What Role do Private Military and Security Companies Play in Securing Humanitarian Organizations?

Publication Date: 
Monday, July 4, 2016
Private security guards oversee Zimbabwean asylum seekers applying for documentation in Musina, South Africa, Guy Oliver/IRIN

This guest blog comes from Birthe Anders. Birthe is a Fritz Thyssen Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Her research focuses on Private Military and Security Companies, NGO security and civil-military relations. Birthe holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London. Before coming to Harvard she taught on the War Studies and Conflict, Security and Development Programmes in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, where she co-founded the Private Military and Security Research Group.

Attacks on aid workers – meaning incidents in which they are seriously injured, kidnapped or killed – have risen in recent years, causing serious concerns within the humanitarian community as to how to best enable humanitarian operations in insecure environments. According to the Aid Worker Security Report 2015, 190 major attacks affected aid workers in 27 countries in 2014. In response to these developments, some humanitarian organizations have turned to contracting security services from Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) as a way to secure staff and assets. As a 2011 EISF briefing paper put it, ‘[t]he initial apprehension felt towards a largely unregulated sector has given way to silent utilisation.’ This blog post examines the companies, their regulation, and their use by humanitarian organizations. Many people are familiar with pictures of gun-wielding, bulky men with sunglasses posing in front of dusty looking Humvees; but beyond Blackwater, what is the industry about? And what are the implications of contracting PMSCs for humanitarian organizations?

What are Private Military and Security Companies?

First it should be clarified what PMSCs are. They are private companies that provide the following services, mostly outside of their home state: armed and unarmed guarding, intelligence, military training and camp management, security training, kidnap and ransom advice, and logistics. That means they are different from domestic security companies, for example those that provide local, unarmed guards. Most PMSCs provide a broad range of services and most of them employ ex-soldiers from Western forces (sometimes alongside local employees). Their employees are often called contractors, irrespective of the task they carry out. The vast majority of their employees work on a contract basis, meaning that PMSCs maintain a database of qualified individuals that are then offered work on a specific contract. Over the years, a number of terms have been used to describe the companies – including Private Military Companies/Contractors, Private Security Firms, and mercenary companies – but “PMSC” is now the most commonly used one. The term also reflects the fact that many companies offer military as well as security services. Cost savings have not been proven so far, although overall, the argument for using a PMSC is that you only employ them when needed, without paying for training or retirement plans for full-time employees. Their clients include governments (in fact, the US government is one of the biggest clients); transnational corporations (e.g., shipping companies that contract anti-piracy services); as well as NGOs and the UN. For example, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq contracted from a PMSC after the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

When and why do NGOs contract PMSCs?

A 2008 study by the ODI on UN and NGO contracting found that roughly half of all UN agencies and NGOs surveyed had used a PMSC. The most commonly used service was unarmed guarding. Other services contracted include security training for staff, risk analysis, and armed guarding. At the same time, the authors found few policies or guidelines within NGOs relating to PMSC contracting, meaning that organizations had no clear procedure on deciding when to use a PMSCs and how to pick a specific company. Among the reasons for NGO contracting are certainly increased attacks on aid workers in recent years, but also a lack of in-house capacity and sometimes the lack of alternative sources of security. Singer also mentions that contracting a PMSC can regularize the provision of security, which can be an asset to a humanitarian organization; instead of dealing with security issues in an ad hoc manner, a company can thus be on standby for all immediate security needs. So while contracting a PMSCs can be beneficial, it also comes with certain risks for humanitarian organizations, for example for their reputation. Repuational risks can of course arise when a company or its employees engage in unlawful activities, but also depending on which other clients a PMSC works for. A company working for a military client and a humanitarian organization in the same area might lead to the humanitarian organization being associated with the military and its activities, thus affecting the principle of neutrality.

Moreover, there is not a one-way relationship where humanitarian organizations are in need of additional security and seek out PMSCs. In the late 2000s, many PMSCs were in search of new clients when the so-called ‘Iraq bubble’ burst, meaning that the extremely high demand for their services, particularly by the US government, had fallen away. As a result, several industry representatives announced that they would look towards doing more business in the humanitarian sector.

A key concern regarding PMSCs, not only for humanitarian organizations but for any client, is their regulation. More simply put, who is responsible when something goes wrong? The next section will thus outline current PMSC regulation.

How are PMSCs regulated?

In principle, PMSCs and their employees are subject to the laws of the country in which they are operating. Several countries also have rules relating to the export of military goods and services. However, very few of these rules were made specifically for PMSCs, and it is very difficult to monitor and enforce them in the field. That is why most analysts agree that international regulation is crucial.

Currently, two international instruments deal specifically with PMSCs: the Montreux Document and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC). While not a legally binding instrument, the Montreux Document, adopted in 2008, lays out the obligations states have under international law regarding PMSCs. It distinguishes between home states, host states, and contracting states (clients). The latter, for example, need to ensure that companies and individual contractors are aware of and trained to respect human rights. A contracting state is also responsible for reparations for violations of international humanitarian law by contractors.

The ICoC, in contrast, is a voluntary code of conduct that lays out the responsibilities of companies. All companies that sign on to it are required to adhere to certain standards regarding the recruitment and training of employees, employee behavior, and rules on the use of force. There is also a Code of Conduct Association, the ICoCA, which—although not yet fully operational—will in the future monitor company behavior, conduct field visits, and handle any claims brought forward about companies that signed up. The Association has a board of directors and a general assembly, both of which are made up of members of the three stakeholders: states, PMSCs, and civil society organizations. The strongest incentive for compliance with the Code is a company’s reputation; signing up distinguishes a company from others that have not and demonstrates the willingness to adhere to its rules. As such, the ICoC is effectively a self-regulatory tool. How effective it is remains to be seen, but such an instrument does not necessarily need to be weak, as Deborah Avant has recently written. For example, the DoD encourages all its contractors to sign up to the ICoC.

Where to from here?

From what we have seen above, humanitarian organizations already contract PMSCs for a variety of services to improve the safety of their staff and assets. At the same time, regulation is still evolving and cannot be said to be all-encompassing yet, meaning that a PMSC working for humanitarian organizations might not be easily held accountable for any misconduct. The Code of Conduct can also be useful to humanitarian organizations here—they can demand adherence to it from any companies they contract and even write that into contracts, thus making it enforceable.

If and when to contract with a PMSC is a decision that every organization has to make for itself. There is also some guidance available. The EISF briefing paper for NGOs on how to engage with private security providers gives advice on decision-making and authorization, tendering a contract and selecting a provider. A decision tree details a four-step process for contracting a PMSC: from an initial risk assessment (can the tasks be completed in-house?); to the decision to use a private company (could their use negatively affect the image of the organization?); to bidding, selection and contract drafting. Finally, EISF recommends evaluating service delivery, for example if the contract led to negative perceptions by beneficiaries. These points seem crucial: all humanitarian organizations that contract, even if only occasionally, from PMSCs should have a clear decision-making process on when and for what services PMSCs can be contracted and how to select a company and monitor their performance. Two further points are worth considering by humanitarian organizations. The first is the level of decision-making: should this be done at headquarter level or can field offices decide autonomously? If the latter is the case, should contracts be reported to the headquarter? The second is the collection and sharing of information within the organization, epecially after completion of a contract. If there is an evaluation process in place, negative but also positive experiences with a specific PMSC can then inform the next contracting decision.

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