Blackwater case provides crucial lessons on keeping private security firms in check
American security firm Blackwater has reinvented itself under the new name Academi after four of its former guards were given long jail terms for their roles in the 2007 killings of 14 civilians at a busy traffic junction in Baghdad. Some Americans may feel their justice system, about which Iraqis have long been sceptical, has been vindicated. But there simply have been too many cases of abuse, torture and killings to whitewash the American debacle in Iraq. The sentences, in which one former guard was jailed for life and three to 30-year jail terms, may finally deliver a measure of justice to the families of the victims. A total of 14 Iraqi civilians were killed and 20 wounded in Nisour Square in 2007 after Blackwater guards opened fire and shot people indiscriminately.
More importantly, the case should be a reminder of the danger of the unchecked employment of private armies, military contractors and private security firms by legitimate governments. For centuries, militias and mercenaries have always had a bad reputation for their greed, violence and unreliability. But the modern private security industry, of which Blackwater had for a long time been its most visible example, has given a new twist to this age-old military phenomenon.
Many governments, not just the United States, now hire private security contractors for their expertise and highly specialised services. Yet, this is a murky and secretive business that sits uneasily with accountable governments.
The former boss of Blackwater now runs Frontier Services Group, which has an office in Hong Kong. Among its clients is the Chinese government, to which it offers what it calls "expeditionary logistics" for natural resources operations in Africa. The firm has the backing of the large state-owned Citic Group. No doubt it offers legitimate and valuable services.
But from the defunct Blackwater, the whole industry and the governments that use it should learn the need for greater transparency, adequate training and proper supervision if their operators are to be more than mercenaries.