Iraq’s parliament should approve legislation to end immunity for foreign private security contractors, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation would effectively rescind Order 17 of the now-defunct, US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which grants foreign contractors and their non-Iraqi employees immunity from Iraqi criminal prosecution.

Iraq’s cabinet passed the measure on October 30, 2007, sending it to parliament, which has been struggling to draw enough members to reach quorum for votes on numerous contentious pieces of legislation. Human Rights Watch called on Iraqi legislators to ensure the prompt approval of this law.

“The US-led coalition created a legal vacuum that allows foreign contractors in Iraq to commit serious abuses with no fear of punishment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time for the Iraqi parliament to pass a law ending immunity for foreign security personnel who commit crimes in Iraqi.”

The killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by employees of the US security firm Blackwater on September 16 focused international attention on the lack of accountability for crimes committed by security contractors operating in Iraq. About 48,000 employees of private security contractors work in Iraq, out of a total of more than 100,000 contractors.

The decree issued by the CPA in June 2004 grants foreign contractors immunity from criminal prosecution by the Iraqi authorities. The CPA’s decrees remain in force unless superseded by new legislation, under the terms of Iraq’s 2004 Transitional Administrative Law.

CPA Order 17 states: “Contractors shall be immune from Iraqi legal process with respect to acts performed by them pursuant to the terms and conditions of a Contract or any sub-contract thereto,” and defines contractors as “non-Iraqi legal entities or individuals not normally resident in Iraq, including their non-Iraqi employees.”

The draft legislation approved by Iraq’s cabinet rescinds Order 17, though it specifies no means for dealing with past incidents.

Human Rights Watch said that approval of the draft law would contribute to the effort to make security firms accountable for future abuses.

Human Rights Watch also urged the US government to prosecute American security contractors in US courts if they have committed criminal offenses against Iraqi civilians. Under current US law, private contractors working for Department of Defense (DOD) or “in support of the DOD mission” can be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act for certain felonies committed overseas. To date, however, the US government has not held a single private contractor criminally liable for abuses against Iraqi civilians, despite widespread reports of unprovoked shootings.

Private contractors hired by the US State Department to work in Iraq – including the Blackwater employees involved in the September shooting – are all considered to be operating “in support of the DOD mission” and could be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. But there has been a disappointing lack of monitoring and enforcement to date, Human Rights Watch said.

“Having shielded contractors from local prosecution, Washington has a responsibility to prosecute contractors in US courts if they are responsible for serious crimes in Iraq,” Whitson said.