Thursday, January 17, 2008

Iraq war: Security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan not held accountable for "shoot first, ask questions later, or never" policy

A report issued by a U.S.-based human rights group is criticizing the Justice Department for failing to hold private security contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan responsible for acts of violence. The report was released Wednesday in Washington and VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details.

The report by the New York-based Human Rights First says private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being held accountable for excessive use of force, which has given rise to what the group calls "shoot first, ask questions later, or never."

The report says private security contractors are operating in a virtual law-free zone, which threatens the safety of Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice, Paul Bresson, told VOA his agency strongly disagrees with the report.

Human Rights First points to an incident last September when guards from the Blackwater company providing security for a U.S. diplomatic convoy fired on Iraqi civilians, killing 17 people.

Blackwater officials say the guards were protecting diplomats when they came under fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting spree was unprovoked.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the incident, but Kevin Lanigan of Human Rights First says since military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq began, only one contractor has been tried for violence against local nationals.

"The U.S. government, especially the Department of Justice, is failing in this basic responsibility to investigate and to prosecute contractors who are implicated in serious criminality in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan," said Kevin Lanigan.

The report generally praises the U.S. military, saying it has a substantial criminal justice team deployed to Iraq to investigate allegations against soldiers.

It says some 60 U.S. military personnel have been court-martialed in connection with the deaths of Iraqi citizens and more are under investigation.

The report by Human Rights First says contractors are essential to the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scott Horton, a law professor at Columbia University and the senior consultant for the report, says most contractors in Iraq abide by the law.

"The great majority of the contractors involved, including the security contractors, are conscientious, dedicated professionals who are out there at great personal risk, performing magnificently," said Scott Horton. "So we should not view this as tarring the entire group of contractors or even the entire group of security contractors, but it is a question of accountability."

Doug Brooks is the President of the International Peace Operations Association, an organization that represents security contractors that operate in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Brooks says companies that employ individuals who commit serious crimes fire those employees and send them home. But he says it is very difficult to gather evidence, interview witnesses and prosecute crimes committed in a war zone.

"Understand there is a reluctance by prosecutors to take on these sorts of cases," said Doug Brooks. "The amount of resources it would require of a federal prosecutor to do this kind of case. I mean there is a number of things that are raised as red flags on these sorts of things so I think we need to address those problems."

Before the handover of power to the Iraqi government in 2004, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority granted immunity to foreign security contractors, a measure that remains part of Iraqi law.

Last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation designed to hold private contractors responsible for any illegal actions.

North Carolina Congressman David Price is the lead sponsor of the measure.

"My bill would subject all contractors to civilian criminal jurisdiction and importantly, provide the Justice Department with the means and the direction to actually investigate and prosecute potential abuse," said Congressman Price.

Last December the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon agreed to a new system of rules designed to increase control over private security contractors in Iraq.

U.S. officials say the policy includes coordination of movement and rules on the use of weapons. They say the new system will govern how future shooting incidents are investigated and how to hold accountable any contractors who violate the rules.

The Justice Department's Bresson says the department is aggressively pursuing a number of cases involving private security contractors in Iraq and is fully committed to investigating and prosecuting crimes in federal court.

The spokesman says such investigations take much longer than those involving crimes in the United States and the present instability in Iraq adds numerous additional obstacles.

By Meredith Buel, Washington, 17 January 2008
Published with the permission of Voice of America