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IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

U.N. Increasingly Reliant on Private Security Contractors

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 12 2012 (IPS) - The United Nations is increasingly hiring Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) for its missions across the world, raising concerns over the use of firms known for participation in human rights abuses, as well as an overall lack of accountability structures governing these contractors within the U.N. system.

Between 2009 and 2010 alone, the U.N. increased its use of private security services by 73 percent (from 44 million to 76 million dollars), according to a new report by the independent policy watchdog Global Policy Forum (GPF).

Among other services, these firms provided armed and unarmed guards, convoy security, risk assessment and security training to the U.N.

In specific field missions, for which there is more data than the U.N. as a whole, increases in outsourcing become even more stark, says the author of the report, Lou Pingeot, programme coordinator at GPF.

“When you look at 2006 to 2011, use of PMSCs in field missions have increased by 250 percent,” Pingeot told IPS.

The report, titled “Dangerous Partnership” and launched in New York on Tuesday, is based on Pingeot’s extensive research into available records of annual procurement by U.N. agencies, as well as on- and off-the-record interviews with U.N. staff across various agencies and departments.

It chronicles a build-up in the use of PMSCs within the U.N. starting in the 1990s with the peacekeeping missions in Somalia, the Balkans and Sierra Leone.

The focus on security and protection of U.N. premises increased in the wake of 9/11 and the 2004 bombing of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, the report argues, followed by the creation of the U.N. Department of Safety and Security (DSS) in 2005. The latter aims to institutionalise security coordination among U.N. agencies through the establishment of an Inter-Agency Security Management Network.

While Pingeot is eager to stress that the numbers used in her research on PMSCs show trends based on imperfect data, they nevertheless illustrate a direction the U.N. is heading in that also worries many of her interviewees, she said, though most are uncomfortable voicing their concerns publicly.

One reason for concern over increased use of PMSCs is the absence of guidelines and frameworks to govern the outsourcing of U.N. tasks to private firms, especially those working in conflict zones.

Another concern is the possible clash between U.N. values and those of employees in private security firms, who display a “culture of superiority” and “propensity for the use of violence”, according to the report, which also examined WikiLeaks cables and media coverage of these firms.

While discussion on the subject within the U.N has been minimal at best, a 2002 report by the secretary-general on U.N. outsourcing practices, cited in “Dangerous Partnership”, acknowledged that outsourced activities “may compromise the safety and security of UN staff ,” and called on offices which outsourced security services to replace contractors with U.N. personnel.

Among the companies the U.N. has recently hired are DynCorp, a U.S. firm that became widely known for its involvement in a sex trafficking scandal during the U.N. mission in Bosnia in the 1990s – a story that’s since made its way back into the media through the 2010 film “The Whistleblower.”

The company also operated covert U.S. “rendition” flights to secret prisons across the world, as revealed in a 2011 court case between DynCorp and another private contractor first reported on by the Associated Press.

Another stand-out on the list of U.N. contractors is British security giant G4S, which received a 14-million-dollar U.N. contract for mine clearing and provides security services to the U.S. military in Iraq. In Britain, the company has been scrutinised for its questionable treatment of migrants while operating a number of migrant detention centres and is currently in the running for a 1.5-billion-pound contract to operate police services in two counties in the U.K.

The main argument for using private contractors is cost-saving, with major players like the U.S. and the U.K. pushing the U.N. to streamline its operations by outsourcing more tasks to PMSCs.

It’s a muddy argument at best, says Pingeot, who in her roughly two years of research was not able to find a serious comparative study on the financial benefits of outsourcing U.N. security services. In addition, the practice of issuing no-bid contracts cuts out any financial benefit that price competition may have had.

“You also don’t count externalities, including the cost to put a proper review mechanism into place for an industry that’s currently self-regulating and thus unaccountable,” she said.

“For me, the most astounding aspect of the report is how the U.N. has over 20 years avoided discussion on the topic,” James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, told IPS.

“How can you year after year bring out reports and talk about the security of U.N. staff and not mention this? The emperor has no clothes.”

One aspect that has stifled real discussion is the influence two of the biggest players within the U.N., the U.K and the U.S. governments, he said, both of whom are major clients of these firms, rendering any discussion dead on arrival.

The industry, in turn, makes use of this access to their governments to secure support on bids within the U.N., which are not the most lucrative financially but lend prestige and increase the companies’ image, according to Pingeot’s research.

The cozy relationship between member states and private contractors also fuels “bunkerizations”, the report finds, as the increased use of PMSCs and their involvement in determining U.N. and national policy means that countries end up with an increasing “need” for security.

“It’s self-perpetuation of the industry,” Pingeot said.

Responding to requests for comment on the report, the spokesperson for U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement Tuesday that the U.N. system has been working on a draft decision-making and accountability framework for the use of armed private security companies, and that such a draft was approved by the Inter Agency Security Management Network in June 2012.

The draft’s approval was news to Pingeot, who says it’s been on the table for two years with little moving on the matter. “We obviously forced their hand,” she said in response to the statement following her presentation of the report at the U.N. Church Centre.

“But it could still take years for such guidelines to be approved,” she adds. More importantly, it misses the point of the report, “Which is that what’s needed is a broad reassessment of the U.N.’s relationship and contracts with all of these organisations, not just those providing security.

“We’re way past the time for small reforms and guidelines like this. We’re past fig leaves.”

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