Ooh, Aah: PMC Feeling Good

02/23/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now

I feel good, I knew that I would, now
So good, so good, I got you

- I Feel Good, James Brown

Moving on, our latest entrant in the academic literature on private military contractors is the paper "Private Military Contractors, Peacekeepers, and the Sexual Exploitation of Women in Conflict Zones" by Valerie Sperling, a political science associate professor at Clark University.

Given that the book by Kathryn Bolkovac was published last month this seems a timely paper.

For those who don't remember, Bolkovac was a police officer turned human rights investigator, who worked as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in the late 1990s, and uncovered international sex trafficking and cover-ups by her bosses at DynCorp International, which led to her firing and a subsequent wrongful termination lawsuit in which she was victorious. Of all the problems DynCorp has had over the years this, by far, has been the most remembered, to the eternal chagrin of DynCorp's public relations department.

In her paper Prof. Sperling describes how employing PMCs on peacekeeping missions has had negative implications for accountability to local populations. Given how massively PMC advocates tout the utility of both private military and security contractor for peacekeeping operations (for example, try searching online using keywords ISOA and peacekeeping) one can see how this paper might be of more than, pardon the pun, academic interest.

Now before going any further, I concede that there have been many serious and well documented problems in regard to sexual crimes -- trafficking, prostitution, and exploitation of women and girls -- with the use of regular military forces for UN peace operations. But given how often PMCs are offered as an alternative it is only fair to ask how good their record is.

She writes, "Although the use of transnational (and even private) military force can stabilize frail states, PMCs are more likely to undercut than to strengthen the ties of political accountability between citizens and their governments, and transnational military forces in general - including peacekeepers - often lack accountability to the populations with whom they interact."

Prof. Sperling starts her paper describing the sex trafficking networks that had proliferated in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s to "service" the influx of peacekeepers and others affiliated with the mission. Although this been extensively reported on in the past she makes some salient points.

The UN peacekeeping force was accompanied by an International Police Task Force (IPTF) composed of "monitors" (civilian police), intended to support the development of rule of law in post-war Bosnia by supervising local police forces.

Ironically, some IPTF personnel engaged in the trafficking-related activities that they should have been working to eradicate -- such as purchasing sex in brothels enslaving trafficked women, and even purchasing the women themselves. Promoting democracy -- one aspect of the UN's mission -- was thus accompanied by violations of human rights and a striking absence of accountability for such violations, since IPTF monitors enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution while serving on UN missions.

PTF monitors are typically mobilized from national police forces to serve on such missions. Given the fact that the U.S. has no national police force, IPTF monitors from the U.S. are recruited by private military contractors from among local and state police forces. For the Bosnian mission, the U.S. IPTF personnel were hired by the PMC DynCorp. Because of this decentralized recruiting practice, "information on disciplinary actions against particular officers rarely makes it back to a U.S. police officer's home force" and accountability suffers.

The UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH) chose not to request that the UN Secretary General waive IPTF employees' immunity in cases where IPTF monitors were allegedly involved in activities related to trafficking. Instead, eighteen monitors were merely repatriated for "incidents of sexual misconduct" over the course of the mission and, as of November 2002, none had been prosecuted upon return to their home countries. In one case from November 2000, IPTF monitors ostensibly from Spain, France, the U.S., and elsewhere raided three brothels in Prijedor, and then transported some of the trafficked women to Sarajevo for assistance under an International Organization for Migration program. There, the women's testimony revealed that at least nine IPTF monitors, including those who had conducted the raids, were among their clients. In at least one case, a U.S. IPTF monitor purchased a trafficked woman from a brothel in Sarajevo, ostensibly in order to pay off her 'contract.' He was repatriated but not prosecuted. At that time, U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction in the event that civilian police monitors from the U.S. were to commit such crimes while on foreign missions, and none have been prosecuted.

This has implications beyond allowing an individual monitor to escape justice. It also makes it impossible for them to appear as witnesses to convict the brothel owners and traffickers; they were not even interrogated before repatriation, rendering accountability impossible.

