As Blackwater Security Guards Are Convicted for Nisour Square Killings, UN Working Group Pushes for Enhanced Regulation of Private Security Companies

Blackwater helicopter over the Republican Palace in BaghdadCredit: jamesdale10
Blackwater helicopter over the Republican Palace in Baghdad
Credit: jamesdale10

On October 22, jurors in a United States federal district court found four former Blackwater security guards guilty of first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter for the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqis on September 16, 2007. The killings occurred while a team of security guards – code-named Raven 23 – employed by the private security company escorted a U.S. State Department armored convoy through Nisour Square in Baghdad, Iraq. The guards, purportedly thinking they were under attack by insurgents, responded with gunfire from heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. Seventeen Iraqis were killed and 20 more were seriously injured. [Guardian]

Blackwater sniper Nicolas Slatten, allegedly the first to open fire, was convicted of first-degree murder. The other three men – Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard – were found guilty of charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and firearms offenses. [Guardian]

After the massacre, many questions were raised about the propriety of the relationship between the private security firm and the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other U.S. national security agencies. Now, some hope that the convictions will help restore the U.S.’s reputation with the Iraqi public. “The American administration pledged its support for the Iraqi people in this case … They proved their credibility,” said one Iraqi police officer. [New York Times] However, others have criticized the convictions as too little, too late, particularly as the company itself has yet to be held responsible for these and other unlawful killings and abuses carried out by its employees and in light of the fact that the U.S. government continues to contract with private security companies. [VOA; Democracy Now!; Courthouse News Service]

The United Nations (UN) Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impending the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination (Working Group on the use of mercenaries) welcomed the convictions, stating that “[p]rivate military and security companies … personnel must always be held accountable for violations committed under international human rights and humanitarian law.” [OHCHR Press Release] However, the Working Group also urged the international community to enact stronger regulation of private security companies’ operations, in order to require their compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law standards. [OHCHR Press Release]

The Trial of Slatten, Slough, Liberty, and Heard

Because the U.S., through the Coalition Provisional Authority, had granted immunity from the Iraqi legal system to its military personnel and government contractors in Iraq, the four men could not be prosecuted in Iraq. [Al Jazeera; Opinio Juris] As a result, the case garnered widespread attention in Iraq “as a symbol of apparent American immunity.” [Guardian] U.S. federal prosecutors, however, sought to bring the men to justice in U.S. courts.

Their first attempt failed when District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina dismissed the indictment because the prosecution team had improperly relied on the defendants’ compelled statements. [Guardian] Judge Urbino held that the prosecution team’s reliance on the statements to inform their decisions about what charges to bring, how to develop the theory of the case, what subsequent investigative steps they should take, and how to procure an indictment, would have violated the defendants’ constitutional rights had the case been allowed to continue. See, U.S. v. Slough et al., Criminal Action No. 08-0360 (RMU), Mem. Op. (D.D.C. Dec. 31, 2009).

Nevertheless, in 2011, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia (D.C.) Circuit Court of Appeals revived the prosecution, holding that Judge Urbina had misinterpreted the law. The case was thus allowed to proceed. [NBC]

The trial of the four men continued for 10 weeks and required 28 days of deliberation. A total of 71 witnesses testified, including 30 Iraqi witnesses who were flown to Washington to testify. [CNN] Prosecutors argued that Slatten in particular considered the deaths of Iraqis as “payback for 9/11” and instigated gun battles by deliberately firing his weapon. [Guardian]

Slattern was convicted of first-degree murder. Slough was found guilty of 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 17 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense. Liberty was found guilty of 8 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 12 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense. Heard was found guilty of 6 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 11 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one firearms offense. Lawyers for the four men say they plan to appeal the convictions. [Guardian]

All four men face lengthy prison sentences. Slattern’s first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Each charge of voluntary manslaughter could result in a maximum sentence of 15 years. The attempted manslaughter charges carry seven-year maximum sentences, and the firearms offenses carry mandatory 30-year sentences. [CNN]

Jeremy Ridgeway, another member of the convoy, pled guilty in 2008 to voluntary manslaughter. In exchange for a more lenient sentence, he agreed to testify against his Blackwater colleagues. [Guardian]

After the massacre in Nisour Square, Blackwater’s name changed to Xe Services in 2009. In 2010, it was again renamed, this time as Academi. The CIA and other U.S. national security departments continue to contract work from the firm. [Independent]

For additional analysis of the facts and legal issues raised in the trial, see two recent posts by James Stewart and Sara Gray on Just Security.

International Efforts to Hold Private Military and Security Companies Accountable

For governments, there can be significant advantages to using private military and security companies. They may cost less than standing armies because the government does not have to pay pensions and health care costs. They can also be mobilized quickly and do not require Congressional approval to act. Another, more questionable, advantage is that they operate in “a grey legal zone” when it comes to accountability. [Independent] Consequently, how to hold these companies accountable is a hotly debated issue.

The Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries

According to the Working Group on the use of mercenaries, while the prosecutions of the four Blackwater guards have ended the “cycle of impunity that prevailed since 2007 and aggravated the suffering of victims and their families … such examples of accountability are the exception rather than the rule.” In an effort to make accountability the rule rather than the exception, the Working Group presses for the adoption of an international convention to regulate corporate actors “whose operations pose potential threats to human rights.” [OHCHR Press Release] To achieve that end, the Working Group has composed a draft Convention on Private Military and Security Companies. See Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, A/HRC/15/25, 2 July 2010, at 21.

The Working Group on the use of mercenaries also conducted a country visit to the U.S. from July 20 to August 3, 2009. In its subsequent report, the Working Group noted that between 2005 and 2007, Blackwater guards were involved in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq. Report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, A/HRC/15/25/Add.3, 15 June 2010, para. 86. Among its recommendations, the Working Group advised the U.S. to:

  • urge Congress to clarify and expand the reach of the U.S. courts’ criminal jurisdiction over contractors overseas, such as by amending the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) or by enacting new legislation;
  • ensure that the Department of Justice conducts prompt and effective investigations of any alleged human rights violations committed by private military or security companies;
  • publish statistical information on the status of investigations into human rights abuses and crimes committed by private military or security forces;
  • establish a more vigorous vetting process before awarding contracts; and
  • make sure that the oversight of private military and security contractors is not outsourced to other private military and security companies.

Id. at para. 101.

Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government have also collaborated on an agreement that would reaffirm States’ obligations to make sure that any private military and security companies under hire and operating in conflict zones will comply with international humanitarian and human rights law. [ICRC] The agreement, the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies, contains over 70 recommendations for States, including that they consider companies’ track records, closely examine their vetting procedures when hiring staff, and ensure that measures are in place to prosecute the personnel of these companies when serious violations of the law occur. See ICRC, Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies during Armed Conflict (2009).

In 2010, the Swiss government and other actors drafted and adopted the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC), a set of principles that complements the Montreux Document and directly addresses private security companies’ role in respecting human rights. The expectation is that States will require contractors to adhere to the ICoC as a requirement for doing business with the government. Moreover, the ICoC Steering Committee has taken responsibility for proposing an independent governance and oversight mechanism.

Additional Resources

For more information on international humanitarian law and the Working Group on the use of mercenaries, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.