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June 18, 2010
1:23 PM

CONTACT: Human Rights First

Brenda Bowser Soder
O -202/370-3323, C – 301/906-4460

Group Urges Commission to Advance Accountablity for Private Military Contractors, Protect Civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan

WASHINGTON - June 18 - Human Rights First today urged members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan to advocate policies designed to minimize the risk of harm to civilians and to ensure that private military contractors are held criminally responsible for serious abuses. The group offered reform recommendations in written testimony to the commission and noted that failure to implement changes to current policy will threaten America's national security interests.

"Private security contractors are being asked to function in active combat zones in ways that dangerously blur the line between civilians and the military. Consequently, contractors have continued to engage in hostile activity with minimal command, contractual, or judicial oversight. This has put other civilians, and America's security interests, at risk and contributed to a lack of political will to hold contractors accountable when they engage in criminal activity," said Human Rights First. The group went on to note that to correct this, the definition of what is an "inherently governmental" function should reflect a strong preference that contractors not engage in hostile activity. Contractors must also be held responsible by a robust and adequately-resourced judicial system when they commit crimes, and additional, credible, oversight must be exercised in the field.

The organization stated that private sector employees permeate virtually every component of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan—from filing paperwork to using deadly force. As of May 2010, the Department of Defense estimates that it employs over 207,000 contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, of which at least 28,000 are classified as "Private Security Contractors." Human Rights First noted that this number will grow in the coming months as the Afghan "surge" takes shape. The Congressional Research Service estimates that another 20,000-50,000 will be required to support that strategy.

Similarly, the State Department and USAID report that they employ around 9,000 and 16,700 contractors respectively in the United States' main combat zones, an estimate that the GAO suspects severely under-represents the actual contractor force of each agency. Private security contractors provide protection to convoys of vital supplies to U.S. bases, conduct interrogations, guard the perimeter of the U.S. embassies and consulates, and act as the personal security detail for U.S. diplomats.

Human Rights First's testimony noted, "The U.S. government has relied more on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than at any other time. With this increased reliance on contractors have come increased incidents of serious criminal violations. Yet, only a handful of U.S. contractors have been prosecuted for criminal misconduct. By failing to hold contractors accountable for acts of violence and abuse abroad, the United States has created a culture of impunity which has fostered great hostility among civilian populations towards the United States. This threatens the safety of U.S. military personnel and contractors as well as undermines the U.S. mission."

In an effort to address these problems, Human Rights First today outlined a series of key steps the U.S. government could take to minimize the likelihood that security contractors will be drawn into hostilities, as well as to ensure appropriate accountability and oversight of these contractors. Among the recommendations were the following key steps:

  • Clarify private security contractors' functions and conduct: Restrictions on what functions private security contractors are asked to fulfill and on when they are permitted to use force are essential to maintaining the important distinction between combatants, who are legitimate military targets, and civilians who are not engaged in combat and so are not legitimate targets of war. Current U.S. policy on what functions and conduct private security contractors are allowed to engage in threatens to blur the essential international humanitarian law (IHL) distinctions between civilians and combatants, and jeopardize other civilians performing important roles in theater.
  • Strengthen criminal accountability: Ensuring that sufficient laws, mechanisms and resources are in place to hold wartime contractors criminally responsible for serious abuses is essential to protecting the reputation of the United States as a nation committed to upholding the rule of law and to ensuring fulfillment of U.S. military missions abroad. When government contractors commit offenses that amount to serious violations of the law of armed conflict or human rights law, the government likewise is responsible to ensure the availability of effective mechanisms for investigating and prosecuting offenders. Meaningful accountability for U.S. contractors operating abroad will require clarification and expansion of U.S. criminal jurisdiction, an increase in investigatory and prosecutorial resources, and increased oversight and control over private security contractors in the field.

Human Rights First has long monitored standards for private military contractors and worked to implement policies that ensure civilian safety and contractor accountability. In November 2008, Human Rights First issued three-stage blueprint, How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors: Blueprint for the Next Administration, that set forth concrete recommendations for action by then President-elect Obama beginning on day one and continuing through the first year of the next administration. In addition, Human Rights First released a comprehensive report, Private Security Contractors at War: Ending the Culture of Impunity, that laid out the broad problem of contractor impunity, analyzed the current legal framework, and set forth detailed recommendations to establish accountability. 


Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.

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