Why We Need an International Treaty on Private Military Contractors

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Lauren Jenkins to the site. Lauren  is the National Coordinator for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center where she works on post-conflict peacebuilding issues. She writes about national security at her blog International Development Without Pity.  — Mark

While the U.S. military draws down in Iraq, next year the State Department is boosting its own army of private military contractors from 2,700 strong to a force of around 5,500. This build-up is “one of the most complex and dangerous endeavors the State Department has ever undertaken,” says Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Danger Room. Yet despite the gravity of this new mission, significant details about how State plans to regulate, monitor, and hold its contractors accountable remain shrouded in secret. State isn’t even allowing the federal agency that audits Iraq reconstruction spending to conduct the oversight it’s created by law to do, Ackerman reports.

The inability of a U.S. government agency created specifically to monitor another department’s use of contractors, especially ones dealing in the use of lethal force, illustrates the need for an international convention to regulate the private military contracting industry. The United Nations Working Group on Mercenaries, in fact, recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and noted “that the lingering presence of the contractors after the decrease of the official military presence [in Iraq] would create a new legal situation that underlined the need for an international instrument.”

Given the lack of clarity from the State Department about its plans for its security contractors in Iraq beyond simply that their numbers are increasing, it is time to create some clarity by moving forward on an international convention regulating the industry. A draft convention proposedby the Working Group would create a process for the licensing and monitoring of private security companies and, most importantly, for victims of abuse to achieve justice.

Iraqi legislation that would regulate private military contractors has been pending in its parliament since 2008 leaving no clear legal framework under which private military contractors are held accountable there. The alternative, prosecuting private security contractors in their home countries, has proved untenable, providing little justice, neither for the victims nor the accused. Four Blackwater contractors accused of manslaughter for their participation in the 2007 Nissour Square shootings which killed 17 Iraqi civilians are still on trial the United States’ courts three yearsafter their initial indictment. An international convention would establish clear jurisdiction for fairly and equitably resolving alleged abuses.

A convention on the use of private military contractors isn’t intended to put any private military companies out of business. Instead, it would protect civilians caught in the midst of conflict. It could even protect the private military companies. Right now, companies operating in Afghanistan and Iraq operate under two different sets of standards and regulations. With an international convention, companies, contracting and host states, and civilians would have clear guidance and expectations about what conduct and activities are allowed, what aren’t, and the process for redressing abuses and infractions.

Private military contractors are poised to take an increasingly large role in Iraq, but serious questions remain about how they will be held responsible for their actions. One obvious answer is an international convention.