A new report on the United Nations’ contracting of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) was published last week. Authored by Lou Pingeot, programme coordinator at the Global Policy Forum, the report ‘Dangerous Partnership. Private Military & Security Companies and the UN’ finds that the UN is increasingly contracting PMSCs for security services – armed and unarmed – and that contracting is “unaccountable and out of control”.
The report calls for the UN to reassess its approach to security generally and contracting of PMSCs specifically, but preempts such a measure by reaching “the likely conclusion (…) that the UN should end its use of PMSCs – so as to safeguard its reputation, its mission and its fundamental values”.
A few important issues surrounding PMSCs and humanitarian actors are mentioned in the report and worth highlighting here: that contacting still needs more and better oversight and regulation. That the ‘bunkerisation’ of the UN can run counter to the intended aim of increasing security as it cuts UN staff off from the local population and works against acceptance. That integrated approaches continue to make it difficult for the UN to be seen as helping not occupying. (The last two points are true for humanitarian NGOs as well by the way.) These are actually important issues for civ-mil coordination in warzones.
It is too bad they are clouded by the report’s rhetoric and selective approach to sources. Without wanting to sound like a stuck up academic, has anyone looked at the footnotes and bibliography? It is a ‘select bibliography’ in every sense of the word and contains a whole of six books and journal articles, some of them quite outdated.
Unfortunately, big parts of the report are not a discussion and investigation of the issues, but an ideological crusade against PMSCs. That makes for nice headlines. PMSCs are a hot topic anyway. Mix that with some innocent humanitarians (the UN), a couple of, admittedly appalling, sex scandals (those of PMSCs, not the UN) and throw in a picture of a mysterious armed man on the report cover and it is going to sell. What’s my point? My point is that critical engagement with PMSCs is good, ideological blindness is not.
As David Isenberg notes in his Huffington Post comment on the report, PMSCs have argued for their involvement in peacekeeping missions for many years now. While that still seems a long way off, the GPF report suggests that they had more success with security service contracts. According to their (incomplete) data, the UN apparently spent $76 million on contracted security services in 2010, an increase of 73% compared to the previous year. That’s a whopper, especially when accompanied by bad contracting policies and oversight. The report not only questions the benefits of the UN using PMSCs, e.g. the rightly contested issues of cost-effectiveness, no-bid contracts and intransparent decision-making, but it denies that there are any benefits at all.
It doesn’t help that it takes the UN so long to develop a PMSC policy. I wondered for many years why the UN insisted on seeing PMSCs simply as mercenaries and not as a related but separate phenomenon that needs its own regulations and policy approach.* You can think of PMSCs as mercenaries as a personal opinion, but that is a) not helpful in dealing with such a diverse, global industry that operates in warzones where oversight is messy at best and b) not true in legal terms. Take a look at Article 1 of the UN Convention on Mercenaries. All 5 criteria need to be fulfilled at the same time for someone to qualify as a mercenary. Unlikely in the best of cases, almost impossible for PMSCs (or their employees). Especially the private gain aspect is very hard to prove – it’s easy to claim to have been motivated by patriotism, religion, humanitarian motives etc.
Also, being a mercenary per definition involves fighting. Combat is not what PMSCs are hired to do. Sure, quite a few of them are armed and it is undoubtedly these armed services that pose the biggest challenges to regulation. But there is no data on companies offering combat services so it could be more, it could be less than the 1% mentioned previously on this blog. For proper oversight of the other 99 or so percent of services a good deal of responsibility lies with the client, in this case the UN. So good if the UN is challenged by the GPF report to take some action in improving its contracting policies – that seems overdue. But I haven’t seen arguments as to why the UN should stop using PMSCs altogether if that is properly regulated.
* There is finally a draft of a ‘possible UN Convention on PMSCs’ since 2010, but that will probably still take many years to come into effect