PMSC Not Ready for U.N. Prime Time

For many years now, private military and security contractor (PMSC) advocates have argued that utilization of PMSC in United Nations peace operations offers an alternative to doing nothing or trying to organize a frequently dysfunctional U.N.-sponsored, often ill-equipped and organized intervention.

Indeed, about ten years ago, Doug Brooks, head of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), a PMSC advocacy group, wrote in a paper that:

PMCs offer the only military forces both willing and capable to provide rapid and effective military services in most Third World conflicts. PMC operations in the past have saved tens of thousands of lives, but their potential is even greater. Working as "force multipliers" PMCs can provide the competent military backbone to ensure the success of UN or regional multinational peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations.

As sweeping generalizations go that, to use my childhood Yiddish, takes a lot of chutzpah.

Don't get me wrong. While I'm the first to agree that U.N. operations often leave a lot to be desired, a U.N. blue helmet peace operation can only be as successful as members of the Security Council want it to be. Given the often radically differing agendas and interests of Council members that doesn't happen very often.

And to be objective about it, the United Nation already employs large number of private contractors for all sorts of humanitarian purposes and has greatly increased its use of these companies in recent years. But does the record to date with regard to PMSC use by the U.N. encourage even greater use of and dependence on PMSC?

There is reason to doubt that, according to a just released report by the Global Policy Forum and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

GPF's investigative report, Dangerous Partnership: Private Military & Security Companies and the UN, written by Lou Pingeot, reveals that the UN has dramatically increased its use of these companies in recent years, hiring them for a wide array of "security services" and giving them considerable influence over its security policies. It also reveals that the UN has no process to vet these companies and that UN leadership has been closing its eyes to company misconduct for more than twenty years.

Let's not mince words. Here is an excerpt from the executive summary:

Many reports from governments, NGOs and the media have shown how PMSCs have committed serious human rights abuses, killed or injured innocent civilians, engaged in financial malfeasance and committed many other breaches of the law. Given the track record of these companies, serious questions arise as to whether PMSCs are appropriate UN partners for the complex task of creating a secure, just and lawful world. Opacity around the UN's use of PMSCs has so far prevented a healthy debate.

Considering how dependent the U.N. already is on PMSC this is a serious concern. The report finds that available numbers on UN contracts, though incomplete, show that U.N. is giving a heavy priority to hiring private security services in a tight budget environment. Recorded security services contracting rose from $44 million in 2009 to $76 million in 2010 -- an increase of 73 percent in just one year. But that is only an incomplete total. Data is missing for key groups like UNICEF. Other agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), provide only partial information. "UN security officials themselves cannot give an estimate of total security contracting within the UN system or a complete list of companies hired. This suggests a system that is unaccountable and out of control."

The report shows that the U.N. is experiencing many of the same problems that the United States had with its use of PMSC in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include practices, such as no-bid contracts; problems with sub-contracting arrangements, which greatly blur responsibility; lack of standards and broad policy review of PMSCs.

It also reflects other problems such as secrecy and opacity within the UN system; and a lack of debate on PMSCs among UN member states.

The report also finds that the U.N. is behind the curve when it comes to developing a policy for dealing with PMSC use.

In 2010, UN leadership finally took a preliminary step towards establishing a PMSC policy. However, this effort is too narrow -- it only targets companies providing armed security and does not deal with the many companies providing anything else, from logistics to consultancy to unarmed security. The internal consultations are private and they are proceeding at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, the private military and security industry is actively lobbying the organization for more contracts, and UN insiders are pushing for greater security outsourcing.

One reason that PMSC firms have come into greater use by the U.N. is undoubtedly due to its years long rebranding campaign.

As part of this PR campaign, many security companies feature their "corporate ethics" and "code of conduct" prominently on their website. To prove a commitment to ethical practices, some have joined the non-binding UN Global Compact. Compact members include G4S, Securitas, Aegis, Mission Essential Personnel and IDG Security. The toothless International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, which the companies helped bring into being, is yet another vehicle for company reputation-building. Like the Global Compact, it is very low on accountability.

