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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Blackwater Appeal -- What Does This Mean for the Accountability of Private Military Firms?

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There are serious legal and human rights concerns about private military companies providing "security services" in conflict areas. Where the strict hierarchical discipline of the military is avoided, you may wonder who these companies are accountable to.

The recent Supreme Court decision regarding Blackwater Worldwide, the U.S. private security firm that operated in Iraq, has left the door open to the possibility of holding these private firms accountable for unlawful violence in war zones.

On September 16, 2007 heavy gunfire erupted at the busy Nisour Square junction, killing at least 14 civilians including a 9 year old boy and leaving dozens injured. The shots were fired from a convoy of four armoured vehicles manned by Blackwater guards, who maintain that they were acting in self-defence after being shot at by insurgents.

Witnesses claim that the contractors were never in any danger and shot at civilians mercilessly and unprovoked. The chief prosecutor Kenneth Kohl disclosed that other Blackwater guards who had been on the convoy involved in the Nisour Square shootings reported the incident to Blackwater management, one guard describing it as "murder in cold blood". However it appears that the management failed to report these statements to the State Department.

The case had previously been thrown out by federal judge Ricardo Urbina on December 31, 2009 who cited misuse of statements made by the defendants by investigators. The state department had ordered the guards to explain the details of the incident to investigators under the threat of losing their jobs. Their lawyer argued that using these statements to charge the four men amounted to a violation of their constitutional right against self-incrimination and were made under duress.

However the charges were reinstated in April 2011 when a federal appeals court reopened the case and ordered the review of evidence against each individual defendant. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to dismiss the manslaughter and weapons charges against the four defendants Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball and has declined to comment.

This is a small victory in holding private firms accountable for their actions in war zones. The privatization of war and the use of private military firms is becoming increasingly prevalent and raises serious concerns over accountability. While this is not an isolated incident and it is likely that many unlawful actions by such contractors can go unnoticed due to the nature of their work, it provides a step towards creating a framework in which these companies could be held responsible for their actions.

Due to the transnational nature of many private military firms it is increasingly difficult to hold these companies responsible for the actions of their employees. The fact that these firms work in states in which the government has collapsed or is unable to enforce the necessary laws due to the condition of the state the operations of these firms often go unnoticed even if they are largely acting outside of the law.

Blackwater later changed their name to Xe Services, and after being unable to shake their bad reputation decided on a further name change now calling themselves Academi.