Amnesty Urges U.S. on Iraq Contractors

By DANICA KIRKA
The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 10:33 PM

LONDON -- The United States is riding roughshod over human rights by outsourcing key anti-terror work in Iraq to private contractors, who operate beyond Iraqi law and outside the military chain of command, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

It called for tighter rules on the use of contractors in a statement released with its 2006 annual report detailing human rights violations in 150 countries around the world. The rights watchdog said contracting for military detention, security and intelligence operations had fueled violations.

"We're concerned about the use of private contractors in Iraq because it creates a legal black hole of responsibility and accountability," Amnesty's Secretary-General Irene Khan told AP Television News.

"These contractors are protected from being prosecuted under Iraqi law, but they're not part of the U.S. military command. So when they commit crimes, or when they abuse human rights, they're accountable to no one."

Few aspects of the multibillion-dollar U.S. contracting effort in Iraq have been disclosed.

A report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office last year said monitoring of civilian contractors in Iraq was so poor there was no way to determine how many contractors were working on U.S.-related security and reconstruction projects or how many have been killed.

Amnesty's annual report contended the counterterrorism campaign by the United States and other powerful nations had undermined human rights around the world, draining energy and attention from crises afflicting the poor and underprivileged.

Amnesty also called for a change of strategy in Iraq, a stronger push to end rights abuses in Sudan and for closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed the report, saying: "Nobody is being tortured at Guantanamo Bay."

McCormack also said Amnesty had done nothing to put Saddam Hussein on trial but credited the group with bringing to light human rights abuses that were perpetrated by his regime.

Rights groups have loudly criticized the policies of the United States and its allies since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, complaining that human rights and civil liberties are being sacrificed in the name of counterterrorism.

Amnesty said the use of private contractors, who acted as interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and have been implicated in prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, was of particular concern.

It urged the U.S. government to insist on training private security contractors in human rights law and clear, beefed-up procedures for investigating and prosecuting contractors suspected of abuses.

Amnesty identified "clear signs of hope" in response to disasters such as the Asian tsunami that drew an outpouring of support from ordinary people worldwide for the victims.

However, it accused the United States, China, Russia and other powerful nations of pursuing selfish national interests and diluting efforts to solve crises such as the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and the troubles between Israel and the Palestinians.

It had harsh words for Iraq, which was described as having sunk into "a vortex of sectarian violence."

The United States "has basically mortgaged its moral authority on the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad," Khan told the AP.

Amnesty said European countries were "partners in crime" with the U.S. by eroding civil liberties and allowing terrorism suspects to be taken to countries where they might risk torture _ a practice known as extraordinary rendition.

That makes it harder for the West to lecture other governments, such as Egypt and China, on their rights record or to single out countries such as Colombia and Uzbekistan that have argued that counterterrorism justified the repression of opponents, the rights group said.

Amnesty devoted much of its news conference in London to chastising the Americans, whose superpower status gives it enormous influence around the globe. America _ once the beacon of rights campaigning worldwide _ has offered a smokescreen for rights violators with its war on terror, Khan said.

"There is no doubt that it (the war on terror) has given a new lease on life to old-fashioned repression," Khan told a news conference.

Amnesty called for the United Nations to address the conflict in Darfur, push for a treaty to restrict trade in small arms and urged the world body's new Human Rights Council to flex its muscles over rights issues in Chechnya and China.

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Associated Press Writer Stephen Graham contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Associated Press