Private security firms accountable for unjustified killings of Iraqi civilians must be held in the U.S., the U.N. said Thursday, warning that increasing reliance on the heavily armed teams risks eroding the distinction between civilians and combatants.
Ivana Vuco, a human rights officer with the U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq, went so far as to say the agency was weighing whether contractors who work for the mostly Western firms providing security to diplomats and aid groups could be subjected to charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity.
"International humanitarian rights law applies to them as well. We will be stressing that in our communications with U.S. authorities. This includes the responsibility to investigate to supervise and prosecute those accused of wrongdoing," she said at a news conference in Baghdad.
UNAMI, which released its biannual human rights report on Thursday, also expressed concern that too many Iraqi civilians are being killed in U.S. military operations as part of a security crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
U.S. airstrikes reportedly killed at least 88 Iraqi civilians and many more died in raids by American ground forces during a military crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding areas, according to the 36-page report.
The report noted several reports of "killings carried out by privately hired contractors with security-related functions in support of U.S. government authorities."
In two recent cases, guards working for the Australian-owned security company Unity Resources Group fired on a car as it approached their convoy on Tuesday, killing two women civilians before speeding away. The company said its guards feared a suicide attack and fired only after issuing several warnings for the car to stop.
Blackwater USA, the largest American firm working for the U.S. State Department in Iraq, also is under scrutiny of killing 17 Iraqis after opening fire on an intersection in central Baghdad on Sept. 16.The company also said its guards were responding to an armed attack.
But the cases have provoked outrage among Iraqis who have long hated what they see as overly aggressive behavior by the security contractors. The Iraqi government has launched investigations and a joint U.S.-Iraqi panel has been created to review the practices of the security companies, which generally have enjoyed immunity and little oversight in Iraq.
UNAMI called on the U.S. government to establish mechanisms to hold security contractors accountable for unjustified killings and to ensure that offenses committed in Iraq "by all categories of U.S. contractor employees" are subject to prosecution under the law.
It also demanded the companies respect international humanitarian law, saying increasing reliance on private security firms "risks eroding the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants because these people may not appear clearly as quite one or the other."
An order issued by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004 before the Iraqi government gained sovereignty gives American security companies immunity from Iraqi prosecution on issues arising from their contracts.
The U.N. said the order "enables the U.S. government to waive a contractor's immunity" but "to UNAMI'S knowledge it has not done so to date."
An Iraqi investigation into the alleged Blackwater killings found the guards opened fire without provocation and recommended that the U.S. State Department sever all contracts for the company's operations in Iraq within six months.
The United States has not made conclusive findings about the shooting, though there are multiple investigations under way and Congress has opened inquiries into the role of private security contractors.
The U.N. report also said Iraqi civilians continued to bear the brunt of ongoing violence by Sunni and Shiite militant groups, although it was again unable to provide casualty figures, saying it could not persuade the Iraqi government to release data compiled by the Health Ministry and other institutions.
U.S. military action intended to quell the violence also has led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians and the U.N. urged that all credible allegations of unlawful killings be thoroughly investigated and "appropriate action taken against military personnel found to have used excessive or indiscriminate force."
The report, which covers the period from April 1 to June 30, cited instances in which at least 88 civilians were said to have been killed in airstrikes, including seven children who died when helicopters allegedly attacked an elementary school near the Iranian border in the volatile Diyala province.
The U.S. military has said it is investigating the report, "however, the findings of such investigations are not systematically publicized," the U.N. said.
It also detailed the alleged killing of 15 Iraqi civilians during U.S. raid and search operations, including a 14-year-old boy.