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Private military contractors Essay


Private military contractors, also known as private security contractors provide a number of different services for the UN military in Iraq. Various services include the preparation of meals, navigating army supply vehicles, military training and security for US officials. Some private military contractors also provide interrogation and translating services for the US military.

Contractors providing this service in particualr have been suspected of a number of human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraid Prison. Other activities by private military contractors have raised issues about humanitarian conerns and the abuse of womren’s rights. There are currently at least 100 private military contractors in Iraq.[1] This discussion looks at the unique role of private military companies in Iraq and examines their impact on the rights of women.

Private Military Companies in Iraq

The US military and the State Department spends billions of dollars on private security contractors in Iraq.[2] These contractors according to the Washington Post are:

“Out of public view, have been engaged in a parallel surge, boosting manpower, adding expensive armor and stepping up evasive action as attacks increase.”[3]

The primary goal is to “offset chronic troop shortage” and the number of invidual contractors are between 20,000 and 30,000.[4] David Isenberg in a report by the British American Security Information Council published on September 4, 2004 maintains that it is impossible to accurately account for the number of private military companies currently in Iraq. This is because only PMC’s whose contracts exceed $50 million are required “to be reported to Congress.”[5]

Isenberg complains that the legal status of private military companies is especially problematic since there is no real provision in International law to account for their role and definition.[6] While many view the private military personnel as mercenaries, they do not fit the definition of mercenry within the meaning of the Geneva Convention.[7] Article 47 describes a mercenary as an idividual who takes part in military combat and is not a national and:

“is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party”.[8]

James Conachy however, refers to these private military personnel as “modern-day mercenaries.”[9] Conachy aligns their physical presence with their abstract presence. While they are by and large not subjected to transparency and legal accountability in the traditional sense they operate out of uniform and from “unmarked vehicles”.[10] They go about their business in this manner while “manning roadblocks, or stalking outstide building, with machine guns.”[11] As a result, the private militaray presence in Iraq has “become an ubiquitous and offensive symbol of the US occupation.”[12]

Conachy maintains that the need for private military presence in Iraq is obviated by the bredth of US military deployment overseas following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Without the use of private military companies the US would be compelled to send more troops to Iraq from an already depleted armed force or would have to seriously consider “reviving the military draft.”[13] It is obvious from this assessment of the single purpose of the private military that distinguishes them from the Article 47 definition of mercenary. Mercenaries are not aligned to a paritcular party and obviously the private military contractors are aligned to the US and are used to facilitate the US military’s shortfall.

The following description of private military duties takes them well outside of Article 47’s definition of mercenary:

“Far more than in any other conflict in United States history, the Pentagon is relying on private security companies to perform crucial jobs once entrusted to the military.”[14]

It is clear that private military companies are not in actual combat. Mercernaries, according to the Geneva Convetions are actively fighting .

Human Rights Concern and Women

In an article published in the Guardian, Luke Harding explains that the full extent of abuse toward women by all sectors of the military in Iraq will not be fully known. This is primarily because Islamic women rarely discuss violations of a sexual nature. Rape, Harding maintains is a symbol of shame in the muslim world and “victims can be killed to salvage family honour.”[15] The most shocking incidents of abusive treatment of women originate from the Abu Ghraib jail which was primarily manned by private military personnel.[16] Accroding to Patrap Chatterjee the private military’s role at the Abu Ghraib jail was one of interrogation which brought them into more frequent contact with the prisoners than other jail personnel.[17]

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that in October 2003 there were approximately thirty female prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail.[18] According to prison personnel, that number was reduced to five by May of 2004.[19] The Internation League for Peace and Freedom had documented some eye witness accounts of abuse at the Abu Ghraid jail. One such account was given to Iman Khamas who heads the International Occupation Watch Center, a private organization that collects anti-human rights information. The account came from a former prisoner who told Khamas of a rape incident at the jail. Khamas reports that the prisoner recalls that:

