The UN’s dangerous liaisons

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The UN's dangerous liasons

Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations, released a report last week entitled ‘Dangerous Partnership’. In it, they explored the relationship between the  UN and Private Military and Security Companies. In this interview, we speak to the report’s author, Lou Pingeot, about her findings. She argues that the UN’s use of private military and security companies is a recipe for ‘permanent insecurity’ and is shifting the UN’s idea of what ‘peacekeeping’  should look like, with dangerous consequences.

1. Your report explores the use of private military and security forces by the UN. Numerically speaking, how big an issue is this?

It is extremely difficult to get exact numbers on this, mostly because the UN itself has made no effort to keep track of these costs system-wide. But the information that is available clearly shows a dramatic increase in the UN’s use of private security services dating back from the early 2000s. Between the years 2009 and 2010 (the last year for which system-wide numbers are available), UN spending on these services has increased 73%, from $44 million to $76 million. This is at a time when the UN has been operating in a tight budget environment, and shows that the organization has given a high priority to these services. It is very likely that the total is much higher than $76 million – we know that this number does not include some major agencies and programs, such as UNICEF. But no one really knows what this total might be, not even the UN Department of Safety and Security. This suggests a system that is completely out of control.

2. You suggest that the UN’s employment of private firms is increasing. What is behind this increase?

The increasing use of PMSCs cannot be looked at as an isolated phenomenon, it has to be put in the context of broader UN policies. In recent years, the UN has changed its security strategy, adopting harder security measures in a process that people have dubbed “bunkerization.” This means that UN staff and facilities are increasingly protected in fortified compounds, behind blast walls, barbed wire and guards. This “bunkerization” is partly explained by the fact that the UN – under mandates from member states – is more willing to deploy its peacekeeping, political and humanitarian operations in high-risk environments, where it is not necessarily welcome. Many have questioned whether this approach makes sense. It effectively cuts the UN off from the populations it is supposed to serve and tends to militarize UN operations.

PMSCs are an integral part of the “bunkerization” approach. They provide the services that enable it, such as guards, armored vehicles, checkpoints, sensors and so on. But the UN also hires them for consultancy, risk assessment and security training, which gives them considerable influence over the organization’s security policy. They also contribute to “bunkerization” by infusing their hard security approach into UN policies and encouraging the organization to strengthen its security measures, identifying new security needs for which they then conveniently provide a solution.

3. What have been the repercussions of using these firms on the ground?

As I was mentioning earlier, PMSCs are clearly pushing the UN towards an increasingly more “bunkerized” approach. This greatly impacts the image of the organization on the ground and the way it is perceived by the local population. An anecdote told to me by someone familiar with this issue is, I think, very representative. In 2009-2011, the UN decided to reinforce security around its compound in Peshawar (Pakistan) with heavy new protection measures. As an additional precaution, officials decided to no longer fly the UN flag, making the UN compound completely bunkerized and anonymous. But rumors started circulating in the city that the compound belonged to Blackwater – the notorious mercenary firm known for its violent conduct in Iraq – and in desperation the UN flag was again raised. The question remains, however: why would a UN compound look like a one of the world’s most loathed military contractors? And how does it affect the UN’s image and security?

Our concern is that these companies, rather than making the UN safer, are actually achieving the opposite effect. There is ample evidence from reports on the Iraq war that big international PMSCs employing tough guys with tattoos and sunglasses have become magnets for attacks. Their cultural insensitivity and aggressive attitudes were extremely resented by the Iraqi population and they came to represent a symbol of the occupation. Clearly this is not a path the UN should be taking. Local security companies – which the UN uses extensively- may not raise the same issues, but they present challenges of their own. The UN does not really know whether these local companies have ties to local factions, government forces or even organized crime, and the organization may end up partnering with companies that actually put its staff and facilities at risk. In short, PMSCs are a recipe for permanent insecurity.

4. Your report focuses on the UN but are they alone in using PMSC to staff multi-lateral security/ peace-keeping operations?

UN member states have sometimes contributed PMSC employees to UN missions, rather than their own troops. This was the case in Bosnia in the early 90s, when the US contributed employees from a company called DynCorp as part of a police contingent under UN command. This example is well-known because some DynCorp employees – as well as UN staff – were found to be involved in a sex trafficking ring. But even after that the US continued to send DynCorp employees for UN police contingent in other missions.