Also participating in the Bosnian mission was a NATO-led stabilization force (SFOR), along with its own contractors - civilians providing logistical support to the troops in the area. Along with IPTF monitors, SFOR contractors also reportedly participated in sex trafficking during the Bosnian mission. Such contractors have immunity only for actions taken in relation to their official duties, but, like IPTF monitors, were not prosecuted locally for their alleged trafficking-related crimes, in part because they were repatriated before investigations could get off the ground. Like their IPTF counterparts, U.S. SFOR contractors in Bosnia were hired through DynCorp under a Department of Defense contract. Although there was no evidence that SFOR soldiers participated in trafficking-related activities in Bosnia, U.S. civilian contractors faced fewer restrictions on their freedom of movement, and were able to visit brothel- nightclubs as a result. The SFOR contractors in question "faced allegations of buying women, transporting trafficked women, and violence against trafficked women."

Note that at the time the laws on the books were inadequate to prosecute contractors and it took years to change them.

Contractors in such a system face no accountability for their actions, although they are part of a U.S. mission. Despite the passage of The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) in 2000, which made Department of Defense contractors subject to U.S. felony law while working abroad, "right up until the U.S. pull-out from Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 2004, the purchases of women by U.S. contractors continued." As of April 2006, there had been no prosecutions of any peacekeepers from the U.S. for trafficking offenses.

Although MEJA could have been used to prosecute U.S. contractors hired through the Department of Defense (such as those working for SFOR in Bosnia), MEJA would not have allowed for the prosecution of U.S. contractors working as IPTF monitors, since they had no connection to the Department of Defense, but rather were hired on a DynCorp contract to the State Department. In 2005, this loophole for contractors was closed by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Section 103 of the TVPRA in essence amended MEJA, making prosecutable in the U.S. any trafficking-related felony offense committed by anyone employed by or contracted to the agencies of the U.S. government not covered under MEJA (the contractors' dependents are also covered under the TVPRA). Under the TVPRA, U.S. police officers hired by DynCorp to serve in a U.S. IPTF contingent are in effect under contract to the State Department, and could now be prosecuted if they were to commit a trafficking-related offense.

Doubtlessly PMC supporters will argue that was then and this is now and that it is unfair to stigmatize an industry for the actions of a few that happened years ago. If you hear shades of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of torture abuses at Abu Ghraib prison by referring to a few bad apples, well, you're not the only one.

Still, it is not an unreasonable argument, so let's jump to Prof. Sperling's conclusion.

The impact of transnational PMCs and peacekeeping forces on accountability relationships is mixed and occasionally paradoxical. While PMCs and peacekeeping forces - themselves nearly always including employees of PMCs - can help stabilize conflicts and pave the way to elections and the possibility of establishing politically accountable government, states can also avoid accountability through the use of PMCs. And, in some cases, military contractors and others serving on transnational peacekeeping missions may commit human rights violations with impunity, highlighting the absence of accountability to local populations, and undermining both the development of and confidence in local justice systems.


Private military companies' effect on the social control of force is also important from the accountability standpoint. If human rights and legal protections decline when institutions or functions are transferred from the public to the private sphere, social control over violence decays. If private or transnational institutions do not uphold the rule of law (as is the case when PMCs or UN peacekeeping missions too rapidly repatriate people accused of violating human rights), then social control and accountability both suffer. The behavior of private military contractors (and personnel on UN peacekeeping missions) must therefore be examined under the rubric of the social control of force, inasmuch as that behavior affects the human rights of "host country" populations. Like the private contractors who violated detainees' rights at the Abu Ghraib prison and committed acts of violence against civilians with impunity elsewhere in Iraq, transnational peacekeeping forces (both civilian and military) are held accountable to local populations for human rights abuses in only a limited way, if at all. The sexual exploitation of women by peacekeepers and the rapid repatriation of the latter are inimical to accountability and to increasing the social control of force, whether in Bosnia, Cambodia, or Liberia. Yet law is not applied the same way in the private sector as it is in the public sector, making it even more difficult to prosecute private contractors than to prosecute national military forces who violate human rights abroad.

PMC supporters argue that the market enforces a certain kind of accountability on PMCs - namely, accountability to shareholders. This accountability should lead to PMC support for social control, as it provides an incentive for military contractors to behave professionally, abide by international law, and avoid human rights violations, so as to preserve a good reputation and future contracts. It is also reasonable to suggest, however, that the desire for future profits creates incentives for PMCs to cover up crimes committed by their employees, who may then be hired anew by other PMCs. The case of DynCorp is instructive; after several of its employees violated women's rights in Bosnia through trafficking and other types of sexual exploitation, the company dismissed "whistleblowers" who sought to make management aware of the problem. DynCorp was then hired for the lucrative contract to train the Iraqi police force a few years later.