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Private Security Contractors

Discussants: Doug Brooks, and Erica Razook
Updated: December 20, 2007

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The use of private security contractors in war zones has come under intense scrutiny since guards from U.S.-based Blackwater Worldwide killed seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad in September 2007. U.S. officials and supporters have argued private firms are necessary to conduct some non-military security missions, while critics contend legal loopholes make contractors unaccountable.

Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), which represents security firms, and Erica Razook, a legal fellow for the Business and Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA, debate the practical and legal issues surrounding the privatization of war zone security. 


Doug BrooksMost Recent

December 20, 2007

Doug Brooks

Problems can often be solved by simply sitting down with the key stakeholders. Dialogue works better than diatribes, and IPOA willingly works with everyone to address the problems related to private sector peace and stability operations.

Interesting you mentioned the UN Working Group—yesterday I returned from their regional meeting in Panama where I did a presentation at their invitation. The primary concerns were not privatization, but labor and contract law—and there is much that we can do together to improve those aspects.

Happily, I'm in complete agreement with you on the responsibilities of the private sector to ethical operations and human rights—those were the key reasons we founded the Association in 2001. International peace operations have never been pretty, and while they are often only a marginal improvement to the alternative of total war, they are, nevertheless, an improvement. The private sector has been revolutionizing international peace operations with unprecedented capacities and expertise and is thus already having an enormous humanitarian benefit. In taking advantage of this superb resource, governments, industry and the other key stakeholders have to work together to ensure that this private capacity is utilized as ethically and professionally as possible.

Operationalizing IPOA's Code of Conduct is important but there is no magic wand—remember our code has to be flexible enough to apply to aviation in Darfur as well as armed security in Iraq and encompass the nationalities of all involved. The IPOA Standards Committee addresses complaints (anyone can file a complaint) and ensures member compliance. We hold an annual standards simulation which includes academics and human rights specialists monitoring and appraising our compliance process. The Code and our standards are always under improvement, often thanks to the assistance of external stakeholders.  Amnesty is just one of a number of humanitarian organizations that have been generous with their time and expertise. In 2008 we will hold an inclusive IPOA Code of Conduct Convention to develop the next set of improvements and enhance the Code. We intend to do much more in the future.

Ultimately there are limits to what a trade association can do, and we work with governments to enhance their oversight and accountability processes as well. Our Code of Conduct cannot directly address the key issue of impunity—for that we work with governments. The fact that all participants active in complex contingency operations (including UN peacekeepers, the private sector and even NGOs) have had problems with the issue of impunity does not excuse our industry from doing all we can to improve accountability.


Erica RazookMost Recent

December 17, 2007

Erica Razook

Amnesty International does not take a position on whether an industry in its entirety should or should not exist. Rather, we believe that companies have a direct obligation to respect human rights in their operations and that the business community also has a wider responsibility—moral and legal—to use its influence to promote respect for human rights.

The private military and security industry has failed to do this again and again. With current industry work in conflict and post-conflict areas, PMSCs take on high-risk, complex assignments, only heightening the need for them to (i) proactively identify the risks of human rights violations their operations pose, (ii) operationalize policies, procedures and internal structures to ensure every possible step is taken to avoid the abuse of human rights by their operations, and (iii) respond with adequate and meaningful attention to accountability and to compensate victims, if and when instances of criminal conduct occur.

Amnesty has talked to many PMSCs. None have achieved these kinds of real, operational structures. Members of IPOA all point to its “Code of Conduct” to which they promise to adhere. Yet having carefully reviewed the IPOA code, Amnesty finds it woefully insufficient, and we have repeatedly raised this with IPOA. Specifically, it is a statement of aspirational goals with nothing in the way of implementation guidelines, benchmarks for measuring achievement (or lack thereof), or systems of monitoring, public reporting, effective oversight, or enforcement. The IPOA “code” is a set of principles without teeth.

Impunity allows torture, ill-treatment and killing to thrive. All allegations of such abuses must be thoroughly investigated. Even if your argument that companies are held financially and contractually accountable were true (which we, and those who follow the news, know to be far from true), that is not enough. The fact that PMSCs have reportedly engaged in human rights abuses countless times, overwhelmingly with impunity, causes not only Amnesty’s unease (see our report Human Dignity Denied) but also that of the UN Working Group on Mercenaries Special Rappateur Jose Luis Gomez del Prado, who has warned of the dangers of privatization, hesitating to expand to use of PMSCs in peacekeeping missions, and calling PMSCs a new form of mercenary activity.

What would our “ideal…reconstruction” look like? When there is need for reconstruction, it should be one where everyone’s human rights are strictly respected and protected—whether the actors involved are military, government or company, US, third-country or “local.”


Doug BrooksDecember 13, 2007

Doug Brooks

When I make the conceptual point that we “want” the private sector working in peace and stability operations I speak as someone who visits these places and has witnessed the irreplaceable value private firms offer. But oddly left out of your response was any mention of international peace operations at all. If someone is going to imply the private sector is not necessary, they should articulate realistic alternatives. Otherwise they are condemning international peace and stability operations to certain failure—with all the humanitarian implications. 

The Pentagon terms operations in conflict and post-conflict environments as “complex contingency operations” or CCO’s - for good reason. Obstacles and problems are inevitable, and are not limited to the private sector. Governments, militaries and even NGOs frequently face accusations of improprieties, corruption and crimes—real and exaggerated. No one should have impunity, especially in CCOs where populations are particularly vulnerable. IPOA was formed to ensure professional and ethical private sector support to international peace operations and ensuring effective legal structures has been a central focus. Ultimately good oversight and accountability only benefits our industry and companies are regularly held accountable financially and contractually although it rarely makes headlines. Holding individuals criminally accountable in CCOs is also achievable but far more difficult.  IPOA has been working since before Iraq to close legal loopholes on key laws in concert with Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and Amnesty International - and when possible in direct partnership with them. 

