Consensus Emerges Over Need to Hold Military Contractors Accountable

By David Levine, Law and Security program

The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan this morning heard remarkably consistent testimony from a range of industry, academic, and non-profit leaders about the need to enhance accountability for Private Security Contractors in contingency operations. Consistent with Human Rights First’s own written testimony to the Commission, each witness agreed that using available accountability options—including legal and contract remedies—was required for ensuring that contractors in war zones operate in a manner consistent with American values and security interests.

While most security contractors who commit crimes in war zones could now be held responsible under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), most efforts to do so have been marked by a lack of political will and resources. Similarly, government resources to manage contractors have been cut even as reliance on the private sector has increased. In testimony before the Commission, John Nagl, a noted expert in counter-insurgency and president of the Center for a New American Security, described the current attempts to hold security contractors accountable as, “failed to an abysmal extent.”

Human Rights First has championed several contractor accountability efforts and today urged the Commission to recommend that Congress act on those proposals. Sen. Leahy and Rep. Price have introduced legislation that would clarify and expand criminal jurisdiction over U.S. contractors for serious abuses committed abroad, ensuring that all security contractors are subject to U.S. federal courts. Just as importantly, it provides the guidance and resources for the Justice Department and contracting agencies to exercise oversight of existing contracts. These measures are directly in line with a growing global consensus that a Code of Conduct for the security industry, accompanied by a robust enforcement mechanism, is needed to raise standards and ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.

The consensus before the Commission indicates that the discussion is moving in the correct direction. As a veteran of the Iraq war, who has witnessed first-hand the complications that private security contractors can create in a counter-insurgency environment, I was encouraged to hear even industry representatives endorse more vigorous accountability and higher standards. To facilitate the future success of American operations, the safety of U.S. troops and civilians in combat zones, and respect for human rights globally, the Commission, and Congress, should take action on the recommendations they were given.

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Published on June 18, 2010

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