Proposed Law Would Increase Accountability of Government Contractors

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On Monday, Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman David Price introduced in the Senate and House legislation that would make it easier for the Department of Justice to hold government contractors and employees accountable for certain offenses committed outside of the United States. Called the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA), it would close loopholes in existing law by extending the jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts to address certain criminal acts and human rights abuses, to include those committed by U.S. contractors of government agencies other than the Department of Defense (DoD) that operate overseas. Currently, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) applies to contractors that work on behalf of the DoD, or whose employment for another government agency supports the mission of the DoD.

The issue of the extraterritorial reach of U.S. federal courts over non-DoD contractors has arisen most recently in relation to the ongoing trial of four guards of the company formerly known as Blackwater, who are charged with the deaths and injuries of civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square shootings. At the time, the four men were Department of State contractors. Lawyers of the men claim that they were not directly supporting a DoD mission by providing diplomatic security, and that MEJA does not apply.

Human rights groups, such as the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), believe the time is ripe to pass legislation clarifying and expanding jurisdiction over U.S. contractors operating abroad, noting that “the United States continues to rely on private contractors in many of its overseas operations without providing clear parameters of which jurisdiction applies especially when crimes are committed by these contractors.” When introducing the bill in the Senate, Senator Leahy stated that, “Ensuring criminal accountability will also improve our national security and protect Americans overseas.”

Another challenge to addressing criminal acts and human rights abuses committed by contractors operating overseas is the ability to carry out investigations and obtain sufficient evidence in complex environments. CEJA also requires that the Attorney General create new investigative task forces to investigate, arrest, and prosecute contractors and employees who commit serious crimes overseas. In addition, the Attorney General must report to Congress on an annual basis about the offenses prosecuted under the statute and the use of investigative resources.

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