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.

There's nothing backwards about accountability.

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What’s all this talk about not wanting to look backward?

Inquiries from the ACLU to the U.S. Senate produce more and more evidence that the U.S. government not only violated the human rights of freedom from torture and indefinite detention, but that such violations came from directives from the highest levels of the administration. Yet the sentiment from some of our representatives in Washington seems to find criminal accountability politically inconvenient.

If a person shot and killed another in the streets of Anytown, USA, would we say, oh, just let ‘em go, we wouldn’t want to look backward? Not in a million years. But somehow when criminals occupy fancy offices wearing fresh-pressed suits, we start to believe that bringing them to justice isn’t quite appropriate.

Smells like American exceptionalism. When leaders of “repressive regimes” do bad things, we not only call for their prosecution, we invade their country, put them to death and kill a couple thousand civilians while we’re at it.

At least the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture hasn’t lost sight of the big picture. Last week he reminded the world of our obligation to prosecute Bush, Rumsfeld and all those responsible for torture.

It’s very nice that outgoing Bush gave incoming Obama a tour of the White House and that they shook hands. The niceties should stop there. Any other form of protection of human rights violators only disgraces us. Some, like Reps. Conyers (MI) and Price (NC), have been real leaders on these issues – their colleagues in the House, White House and Senate need to follow suit.

See: AI Dec 2008 paper, “USA: Investigation, prosecution, remedy