Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a group founded by slain U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka that works with civilian victims of wars to make sure they get the recognition and assistance they need. Sarah wrote the following commentary shortly after the Sept. 16th shooting deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis by Blackwater personnel. It was published by United Press International on September 28, 2007.
When someone is shot in America, there’s an investigation, a trial, damages might be paid. Not so in Iraq.
The U.S. military has the power to investigate wrongful killings by its forces and can make condolence payments to the families of those it kills unintentionally. But too often security contractors -- hired to guard everything from convoys to diplomats -- just drive away, leaving shattered lives behind.
In the wake of allegations that armed guards working for the private security contractor Blackwater opened fire unprovoked on a crowded traffic circle last week in Baghdad, killing at least 11 and injuring a dozen more, that may all change.
Saying he did not know how often such incidents occurred and pressed to find out by public and media attention, Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday announced he was sending a five-person fact-finding team to Iraq. Although he had been “assured … that we have the proper procedures, policies and legal authorities in place to oversee and manage these contractors,” he told reporters, “I want to be confident that that is in fact the case.”
What he will find is that it is not the case at all. In fact, human-rights groups and Iraqis alike have been asking for years when the U.S. military was going to finally hold contractors accountable.
There is a third party to the contracts made between the U.S. government and private security firms -- the Iraqi people. They have not only been overlooked but literally removed from the equation. In 2004 the U.S. occupation authorities issued a directive granting contractors immunity under Iraqi law. They could not be sued by Iraqis, and even within the U.S. government and commanders on the ground, there is confusion as to whether they can be court-martialed.
In this legal limbo, contractors are under no obligation even to report incidents in which they shoot and kill Iraqis, and are unlikely to be investigated or face trial for causing wrongful deaths. Innocent Iraqis suffering death and injury at the hands of contractors have little recourse.
The Gates fact-finding team and a joint State Department-Iraqi government commission also looking into the matter are not the first to do damage control when it comes to the role of private security contractors in Iraq.
Last fall Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former military lawyer and member of the Armed Services Committee, led an effort to include contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- a set of standards used by the U.S. military to hold its own personnel accountable for bad behavior.
But that legislation was later found to be inadequate by military lawyers, and while it is true contractors can be sent home and prosecuted in the United States under the Military Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction Act, less than a handful ever have for serious crimes.
Most contractors with their boots on the ground aren’t even American, hailing from places where no justice system will ever follow through on prosecution.
Iraqis are left with unjustified, unexplained killings and horrifying injuries and an example of the rule of law lying in ruins.
Finding a solution isn’t an academic exercise, it’s a strategic imperative. Every civilian killed or wounded undermines the U.S. mission in Iraq. Gates himself admitted the U.S. military had to “do everything in our power to make sure that (contractors) are not only abiding by our rules but are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability.”
The lack of uniform accountability for those responsible for civilian casualties tarnishes our reputation and puts American soldiers on the receiving end of anger and resentment. For the families suffering as a result of contractor shootings, finding a solution also happens to be the right thing to do.
Whatever recommendations emerge from the Gates probes in Iraq, three things are essential.
First, there should be official recognition of the severity and scope of the problem. Heartening is a Sept. 25 directive issued by Gates’ deputy calling for clearer rules for contractors. It’s late in coming, but it’s a good first step toward uniform accountability.
Second, the U.S. military must negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. The SOFA is a compact clarifying the rules for U.S. armed forces, and the United States has one with every nation in the world where U.S. troops are based -- except Iraq and Afghanistan. This oversight needs to be remedied. The SOFA should formally apply to all U.S. government contractors -- including those working for the State Department -- the same rules it applies to the U.S. military.
That includes transparent investigation and prosecution of those who break the rules and hurt or kill civilians.
Third, the United States should extend its condolence and compensation systems to cover civilians harmed by private contractors. The U.S. military has the ability to pay a symbolic condolence to Iraqis it unintentionally harms and, separately, can provide full compensation to civilians wrongfully or negligently hurt by American troops.
It is unfair and strategically unwise to leave Iraqis harmed by contractors -- whether accidentally or intentionally -- with nothing. To ensure accountability, payments made to civilians should come out of their contract with the U.S. government. If a contractor does not agree to pay, they should not get a contract, plain and simple.
Blackwater security details are back on the streets of Baghdad. The U.S. government doesn’t have the forces to replace them, so the atmosphere of unaccountability continues. If the Gates team does not return with clear legal standards for contractors and make compensation for casualties mandatory, they will have failed the Iraqi people and betrayed American values.