A Primer on Legal Developments Regarding Private Military Contractors
By Faiza Patel
Friday, July 18, 2014 at 4:30 PM
Recent events again have raised the issue of accountability for alleged human rights violations by Blackwater, the most notorious of the private contractors deployed by the United States in the Iraq war. On June 11, trial finally got underway of four Blackwater guards accused of shooting indiscriminately into traffic in Nisour Square in Baghdad, in 2007—and killing 17 civilians. Just days later, the New York Times reported that two weeks before the shooting, a Blackwater manager had threatened the life of the State Department investigator who was looking into the firm’s operations in Iraq. According to the Times, rather than sanction its contractor, the State Department instead sent its investigator packing. The newly released report from the investigator sums it up: “Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law.”
As Iraq plunges into civil war, and as recriminations fly about why the U.S. didn’t leave a residual force when it withdrew, those with long(ish) memories surely will recall: a major reason Iraq refused to accept immunity for leftover U.S. soldiers was the country’s earlier experience with military contractors, who had been granted broad legal protections. Under rules issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, contractors couldn’t be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. While such immunity is standard for military personnel, it is also typically accompanied by a regular system of reporting and accountability for those who commit crimes. But military contractors in Iraq weren’t subject to equivalent procedures and generally managed to escape prosecution. For example, the contractors accused of participating in torture at Abu Ghraib have never been prosecuted, although the junior military personnel involved were court martialed. Even Nisour Square – the most high-profile of such cases – has taken seven years to come to trial, in large part due to missteps by the government.
Reports of contractor misconduct, and concern that such incidents would undermine the legitimacy of using contractors, together galvanized the international community to address the regime governing contractors in war zones and other areas of instability. By and large, these remain a work in progress. Here is a short primer for Lawfare readers on recent international legal developments regarding contractors. Continue reading