There is a lot of academic literature on the possibility of “privatizing peacekeeping” – sending PMSC employees to act as blue helmets – but I do not think it is a possibility in the near future. The more pressing issue is that PMSCs have gained increasingly important roles in UN missions (including peacekeeping) at the margins, by doing anything from logistical support to protection to security training.

Another somewhat related aspect of this question is that NGOs have also become big users of these companies. PMSCs are increasingly interested in becoming “humanitarian” actors, either by supporting NGO activities or by providing aid themselves. Not much has been written on this, but I think this is a big issue that will raise problems down the line.

5. Your report claims that PMSCs are highly unaccountable. What can we do to improve accountability? What are the chances of making that happen?

There are currently a number of initiatives aimed at making these companies more accountable. One is the establishment of an “International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers”, led by the Swiss government in which PMSCs are heavily involved. I am skeptical about this approach. The code of conduct is entirely voluntary, which means that companies will suffer no legal consequences if they fail to comply with their obligations. We know from many other industries (like the food industry) that letting companies police themselves is not the solution. If anything, it allows them to get away with violations more easily, by cultivating the illusion that the industry is “doing something” about the issue.

More promising is a draft convention on PMSCs created by the UN Working Group on Mercenaries. The convention will be discussed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva later this summer. If adopted, it would establish binding international rules to regulate these companies. It would also force states to assume their responsibilities when it comes to the PMSC sector – by carrying out due diligence and enforcing the law.

Of course some states will resists the adoption of binding international regulation because they do not want to get their hands tied. For states that use PMSCs, these companies are very useful, and part of their appeal is precisely their lack of accountability – they operate under the radar. For this reason I am not too optimistic about the adoption of the convention. However, there is increasing civil society mobilization around this issue – including a campaign in support of the convention led by the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative – which is cause for hope.

6. Back in 2002, Doug Brook of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) argued that Private Military Contractors “offer the only military forces both willing and capable to provide rapid and effective military services in most Third World conflicts”. How would you respond?

The ISOA has been a vocal proponent of “privatized peacekeeping” for many years now. The basic argument is that PMSCs are cheaper, better trained and more effective than troops from member states – which have been overwhelmingly from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India in recent years – and that, therefore, outsourcing peacekeeping would “save lives.” I have two main objections to this idea, one technical and one political.

On the technical side, PMSCs always love to claim that they can mobilize and deploy employees quickly, whereas it takes weeks and sometimes months to get troop contributing countries to send soldier for a peacekeeping mission. However, I think the industry is severely overstating its capacities. The recent fiasco of the G4S contract for the London Olympics is a perfect example of this. G4S – the largest private security company in the world – had a contract to provide 13,700 security personnel for the Olympics, but just a couple of weeks before the start of the Games the company announced that it was 3,500 short of that number, which means that the UK military had to step in and provide troops. Clearly it is one thing to praise the industry’s capacities and another to actually deliver on such promises.

Further, it should not be forgotten that PMSCs do not have an obligation to accept a contract, and that they only take the contracts that suit them and offer good results. For instance, in 1992 the company Defense Systems Limited (DSL) turned down a contract to provide 7,000 guards to protect UN relief convoys in Somalia. Arguably, the UN lost humanitarian delivery capacity in the country because it was over reliant on the idea of PMSCs and not prepared with good alternatives.

Finally, on the political side, I think talking about “privatized peacekeeping” is missing the point about what peacekeeping is. Peacekeeping is not about military might and achieving a military victory – traditionally peacekeeping is not about “fighting enemies,” although it has tended to evolve in that direction in recent years. Peacekeeping is about having a meaningful political presence in the midst of a conflict. This is clearly not a role that employees of a private company can fulfill.

7. What are the long-term implications of this outsourcing for the UN?

PMSCs are enabling the UN to adopt an increasingly “bunkerized” and militarized security posture, and they are also pushing the organization in this direction through their consultancy services. PMSCs have a tough, “hard security” approach. They do not work on the acceptance model and their values tend to be very different from those embodied in the UN Charter. They base their understandings on military war fighting, secret intelligence operations, Special Forces black ops and other non-humanitarian and extra-legal experiences. By using these companies to provide risk assessment, security training and guarding in critical conflict zones, the UN is effectively allowing PMSCs to define its security strategy and even its broader posture and reputation. In the end, the question of PMSCs is the question of what the UN is today and what it might become.

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