Nevertheless, when personnel misbehave private companies are (correctly) limited to terminating employment and working with governmental authorities. Governments are not always proactive and the industry has sought to fill this regulatory vacuum internally. The IPOA Code of Conduct was created by NGOs and human rights lawyers and these same people regularly help us improve it (some humanitarians work for improvement, others simply whine from the sidelines). NGOs and governments should favor companies supporting public codes and standards. Withdrawing from organizations can hardly be useful marketing, and information on the Blackwater decision can be found here.

In terms of the numbers, the Department of Defense now provides Congress with detailed statistics. The LA Times has also published broad numbers, and I regularly talk to IPOA member companies about the scale of operations - all of which offers fairly accurate figures.

Finally, although employing locals has its own unique challenges, I’m a little surprised it would be so objectionable. Who better to do the reconstruction and security of their own country? Post conflict reconstruction should never be an excuse for neocolonialism, and I’m curious what your ideal version of reconstruction would look like.


Erica RazookDecember 11, 2007

Erica Razook

Media attention “pejorative”? “Sensationalists” uncovering rampant non-competitive bidding, fraud, and human rights abuses? Troubles are “frequently exaggerated or misconstrued”? What kind of attention do private military and security contractors (PMSCs) expect when their crimes of torture, killing, and complicity in forced disappearances through renditions come to light? I don’t have space to address all of your misleading statements, but let’s get a few things straight:

1. PMSCs operate with impunity—maybe in part because our law has not kept up with the pace and extent of outsourcing. Your assumption that "we want them" is not a point of fact, but an opinion that the PMSC industry has a vested interest in promoting. Also, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the political will to investigate and prosecute cases of criminal misconduct by contractors is close to nonexistent these days. (AIUSA testimony has highlighted both potential loopholes in U.S. law as well as Dept. of Justice unwillingness to prosecute detainee abuse.)

2. PMSCs don’t help when they refuse to abide even by a voluntary code of conduct which they have signed and promoted, as when former IPOA member Blackwater abruptly left the organization, conveniently avoiding the scrutiny of a review process following the September 16 killings. Could you comment on how that transpired? (AIUSA has called on Blackwater to seriously address its human rights responsibilities.)

3. The market system/reputation of companies isn’t reining in contractors either. With CACI, Blackwater, DynCorp, and others, lucrative contracts continue to be awarded despite well-documented reports of egregious human rights abuses, including torture, killings, and sex trafficking, by subcontractors or employees of these companies. 

4. On providing work opportunities to local populations, there are considerations you failed to mention: Employees from local populations would not be covered by most U.S. law relating to human rights violations (i.e.,The Torture Statute, The War Crimes Act and The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act), thus creating an opportunity to keep abuses by locals authorized to use force from surfacing on the U.S. public’s radar. Additionally, when local (or third country national) employees are the victims of abuses by the PMSCs themselves, they are much less likely to garner the kind of attention and aid of the U.S. public, media, and lawmakers that U.S. nationals receive.

As a final note, could you source your figures? It seems you have information the U.S. Congress can’t even elicit from the contracting agencies themselves.


Doug BrooksDecember 11, 2007

Doug Brooks

Private Security Contractors (PSCs) working in Iraq receive a great deal of media attention these days, mostly of a pejorative nature. Sensationalists refer to them as war profiteers, cowboys, anti-democratic agents and even compare contractors to crack cocaine. Clearly there is much that can be improved, from the procurement process, to the oversight and accountability of individual contractors.  Oddly lost in the critical diatribes, however, is the reason these companies are found working in these highly volatile conflicts, because we want them to be there.

PSCs are a small subset of the larger contingency contractor community, making up only 5-10 percent of total numbers and value and typically their workforce is predominately locals. Of the estimated 180,000 contractors in Iraq, for example, close to 120,000 are Iraqis, the people who should be doing the reconstruction and security in their own country. As a rule of thumb companies will employ as many locals as contractually allowed since they have better knowledge of the situational complexities, are less expensive, do not require logistic support, and operate under clear legal frameworks. This utilization of local talent makes contractors the most effective counterinsurgency tool conceivable, providing training, capacity building, and income for impacted populations and giving them a significant stake in developing a stable society. PSCs in Iraq can be upwards of 90 percent local personnel and their security allows reconstruction to continue in the face of ruthless resistance.

PSCs are found in most international peace or stability operations from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haiti. The UN regularly uses PSCs in the field to protect their headquarters, warehouses and personnel and sometimes to provide security (mostly unarmed) in refugee camps. In an era of ‘Westernless peacekeeping,’ where the West has largely abrogated responsibility for international peace operations to militaries from less developed countries, the use of PSCs ensures that militaries proffered as peacekeepers can focus on enforcing their mandates, and leave ancillary security tasks to PSCs. The use of locals and the long-term nature of these contracts (as opposed to frequent rotations that typical peacekeepers utilize) mean that the well-known problems and crimes associated with these kinds of operations are minimized.

Which is not to say problems don’t happen or that much can’t be done to improve the way we contract PSCs. Rules and regulations are absolutely essential, and combined with good oversight they reward the better companies that follow them by making it difficult for marginal companies to win and maintain contracts. PSCs are contracted to support client missions, not undermine them, but surprisingly few analysts fully understand the contractual and legal control that governments have over the firms they hire. There is absolutely no reason that companies should not operate up to our highest ethical and professional standards.

Although their role and troubles are frequently exaggerated or misconstrued, PSCs are valuable partners in peace and stability operations globally. If we hope for these kinds of missions to succeed we need to come to terms with how they can best be used in support of our larger goals and policies.

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