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Food for Thought

Whose Security?

Farah Ghuznavi

Part I

Recent events in Iraq have brought the activities of private security contractors firmly into the spotlight. While most people are well aware of the US and allied troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, some may not be as well-informed about the number of security guards and other personnel supplied by private firms to support coalition forces. These firms are often hired by the US government in particular, to support their activities in those countries.

An important distinction between regular soldiers and such private sector staff in Iraq however, is that the latter are immune from prosecution. In essence, private security firms benefit from immunity provided under a 2004 law passed by the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). According to the Iraqi government there are currently more than 180 private security companies operating in the country mostly from the US and Europe with the estimated number of American contractors standing at around 100,000 (UK Independent). Of these, the firm Blackwater USA has recently hit the headlines, bringing to public notice this issue of immunity.

In September 2007, 17 Iraqi civilians, including a number of women and children, died in a hail of gunfire unleashed by Blackwater's private security guards in the Mansour district of Baghdad. A number of cars were also set on fire, brutally incinerating the occupants. Blackwater has consistently maintained that their security guards acted in self-defence, returning fire at “threatening targets” and responding “lawfully” to a threat against the convoy that they were guarding.

Although there is any amount of eyewitness testimony that says otherwise, the firm has connections in high places, which has made it even harder to bring to justice those who have committed these terrible crimes. Blackwater was set up in 1997 and received a number of large scale government contracts after George W. Bush came to power. It is the largest of the three private security firms employed by the State Department, and at least 90% of its revenue comes from government contracts. Each Blackwater guard in Iraq costs the government nearly half a million dollars per annum (UK Independent) clearly an optimal use of public funds!

Previous missions carried out by Blackwater have also been dogged by controversy, so perhaps the reason why they continue to receive contracts from the US government lies in the fact that Blackwater's founder Erik Prince supported Bush Junior's presidential campaign, and also makes regular contributions to the Republican Party? Presumably, elsewhere this might be categorised as bribery, but not in the land of the free and home of the bold ahem, I meant “brave”…

Regardless of Blackwater's defiant denials of wrongdoing, others remain unconvinced. According to a British reporter present in Mansour district on the afternoon when the massacre took place, it was followed by an outpouring of fury from Iraqis demanding that such private armies, currently immune from scrutiny and prosecution, should be brought to book for their actions.

Their view is supported by spokespersons for the UN. According to Ivana Vuco, a UN staffer stationed in Iraq, this is a human rights issue, and human rights laws must be applied equally to contractors and other parties in a conflict “We will be stressing that in our communications with US authorities. This includes the responsibility to investigate… and prosecute those accused of wrongdoing.” Another UN spokesperson, Said Arikat, urged the Bush administration to hold accountable those involved in the indiscriminate shooting, because “there cannot be rogue elements that are above the law” (UK Independent). Sadly, it seems that in Iraq, there are…

While the Iraqi government has accused Blackwater of the “deliberate murder” of civilians and demanded compensation for those injured in the indiscriminate shooting that took place in a crowded city square, there remains a sense that because the incident took place in Iraq, nothing will actually get done about it. This view was expressed by Hassan Jabar Salman, a lawyer who was shot four times in the back as he attempted to escape from the American onslaught.

Lying in hospital, he asserted “This is not the first time they have killed innocent people, and they will do it again, you will see… Nothing, absolutely nothing will be done.” There appear to be some grounds for his pessimism. Despite the declaration by the current Iraqi government that they would expel Blackwater, they were forced to let the security firm operate again after just three days, due to pressure from Washington.

While people in the industry are keen to assert that not all security firms behave in the same way, there are clear grounds for concern. According to the Director-General of the British Association of Private Security Companies, earlier mercenaries had been engaged in activities such as trying to invade Congo etc(!), until about 20 years ago when people with a background in the military services decided that as much money could be made legally and legitimately. “Our association… has a charter that members must adhere to and there is a disciplinary procedure. But there are parts of the industry which operate in a pretty unregulated environment. It's very, very difficult to control what these people actually do,” he said.

In the words of an ex-Royal Marine, currently employed by a security firm, “I suppose we should thank George Bush and Tony Blair for what they have done for our industry much as I dislike their policies. And if I was an Iraqi I would certainly not be thanking them… I would like to think that we are helping on reconstruction and winning local trust, although… what Blackwater did sounds exactly the kind of thing we don't want. But, having said that, if something did go wrong I would not want to end up before an Iraqi or Afghan court, knowing how corrupt they are.”

Notwithstanding the point he makes, the fact remains that while private security contractors are effectively above the law, by contrast professional soldiers remain accountable for their actions through procedures such as court-martials. It's not hard to decide which category of security personnel one would rather be dealing with in this instance!

(to be continued…)

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