25 January 2010

Biden on dismissal of Blackwater charges

The New York Times reported on 23 January that United States Vice-President Joseph Biden has promised Iraqi leaders that the United States would appeal the dismissal of manslaughter charges against five Blackwater International security contractors involved in a 2007 shooting at a Baghdad traffic roundabout that killed 17 Iraqis including women and children (see report here).

Investigators concluded that the contractors, who had been employed by the State Department to guard US diplomats, had fired indiscriminately on unarmed civilians in an unprovoked and unjustified attack. In December a US Federal Judge threw out the five guards’ indictment on manslaughter charges, citing misuse of their statements that violated their constitutional rights. 

Some comments and observations:

(1)  As a simple matter of justice to the innocent Iraqi civilians who were killed, it is to be hoped that the United States Government can successfully appeal against the dismissal of the charges. In view of the detailed and scathing judgement handed down by the judge, this seems to be an unlikely outcome.

(2)  One has to wonder at how it was possible for self-incriminating statements to be taken from the contractors straight after the incident, in violation of their civil rights, and how the prosecution came to rely on these statements. What was at work here – was it straight legal incompetence, or was something else going on.

(3)  Apart from the question of justice to the dead and injured Iraqi civilians and their families, it is to be hoped that the contractors can be brought to trial, because the case underlines the catastrophic effect of trying to wage war using mercenary soldiers. For make no mistake about it, these private contractors are mercenaries. Under international law it is only the armed forces of the state who have legitimated power to use, or threaten to use, lethal force, and then only under lawful direction from their chain of command.

(4)  Aside from the matter of legitimacy, anyone who thinks that the deployment of mercenary soldiers represents a saving is seriously deluded.  It is now settled United States policy that success in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq requires the support of the people – that the issue is a “hearts and minds” campaign, and that is what the supreme US commanders in both theatres are about. The deployment of trigger-happy private contractors who appear to blaze away not because they need to but because they can, with no apparent accountability to anyone, fatally compromises the capacity of the US commanders to do what they are trying to achieve. Losing wars on the cheap is far more expensive than winning them on the basis of legitimate forces under proper lawful command.

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