Industry lobby groups have adopted names that evoke comfortable and positive concepts, such as the Washington-based International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) and the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC). These groups affirm that their industry provides "peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction" as well as "nation building and security sector reform." By using United Nations policy language, evocative of peace, legality and economic progress, the industry attempts to dissociate itself from its tarnished image and from the traditional idea of mercenaries as assassins, coup-plotters, demolition experts, and purveyors of violence for hire. Mergers and name changes also help to shake off bad reputations. The infamous Blackwater has changed its name twice in a short period, first to Xe in 2009 and then to Academi in 2011.

Of course, it is not just PMSC rebranding and lobbying that accounts for greater U.N. use of PMSC. The U.N. itself is also culpable.

In 2006, the International Peace Academy issued further warnings in a report on "Commercial Security in Humanitarian and Post-Conflict Settings." The paper pointed to many problems, including the fact that "the UN risks negative publicity legal liability and strategic incoherence because it lacks clear policies and procedures for dealing with commercial security providers." It concluded that the UN and other intergovernmental bodies should at least improve the vetting and monitoring of security contractors in their service. UN leadership, under Secretary General Kofi Annan, ignored both reports.

In 2008, the Humanitarian Policy Group took up the issue in a new report. It stressed that the UN and humanitarian agencies had failed to provide central policy guidance for security contracting. The report found that NGOs and UN agencies took decisions to use private security companies "based on immediate exigencies, often not conducive to thoughtful policy decisions, or on untested assumptions regarding cost and liability that may not stand up to scrutiny." The research also revealed that leaders in UN headquarters were not always aware of what field offices were doing about security, and that they preferred to "look the other way" rather than inquire into potentially embarrassing activities. Ban Ki-Moon and his new team continued to disregard the PMSC issue.

Interestingly, one of the companies the report singles out for criticism is DynCorp, an ISOA member group.

The UN has repeatedly hired DynCorp International, one of the most notorious companies in the security industry. In 2010, UNDP and UNOPS together had more than $3 million in contracts with the company. The UN signed contracts with DynCorp in 2008, 2009 and 2010, mostly for "consultancy" services. Despite well-known cases of sexual abuse by DynCorp employees working under the UN in Bosnia in the 1990s, the company has not been blacklisted by any UN body.

DynCorp is particularly notorious for its work as a contractor for the United States government's "rendition" program -- the covert airlift that transported suspects secretly and without due process to prisons in foreign countries where the detainees were held incommunicado for long periods and submitted to abuse and torture. Company action under this contract involved responsibility for very serious violations of international law.

Even more egregious is Saracen Uganda. It was hired to provide security services to the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2010 and 2011.

Yet in 2002 a Security Council panel of experts report had singled out Saracen Uganda on the illegal exploitation of natural re-sources in the country. In addition, a 2011 report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia accused Saracen International, an affiliate of Saracen Uganda, of breaking the UN arms embargo in Somalia.

The 2002 Panel of Experts report revealed that Saracen Uganda had been involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. According to the report, the firm was responsible for supporting, training and arming a violent paramilitary group in the DRC in partnership with General Salim Saleh, the brother of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. General Saleh, whom the panel accused of plundering the DRC's natural resources, was reported to be a 25 percent owner in Saracen.

My favorite point in the report, however, deals with the classic, unproven PMSC talking point that they are more cost effective than regular U.N. peace operations. The report found:

The UN itself has not conducted a systematic study of the costs of UN security personnel versus the costs of private contractors. This suggests that cost may not be the main factor in the decision to outsource security. Until 2004, the Secretary General presented an annual report on "Out-sourcing Practices" to the General Assembly, which looked at the savings achieved. The last such report simply stated that more than $6.5 million had been saved by hiring private security guards, without providing any explanation as to how the numbers were reached.

While outsourcing continues, the Secretary General's reports have ceased, suggesting that senior UN management wants to keep a low profile on the issue. When asked about the absence of a systematic cost study, the Department of Safety and Security has stated that "cost comparison of course will be a factor, one among many."

There is some indirect evidence that the costs of such services to the UN are in fact quite high, with international PMSCs and their expat staff proving to be quite pricey. Cost advantages in bids can also be deceptive. In September 2011, the UN hired Hart Security to provide security training to UN staff going to Iraq. The training had previously been conducted in-house, but Hart put forward a cheaper proposal, which persuaded officials to outsource it. After the contract was signed and operational, Hart recalculated its operating costs and increased its fee. The service provided by Hart proved in the end more expensive than the in-house option, and also less tailored to the UN's needs.