Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Paul Slough were found guilty of voluntary and attempted manslaughter. Yet, just before Christmas, in one of his last moves as President of the United States, Donald Trump pardoned these four Blackwater guards who, in 2007, massacred 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians. The United Nations has called this an “affront to justice,” human rights experts describe it as a violation of U.S. obligations under international law. What is absolutely clear, is that this sets a worrying precedent: private security firms can commit extreme civil rights offences, without being punished, while certain states and organisations will be able to disregard their obligations under humanitarian law.
The Nisour Square massacre was one of the lowest moments in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Protected inside an armoured convoy, Nicholas Slatten indiscriminately opened fire on a crowd of non-combatants, and the rest of his squad quickly followed; grenade launchers, machine-guns and snipers were all weapons used in the bloodbath. Slatten was sentenced to life in jail, while the others were each given 30 years to contend with. At the sentencing, the U.S. attorney’s office gave the following statement: “The sheer amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants’ criminal conduct on 16 September 2007 is staggering.” In a memorandum filed after the sentencing, the U.S. government wrote that “None of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat to the Raven 23 convoy.” Also included in the memorandum was a quote from Mohammed Kinani, the father of the youngest victim, nine-year-old Ali, which read: “That day changed my life forever. That day destroyed me.”
So it is no surprise that the UN has condemned Trump’s decision to pardon the Blackwater contractors. The chair for the working group on the use of mercenaries, Jelena Aparac, claimed that his doing so “is an affront to justice and to the victims of the Nisour Square massacre and their families.” In support of these sentiments, a UN statement said, “These pardons violate U.S. obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law and human rights at a global level.” Meanwhile, on learning about the pardons, Mohammed Kinani added that Trump “broke my life again.” Blackwater, which was founded by Erik Prince (the brother of Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos), said following the convictions that it was “relieved the justice system has completed its investigation into a tragedy.” Now, the firm must be overjoyed.
These pardons only scrape the surface, however, of several more that Trump has given out to American service personnel and contractors, accused or convicted of crimes against civilians and non-combatants in war zones. In November last year he gave clemency to a former U.S. Army commando, suspected of killing an Afghan man, who was supposedly a bomb-maker; and also to a former Army Lieutenant found guilty of murder, when he instructed his men to shoot at three Afghans. Yet, Geneva Conventions require that states hold war criminals responsible for their actions, including when they work as private security contractors. David Petraeus, who was commander of the U.S. forces at the time of the Nisour Square massacre, described Trump’s latest pardons as “hugely damaging, an action that tells the world that Americans abroad can commit the most heinous crimes with impunity.”
But, in a statement that announced the pardons, the U.S. government said that the decision was “broadly supported by the public.” And supposedly by Republican lawmakers. It is hugely troubling that, despite overwhelming evidence, the Blackwater contractors have been let off, and supported by so many people working in government. A human life is a human life, regardless of ethnicity, and irrespective of the country that someone comes from.
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