The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: 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


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.