Holding Private Security Contractors Accountable for Human Rights Abuses

By Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt, Amnesty’s Business & Human Rights Group

Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff were working for private security company Blackwater (now known as Xe) when they were accused of killing two civilians and injuring two others after opening fire on a vehicle in Afghanistan in May 2009. Romal Mohammad Naiem, who was a passenger in the car, which had approached the scene of a traffic accident involving two Xe vehicles and was leaving when it was repeatedly shot upon, was killed.

© Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Monday, Cannon was given a 30-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Naiem. Drotleff, his partner, received a 37-month sentence earlier this month.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, they are the first Xe contractors to be punished for killing a civilian in a conflict zone. (Four more Xe contractors still face manslaughter charges for the Nisour Square shootings that resulted in the death of 17 civilians.)


A real chance for accountability for private security contractors

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.