We Must Seek UN Regulations for Private Military Companies

The staggeringly revealing New York Times exposé about the training of a “private army” for the United Arab.Emirates' autocrats by former Blackwater founder Erik Prince provides us with a rare insight to the dark-side of private military and security companies (PMSCs).

Some PolicyMic writers have recently discussed the relative cost of using PMSCs, but such an assessment does not go deep enough into their actual behavior. Indeed, in light of Prince’s unethical conduct, it is high time the international community sought common UN laws for regulating PMSCs.

As PolicyMic’s Yasmeen Husain recently highlighted, it is important to separate the likes of Blackwater from the majority of PMSCs on the market. The U.S., United Kingdom and several other nations committed in Afghanistan and elsewhere heavily employ non-uniformed personnel to cover manpower intensive security functions. Indeed, in 2010, 55% of the Department of Defense’s workforce in both countries were PMSC employees. The vast majority of these offer professional, low-profile services such as logistics.

However, at the thin end of the wedge lay PMSCs of a radically different formation, operating in a shady legal space between soldier and contractor. Prince’s own Blackwater Worldwide was one such company, a well-known employer of former Special Forces that often crossed ethical and legal barriers during operations.

They were notoriously kicked out of Iraq in 2008, after the Nisoor Square incident, in which 17 civilians died. Similar investigations into allegations of civilian killings by the UK’s Aegis Security marred the record of PMSCs in Iraq.

Yet historically, many PMSCs have gone even further. In the late 1990’s, accusations abounded of contractors conducting outright warfare at the behest of governments in Africa, with the conduct of South Africa’s Sandline International and Executive Outcomes being particularly notorious.

Indeed, instability is a breeding ground for such companies. Beyond Prince’s private army for the U.A.E, PMSCs have started to operate extensively in and around Somalia, with 10% of shipping in the region now hiring armed guards. These “guns-for-hire” continue to blur ethical and legal boundaries, with little government supervision of their conduct.

Concern about this “privatization” of warfare has started to receive political attention. In 2008, Switzerland (a regular tax-haven for such companies) endorsed the Montreux Document, which proposed standards by which PMSCs should regulate themselves.

However, EU research has concluded this has not gone far enough to curb unethical and destabilizing behavior by PMSCs, which continue to hire foreign fighters in the world’s most war-torn regions.

In light of this, it is high time the international community sought a common legal structure for regulating PMSCs. A recent EU project has provided a potential framework for such an agreement, based around globally recognized standards for the registration and monitoring of PMSC activities. EU member states will have this framework in mind when they attend a UN session in Geneva on the 23rdof May, which aims to seek a global consensus on this issue.

Such a move should be encouraged by the U.S. PMSCs have occupied a legal netherworld for too long. UN backed standards - demanding increased government oversight - are the only way to prevent the unscrupulous behavior of people like Erik Prince.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons