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.

Blackwater Indictment Good Step; Better Law Next Step

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In indicting five Blackwater personnel, and accepting a guilty plea of a sixth, for the 2007 Nisour Square shootings resulting in the death of 17 Iraqis, the Justice Department relied on a much discussed law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) to get jurisdiction over the contractors. (U.S. criminal law is generally restricted to the confines of U.S. territories and thus inapplicable to crimes committed elsewhere.)

A debate about whether MEJA would apply to these contractors centered on one question: whether State Department security contractors, including Blackwater, could be said to be supporting a Defense Department mission in Iraq, and thus be considered “employed by the Armed Forces” as it is defined in the law.

Yet, whether the court ultimately decides that MEJA, as it stands, is applicable to DOS contractors in this instance or not does not mean there isn’t room for improvement in the law.

Now is the time to pick up the ball again and continue moving forward. We shouldn’t wait for the next Nisour Square to contemplate whether U.S. law has kept pace with U.S. companies that regularly operate internationally, often in high-risk environments like conflict zones. It’s not hard to imagine that the next case won’t involve a DOD mission at all, and we’ll be scrambling for law and order, again.

On September 16, 2007, the fury that must have existed in Nisour Square set off another nucleus of confusion and activity – once the killings were known, the issue was what could be done about them. Representative David Price (NC) was already on top of the issue, introducing a bill and leading an effort in the House to expand and clarify MEJA and better regulate the military and security industry. Senator Barack Obama led the cause in the Senate.

With Senator Obama now President-elect Obama, let’s hope that the move to the White House will bring not only fulfillment of promises to be a better neighbor in our foreign affairs but also that our new President will continue to support the efforts of his tireless colleagues in Congress to set the stage for a more humane way for the United States to do business.