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POLITICS: Soldiers of (Mis)Fortune

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 27 2007 (IPS) - The United Nations is increasingly critical of the use of deadly force, including indiscriminate shooting of civilians, by private security guards in some of the world’s battle zones.

Considered “mercenaries” by U.N. standards, these security personnel have been involved in a rash of recent killings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The trends towards outsourcing and privatising various military functions by a number of (U.N.) member states in the past 10 years has resulted in the mushrooming of private military and security companies,” says a new U.N. report on mercenaries.

The study points out that many of these companies have been hired by the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defence, “with a resulting tremendous increase in the number of private military and private security companies connected with the conflict situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

“In order to fulfill their contracts, and at the same time make the most lucrative profits, some of these transnational companies have, through subsidiaries or hiring companies, created, stimulated and fuelled the demand in third world countries for former military personnel and ex-policemen.”

The report describes security guards as “private militarily armed soldiers” who are only accountable to the company that employs them.

According to conservative estimates, there are more than 25,000 security guards in Iraq alone.

The companies providing security services include Armor Group, Control Risks Group, Custer Battles, Blackwater, Global Risks Strategies, Dyna Corporation and Edinburgh Risk and Security Management and Sabre International Security Inc.

The London Economist said that by some estimates the private security industry has an annual turnover of over 100 billion dollars.

In a report released in October, the United Nations asked the United States to help prevent military excesses by multinational troops and private security firms accused of using indiscriminate force against civilians in Iraq.

“The U.S. government should take steps to ensure that offences committed in Iraq by all categories of U.S. contractor employees are subject to prosecution under the law,” according to the 37-page report released by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has found that the killings of at least 14 of the 17 civilians in Baghdad in early September were “unjustified and violated deadly force rules”.

The investigation, currently underway, involves Blackwater, a U.S. security firm hired to protect mostly U.S. diplomats in the Iraqi capital.

But a team of independent U.N. experts said in early November that most of the private security firms are “engaging in new forms of mercenary activity” and that member states employing them “could be liable for human rights violations committed by these personnel”.

The experts, who are part of a U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, expressed concern that the recruitment of former military personnel and ex-policemen as “security guards” seems to be continuing.

“They represent a new form of mercenarism,” the experts said in a statement released in early November.

An international convention against the use of mercenaries has so far been ratified only by 30, mostly developing nations, of the 192 U.N. member states. The only Western countries that have ratified the convention are Belgium, New Zealand and Italy.

A resolution criticising new forms of mercenary activities was adopted by a U.N. committee last week by a vote of 122 in favour to 51 against, with six abstentions.

The resolution said that mercenary activities not only represent violations of human rights but also impede the exercise of the right to self-determination.

The supporters of the resolution were mostly from developing nations, while most Western states, including the 27-member European Union (EU), voted against the resolution.

Speaking on behalf of the EU, a representative of Portugal said the EU was not convinced the issue of mercenaries should be taken up from the perspective of human rights violations and threats to self-determination.

“The link between mercenaries and terrorism was not clear,” she added.

Meanwhile, the U.N. report on mercenaries has urged member states to prevent the recruitment of mercenaries or establish regulatory systems of registration and licensing of private military and private security companies and individuals working for them.

The study also calls upon member states to impose a specific ban on private military and private security companies intervening in internal or international armed conflicts or actions aiming at destabilising constitutional regimes.

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