Commentary

Codes of Conduct: Trust but Verify

Regulation of an industry takes many different forms. There are outright laws and regulations, official standards, governmental monitoring agencies and internal rules, to name a few. Sometimes it works well. And sometimes it fails spectacularly; think of America’s current financial services industry as just one example.

One part of regulation is voluntary. All industries profess to follow self-imposed obligations. These are usually codified as codes of conduct — standards that set forth norms of behavior that most companies in an industry accept should be followed. Since these are voluntary, they are not legally enforceable, unlike the core business standards of a company. Yet the monitoring of the implementation and compliance with such standards can be subject to a binding standard.

The private military industry, like any other, has codes of conduct. They generally aim to obligate private military firms to comply with human-rights principles and international humanitarian law. Many individual private military and security contractors also have their own codes.

Such codes have been pushed particularly hard by their trade associations. The first and probably most comprehensive is that of the International Peace Operations Association, which was founded in 2001 in Washington. To be a member of IPOA, a company has to agree to subscribe to its code of conduct.

IPOA’s code of conduct is now in its 11th version. It has a number of laudable provisions ranging from taking “every practicable measure to minimize loss of life and destruction of property” to ensuring that “all Rules of Engagement should be in compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights law.” IPOA also has a complaint mechanism that is open to anyone who believes that a member company of IPOA has violated the code.

Similarly, the charter of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq in Baghdad says it “will insist upon behaviors consistent with norms and conventions of the international community.” Although considering what happens in the world, that might not be saying much.

And the charter of the British Association of Private Security Companies states that members agree “to follow all rules of international, humanitarian and human rights law that are applicable as well as all relevant international protocols and conventions and further agree to subscribe to and abide by the ethical codes of practice of the association.”

This is all well and good and commendable, but, not unlike the famous fictional 1980s Joe Isuzu television car commercials, it is still essentially a pitch to trust them.

The question is, should we be reassured by codes of conduct? Not completely, according to the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. A recent paper, “Codes of Conduct: Tool for Self-Regulation for Private Military and Security Companies,” finds such codes could be quite useful, but more needs to be done. Specifically, “In order to guarantee the universal character of the international standards included in codes of conduct despite their voluntary — and thus selective — acceptance by companies, a suitable implementation and monitoring mechanism should be created in which violations of these standards both inside and outside a company can be addressed, discussed and ultimately also penalized.”

The paper credits groups like IPOA for being “aware of the fact that the recognition of rules will safeguard continued existence of the industry in the longer term and does not limit entrepreneurial action, but directs it.”

Yet the paper also found that when it comes to individual cases that are taken up by the media, private military contractors are uncertain about how to react to criticism of their activities.

More importantly, the paper, which examined the mission statements and Web sites of 235 private military contractors, found that a mere 72 of them — less than a third — profess their compliance with normative and ethical values. Only nine companies — less than 4 percent — expressly advocate the recognition of human rights, and one dozen — or just about 5 percent — acknowledge the necessity of their activities being regulated.

Only 44 companies, or fewer than one in five, are prepared to formulate their adherence to values in a code of conduct or in terms of internally binding principles.

And if one turns from private military contractors — like, say, KBR — to private security contractors, such as Blackwater, then an even smaller proportion — 19 out of 70, or 27 percent — profess their compliance with normative and ethical values.

But only one in 10 was prepared to make these values internally binding through a code of conduct, and only 6.5 percent — seven companies — stated they were in favor of regulation.

That last number, by the way, stands in sharp contrast to the claims usually made by trade associations that the industry has no problem with regulation. IPOA’s Web site, for example, says its goals include “better supervision of private companies operating under the umbrella of U.N. or government-led operations.”

The Geneva paper also found that the substance and effect of individual statements provided by contractors are questionable. The U.S. contractor Omniplex World Service Corp. uses the Ten Commandments as the fundamental principle of its operations. Blackwater Greystone advertises its membership of Global Compact, yet not only has the company no code of conduct, it also repeatedly has been the object of public criticism, particularly for its activities in Iraq.

CACI may have various codes of conduct and internal rules of conduct; however, they were not able to prevent the company’s employees from torturing inmates of Abu Ghraib or being the cause of such torture.

All in all, only one company, namely the United Kingdom’s VT Group, refers to external audits, which are carried out by the Global Reporting Initiative. If there are any monitoring mechanisms for self-imposed obligations, then they are largely the companies’ own reporting systems or internal communication channels.

It seems that when it comes to private military and security codes of conduct, the words of Ronald Reagan seem appropriate: Trust but verify.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq