I had both negative and positive reactions to the news earlier this week that an American defense contractor named Engility Holdings Inc., whose subsidiary was accused of conspiring to torture detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, had paid $5.28 million to 71 former inmates who were abused and humiliated while being held at the facility between 2003 and 2007. This is noteworthy because it affirms or expands the parameters by which individuals and corporations are held accountable by law for their deeds around the world, even if they are under contract to the U.S. government. This is the first such legal decision requiring a U.S. defense contractor to pay damages for torture in Iraqi prisons. Another contractor is expected to go to trial this year on similar charges.
This is good news because it means that private companies will be much more careful when they engage in such conduct in the future (or maybe not, if the fine is a very small percentage of their total profits).
The dark side of this is the larger accountabilities that transcend the contractor, which means the role of the United States government. The bigger question is whether this verdict and fine are fair justice in practice, or simply a giant insult to the world? For what does it mean when a lone contractor shells out millions of dollars in fines for abusing some prisoners, but the American and British governments who masterminded, funded and managed the massive crimes and destruction from in their invasion of Iraq in 2003 get away without being subjected to meaningful political or legal accountability?
This is just one small example among a whole series of issues that beg the question of whether the United States should ever be held accountable for its actions abroad, in the military and other fields. For example, the U.S. did not leave active troops in Iraq after its withdrawal because Washington wanted them to have total immunity from prosecution by Iraq. Washington now wants to negotiate an agreement with Afghanistan by which any American troops that stay in that country after 2014 similarly are above local law.
The same thing is going on with the active American campaign to use unmanned drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists around the world. Some of the people killed indeed are terrorists, but many are not. In any case, even if known terrorists are killed in this way, the issue is about who or what gives the U.S. or any country the right to kill anyone it suspects of being a terrorist, without minimum rule of law constraints, and without putting the accused on trial in a credible court? If the U.S. government can go around assassinating anyone it suspects is a criminal, can any other party do the same to Americans?
Another related issue to the American penchant to assume that the U.S. government can do anything it wants, anywhere in the world, to any person or organization, is the series of American laws imposing fines, sanctions or other penalties on firms, countries or individuals that do business with Iran, including buying oil. The principle here is that the American (actually, the American-Israeli) intent to strangle Iran economically and politically allows Washington unilaterally to set trade laws for the entire world – in the same way that the false Anglo-American-Israeli assumptions on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction allowed the invasion and destruction of the Iraqi state.
A few years ago the U.S. government also obtained a court ruling allowing it to seize and kidnap any person in any country (the case involved a person in Mexico) and bring them to the U.S. for trial, if that person was charged with criminal offenses in the U.S.
All of this happens without a whimper from the many otherwise fine people and governments around the world who recite to us the virtues of the rule of law and democracy. The litany of such behavior is long and ugly, but this kind of extra-judicial arrogance and criminality continue to occur because there seems to be little desire among those in “the civilized world” and “the international community” to actually put their words into practice when it comes to larger powers in the West.
So I guess we should conclude that the new rules of the game are that some hapless American companies can get fined $5.28 million for abusing Iraqi prisoners, but American, British, Israeli and other governments are above the law, and can get away with murder on a massive scale – all in the name of promoting the rule of law around the world. Crime, terror and lawlessness are on the rise around the world, partly because the world’s leading self-professed promoters of the rule of law and democracy are in fact global trend-setters in flagrant extra-judicial criminality.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on twitter @RamiKhouri.