement and what this all means for corporate accountability on the battlefield.

Today, let’s start with the yesterday’s coverage of the letter signed by Defense Department Deputy Secretary Gordon England, stating that companies, including Blackwater, working on State Department Diplomatic Security contracts were not engaged in “employment in support of the DOD mission”.

Though it seems Mr. England is quite clear on this point, others are not, and have been debating it literally for years. (It’s an important point because it’s the part of the law that gives the DOJ jurisdiction over the contractors.)

What happens next in court might explain why there has been such a delay in getting to this brink of accountability in the first place – someone has to finally figure out what “the mission” in Iraq is. Maybe there were/are many missions. Once the court gets that sorted out, I suppose the next step will be to interpret the now famous (infamous?) Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to decipher what is meant by “supporting a DOD mission,” and finally to decide whether Blackwater was doing that.

These decisions could have sweeping implications not only for the state of US law and foreign policy, but also in interpreting the recently enacted US-Iraq Security Agreement, and possibly setting the State and Defense Departments on a trajectory of cooperative regulation of companies they contract – something, despite all the hoopla over Blackwater these days, that has yet to happen.