“… the prisoner said her cellmate had been rendered unconscious for 48 hours. ‘She claimed she had been raped 17 times in one day by Iraqi police in the presence of American soldiers.’”[20]

Another report originated from Mohammed Daham al-Mohammed who heads an Iraqi group, the Union of Detainees and Prisoners. According to a-Mohammed he was informed of a “mother of four” who had been arrested in December of 2003 and killed herself after being raped by US guards who forced her husband to watch while incarcerated at the Abu Ghraib jail.[21]

According to the woman’s sister the rape victim committed suicide.[22] The victim had told her sister of incidents of physical abuse outside of the rape. In one account she recalled a American male pulling her by the hair and forcing her to look at her husband while the American took off her clothing. After this incident the rape took place. Once released, the woman was afraid to face her husband since he had witnessed the rape and asked her sister to help her commit suicide.[23]

A former male prisoner reported incidents where women were constantly removed from their cells to private rooms. The prisoner explains:

“They had to pass in front of our tent and cried out, ‘Find a way to kill us’.”[24]

Human Rights groups explain that rape for a Muslim woman shames the entire family which is why these women would rather die having suffered a rape.[25] Khamas recalls an incident in which she visited a woman at the Abu Ghraid jail and a female prisoner told her about a rape, but whispered in her ear despite the fact that no one else was present.[26]

Khamas, Mohommed and Hoda Nuaimi, a professor in politics at Baghdad University report that:

“…three young rural women from the Sunni Muslim region of Al-Anbar, west of Baghdad, had been killed by their families after coming out of Abu Ghraib pregnant.Nuaimi said that in the case of another such woman, who was four months pregnant, her brother had been reluctant to kill his sister because he considered her a victim.”[27]

Luke Harding reports that the first information about abuse of female victims at the Abu Ghraib jail, a US facility first came to light by a note smuggled out of the prison by a female prisoner.[28] In the note the woman claimed that women were being raped by US personnel and many of them had become pregnant. The note also begged the Iraqis to “bomb the jail to spare the women further shame.”[29]

Swadi, a female lawyer among seven representing the female detainees indicated that the abuse was not limited to the Abu Ghraib jail and was happening all over Iraq.[30] The shame associated with rape and the consequence for family disgrace were evident in the following account from a female prisoner at al-Kharkh, a US military base:

“She was the only woman who would talk about her case. She was crying. She told us she had been raped…Several American soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight them off and they had hurt her arm. She showed us the stitches. She told us, ‘We have daughters and husbands. For God’s sake don’t tell anyone about this.’”[31]

Luke Harding also reports that an investigation conducted by the US Military which was headed by Major General Antonio Taguba confirmed the contents of the note smuggled out of the Abu Ghraib facility. Moreover, digital photographs, according to Tajuba’s findings also depitcted US personnel engaging in sexual contact “with and Iraqi woman.”[32] Tajuba’s investigation also found videotapes of nude female prisoners.[33] There are additional photographs of Iraqi women being forced at gun point to “bare their breasts.”[34] While these photographs have been relased to Congress they have not been released to the public.[35]

In May of 2004:

“an Iraqi woman in her 70s had been harnessed and ridden like a donkey at Abu Ghraib and another coalition detention centre after being arrested last July.”[36]

UK Labor Member of Parliament Ann Clwyd investigated the incident and confirmed that it was in fact true. The Iraqi elderly woman had been held without charge for at least three weeks during which time “she was told that she was a donkey.”[37]

Luke Harding explains the devastating consequences for female rape victims which only accentuates the abuse involved. According to Harding:

“Honour killings are not unusual in Islamic society, where rape is often equated with shame and where the stigma of being raped by an American soldier would, according to one Islamic cleric, be “unbearable”. The prospects for rape victims in Iraq are grave; it is hardly surprising that no women have so far come forward to talk about their experiences in US-run jails where abuse was rife until early January.”[38]

