Legislation Addresses Accountability Gap for Private Military Contractors
Washington, DC Human Rights First today praised the introduction of legislation authored to clarify and expand the jurisdiction of U.S. courts over serious crimes committed by private contractors deployed abroad by the United States. The Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) of 2010, introduced simultaneously by Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative David Price, clarifies and expands the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in these cases.
“Failing to hold contractors accountable for serious crimes in war zones abroad has created a culture of impunity which has fostered hostility among civilian populations towards the United States. This increases the threat to U.S military personnel and contractors and undermines the U.S. mission,” wrote Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino in a letter to Senator Leahy and Representative Price.
Human Rights First notes that there are currently more private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than U.S. military forces serving there. A significant number of these contractors are armed and carrying out security functions. According to a Congressional Research Service report released in January 2010, there were over 22,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in September 2009. The U.S. government has never before relied on contractors to such a degree.
“With this increased reliance on contractors, there has been an increase in serious criminal conduct, including high-profile incidents of excessive force against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Massimino noted. “Despite Congress’ elevated scrutiny and oversight over contractors, accountability gaps persist. To date, only a handful of U.S. contractors have been prosecuted for violent criminal abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The introduction of the CEJA follows a court’s dismissal last month of criminal charges against five Blackwater guards for their alleged involvement in a September 16, 2007 incident that killed 17 civilians and wounded 24 more in the Nisoor Square neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. The U.S. government is appealing that dismissal.
In what Massimino characterizes as “a meaningful step towards closing the accountability gap and preventing future abuses of contractors deployed by the United States abroad,” CEJA extends U.S. criminal jurisdiction over contractors abroad, establishes investigative units for increased oversight, and allocates necessary resources for investigation and prosecution. The bill closely resembles legislation that President Barack Obama introduced during his time in the Senate and supported with the observation that “(w)e cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors.”
Human Rights First urges Congress to swiftly pass the legislation and calls on President Obama to sign it into law.