Faced with growing humanitarian and peacekeeping demands in increasingly dangerous situations, the United Nations should accelerate efforts to conclude a set of standards on the use of private military and security companies, known as PMSCs, said experts at a Headquarters press conference today. The United Nations’ use of such private contractors was on the rise, said members of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination. The panel stressed that elaborating a set of standards could help to prevent the serious human rights violations that were sometimes associated with private security companies.
The five-member Working Group, established in 2005, supports the Human Rights Council by, among other tasks, studying and identifying sources and causes, emerging issues, manifestations and trends regarding mercenaries or mercenary-related activities and their impact on human rights, particularly on the right of peoples to self-determination.
Anton Katz ( South Africa), Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group said that the use of private military and security companies by the United Nations was one of several investigations in which the Working Group was currently engaged. During the Group’s annual meeting in New York this week, it had met with various stakeholders, including Member States, and was examining legislation around the world with respect to the use of private military and security companies.
Joining Mr. Katz on the podium today were two other members of the Working Group, Faiza Patel ( Pakistan) and Gabor Rona ( United States). Also on hand, but not speaking, were Patricia Arias ( Chile) and Elżbieta Karska ( Poland).
Ms. Patel described a special event, held by the Working Group last night on the margins of its week-long meeting, which had focused on the use of such companies by the United Nations system. Central to the discussion in the first of two sessions was the United Nations’ use of contracted security guards; a second session had concentrated on the broad range of use of those companies.
“The United Nations is, in fact, using private companies to provide security around the world,” she said, adding that those guards were sometimes armed. To date, there was no clear standard as to their vetting and as to determining when the United Nations should hire them. However, the Department of Safety and Security was currently working to develop a system-wide policy on that process.
Highlighting several issues that had emerged at the event, she said one had been the question of who was responsible for ensuring that the companies hired by the United Nations had adequately trained and vetted their staff. Presently, the Organization required that their contracting companies be members of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers, a self-regulatory mechanism set up by the industry itself.
However, panellists at yesterday’s event had asked, “Is that enough?” she recalled, noting that several challenges had been discussed, including questions of loyalty at the companies’ top level of management, as well as ways in which companies with unacceptable human rights records could side-step violations by creating affiliate companies in other countries.
The panel had stressed that the use of private security should be a last resort, she said. Indeed, it should only be used if the host country was not able to provide adequate security, and if there were not enough United Nations security staff available to do the job.
To that, Mr. Rona added that the companies’ use was viewed as a last resort because there were some serious potential human rights risks associated with their use. There was already a global discussion taking place on issues related to vetting and human rights standards, he said, adding that “no less transparency […] should be part and parcel in the way the United Nations determines the utility, the efficacy and the very wisdom of using outside contractors”.
In particular, it was important to remember that the United Nations had, as part of its scope of activities, a mandate to protect and promote human rights. “We do not want to wait until an atrocity occurs” before a discussion about responsibility and vetting took place, he said. There should be measures of regulation, accountability and remedy in place, and the United Nations must be transparent about its discussion of those issues.
The panellists also responded to a number of questions from correspondents. Asked about the term “mercenaries” in the Working Group’s name and about whether “PMSCs” could be referred to as mercenaries, Mr. Rona responded that such companies were not equated with mercenaries. A mercenary was an individual fighting in an armed conflict who was not a national of any of the parties to the conflict, and who was doing so for financial gain. While a contractor might fit the definition of mercenary, it was not necessarily one.
Asked about the role of such companies and about who was responsible for their actions, Ms. Patel said that “when you bring other parties into the battlefield, you start creating questions about who’s who”. The role of contractors depended largely on a particular situation and what the United Nations’ role was there. “At the end of the day, the United Nations will be held responsible for anything its contractors do” in the public eye, she added.
In response to a question about transparency in the use of contractors in Somalia in particular, Ms. Patel referred to a March report, which had listed all the private security companies used by the United Nations for guarding services. However, she warned, that list did not include companies used for peacekeeping. Mr. Katz added that a report of the Working Group was due out in December on the use of private security companies in Somalia.
One correspondent asked for clarity on the United Nations’ rationale for using such companies. Ms. Patel said that “the United Nations is operating in more places, and more dangerous places, than it has in the past”. It had changed its philosophy from “when do we leave” to “how do we stay?” she said.
In that context, she said, the challenge was now how to make it possible to stay in very dangerous situations. The answer, when the host country could not be relied upon and where there were not enough United Nations guards available, was often to hire private security companies.
Mr. Rona added that there was another downside to using outside contractors, apart from human rights concerns — those companies were not part of the United Nations system and thus did not have loyalties to the Organization. Such uncertainties carried potential security and political consequences.
Asked for more information about the International Code of Conduct, Ms. Patel described three separate initiatives related to conduct and standards of private contractors. The first was an initiative of the Working Group to develop a set of international standards. The second was known as the Montreux Document. Spearheaded by the Swiss Government, it spells out rules for the conduct of such companies in situations of armed conflict.
The third, another initiative of the Swiss Government, was a code of conduct for private security providers, through a multi-stakeholder process, she said. It was hoped that it would lead to an oversight mechanism, and that more countries would require their contractors to operate in line with the Code of Conduct.