At the time of writing, Harding describes another incident of physical and mental abuse agianst female detainees in Iraq in which the private military personnel are activiely involved. Five women, according to Harding were being held in “solitary confinement” in cells measuring just 2.5 meters in length and 1.5 meters in width at Abu Ghraib.[39] Captain Dave Quantock who was then in charge of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib told journalists that all female prisoners at Abu Ghraib are kept “in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.”[40] The only entertainment the women are allowed is access to the Koran.[41]

Mystery surrounds the grounds upon which the five females in solitary confinement are held. The general term used is that they are held as “security detainees.”[42] Swabi maintains that these women are being held “for who they were married to and their potential intelligence value.”[43] Be that as it may, the degree of abusse cannot be justified. Under both US and International laws the cruel and inhuman treatement of prisoners at anytime is unlawful.

International humanitarian laws contained in the Geneva Conventions 1949 of which the United States ratified since 1955 requires that during times of war and peace all prisoners are to be treated humanly.[44] More over the Geneva Convention IV specifically prohibits rape and indecent assault on women. Article 27 provides as follows:

“Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitutiOn, or any form of indecent assault.”[45]

Judicth Gail Gardam and Hillary Charlesworth argue that women have always been at risk of violence in armed conflict. Although the emphasis has always been on sexual violence there have been other forms of violence against women. Gardam and Charlesworth note that the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action called for governments worldwide to map out plans for combatting:

“the effects of armed or other kind of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation.”[46]

The Iraqi conflict and occupation and the violence against women is therefore nothing new. What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that it could happen in light of international laws and attention to violence against women in the past.


An irony arises out of these reports. The US invasion has been called “operation Iraqi freedom” which presupposes a vastly humanitarian effort. Yet in the course of fighting for Iraqi freedom, those sent to fight for the cause have added to the problem. Roger Normand alleges that the US personnel in Iraq are:

“…violating almost every law intended to protect civilians living under foreign military occupation.”[47]

While many of these crimes are being committed by private military companies, the world at large and the Iraqi populace draw no distinction between the US soldiers and the security companies employed by them to help the cause.

The private military and security personnel are agents of the US government and as such the US government is vicariosuly liable for the misconduct of the private miliatary contractors. As long as they are permitted to continue working with and for the military and as long as they continue to violate international law particularly article 27 of the fourth Geneva Convention, the US must take responsibility for the ills committed by them. They cannot take the benefit without the burden.


Center for Economic and Social Rights.(n.d.) “New Report Documents Extensive U.S. War Crimes In Iraq”. Available online at: Retrieved December 11 2007

Chatterjee, Pratap. (May 12, 2004) “Private Contractors and Torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq.” Democracy Now. Available online at: Retrieved December 11, 2007

Conachy, Jamers. (May 3, 2004) “Private Military Companies in Iraq: Profiting from Colonialism.”International committee of the Fourth Amendment. Available online at: Retrienved December 11, 2007

Fainaru, Steve. (June 16, 2007) “Iraq Contractors Face Growing Parallel War: As Security Work Increase, So do Casualties.” Washington Post

Gardam, Judith, Gail and Charlesworth, Hillary. (Feb. 2000) “Protection of Women in Armed Conflict”. Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 22 No. 1 pp 148-166

Geneva Convention

Harding, Luke. (May 12, 2004)” Focus Shifts to Jail Abuse of Women.” The Guardian.

Harding, Luke. (May 20, 2004) “Rape in Iraq: The other prisoners.” The Guardian.

Isenberg, David. (Sept. 4, 2004) “A Fistful of Contractors: A Case For a Pragmatic Assessment of Private Military Companies in Iraq.” British American Security Information Council, Research Report.

Kabbara, Rouba. (May, 29, 2004) “Human Rights Groups: Iraqi Women Raoed at Abu Ghraib Jail.” Peace Women Available online at: Retrieved Deember 10 2007

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