The Humanitarianism Market

December 26, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the United Press International on December 26, 2008

Where are the future markets for private security contractors? In recent years, thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their clients have been primarily governments or contractors doing reconstruction work. By definition, such clients are officious and bureaucratic but are organizationally and culturally familiar, if only because most security contractors once served in those very same governments’ military establishments. For many contractors it is just another day working for Uncle Sam, albeit with better pay and less Mickey Mouse rigmarole to contend with.

But the Iraq security bubble, valued at $6 billion to $22 billion in 2005, won’t last forever, and the future may find contractors working for a very different kind of client, namely bleeding heart humanitarians. An article published this year in Security Dialogue Journal by Christopher Spearin, chairman of the department of security and international affairs at the Canadian Forces College, finds that contractors increasingly look to humanitarianism as a future market opportunity.

He notes the British Association of Private Security Companies is pitching what it can do in the humanitarian field. A 2006 study by the British Royal United Services Institute noted, “Some humanitarian and development assistance work can easily be undertaken by PSCs. Humanitarian aid delivery, engineering and construction projects, the administration of refugee camps, building links between communities — these are all tasks that lie well within PSC contractors’ skill sets.”

Indeed, the British government’s Department for International Development has said, “Our contracts are open tender and therefore anyone can bid for them, including private security companies.”

Spearin notes that the diffusion of power away from states to non‐​state actors works in favor of PSCs. He writes that “the liberal conscience has become more tolerant of non‐​state actors and violence.” International Committee of the Red Cross experts have indicated there is no reason to believe that PSCs would be any worse in a conflict zone than any other actor. While that is faint praise, it does tend to undercut the orthodoxy that violence should be the sole preserve of state actors.

This would not be entirely new. Organizations like CARE and the World Food Program have extensively used armed escorts in transporting aid to needy populations. While armed escorts are normally provided by host governments, in cases where state authorities lack effective control, those organizations have hired private security companies to protect aid convoys.

The backstory to the increasing use of PSCs by humanitarian NGOs begins in the aftermath of the Cold War. In the years since, states have more explicitly recognized the need to protect human beings from violence in civil wars. States recognized that civilians are now explicitly targeted by unprincipled armed actors. This was codified in the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001 report, The Responsibility to Protect and the subsequent R2P — a recently developed concept in international relations that relates to a state’s responsibilities towards its population and to the international community’s response when a state fails to fulfill them. One important aim is to provide a legal and ethical basis for “humanitarian intervention” — the intervention by external actors in a state that is unwilling or unable to prevent or stop genocide, mass killings and other massive human‐​rights violations.

Yet states are still leery of allowing PSCs to act directly, or in bureaucratese “allowing the proactive application of violence.” So since PSC can’t take direct action on behalf of the United Nations or individual states, they look to provide security for those doing humanitarian relief. And those providing such relief need it, as humanitarian workers have been increasingly targeted in recent years.

What services might a PSC offer to humanitarian NGOs? They include threat and context assessments, security audits, policy development for risk control and evacuation, and guards for convoys and compounds.

In one notable area, demining, PSCs have been helping humanitarian groups for many years. Groups like ArmorGroup, RONCO and DynCorp have become de‐​miners of choice for both Britain’s Department for International Development and the U.S. State Department’s Mine Action Program. It is both an indisputable good deed and good business. One estimate for the cost of removing mines worldwide exceeds $33 billion.

Another reason, according to Spearin, why PSCs might be used more by humanitarian NGOs is that they offer greater resilience when faced with violence. Many NGOs, when their personnel have been wounded or killed, have simply withdrawn from a country. That is not their fault. They are not combatants and should not be expected to fight like them.

Yet PSCs have almost always honored their contracts even when they have taken causalities. In contrast, recall the United States, which withdrew its forces from Somalia in the aftermath of the 1993 Black Hawk down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The reason PSCs have not been more extensively used to date is a legal one. Humanitarians are reluctant to use armed security because they fear losing their protected status, involving immunity from attack and other rights, under international humanitarian law. Thus far, there is no definitive legal answer to the question of whether using security for defensive purposes constitutes “direct participation in hostilities,” which is at the heart of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

It bears noting that Emanuela‐​Chiara Gillard, a legal adviser to the ICRC, has written that “all employees of PSCs present in situations of armed conflict and hired by entities other than states” will be entitled to civilian status unless and for such time as they take direct part in hostilities.

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