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The PMSC Perils of Peacekeeping

Private military and security contractors frequently assert that they are so effective that they should be used in United Nations peacekeeping operations. It is a contention that has received greater attention in recent years. But is it true?

Not everyone thinks so. The latest skeptic is Dr. Christopher Spearin of the Royal Military College of Canada. Last year he published an article in the International Peacekeeping journal, titled "UN Peacekeeping and the International Private Military and Security Industry."

He examined earlier arguments for PMSC participation in UN peacekeeping; namely that they have:

• better organization, training and equipment;
• they have a heightened willingness to apply force to serve UN mandates;
• and they enjoy enhanced readiness to respond.

Spearin argues, however, that it would be difficult for contemporary PMSCs to respond effectively, quickly and robustly should the UN turn to them for enforcement operations. State and market pressures have conditioned PMSCs to operate in a manner dissimilar to that in the 1990s.

Certainly it would be good if they could. Spearin, like most observers, does not deny that UN peacekeeping has problems, including coordinating multinational forces, different political perceptions, lack of well-equipped and trained forces and lack of a clear chain of command.

PMSC, on the other hand, supposedly offer the commonality, coherency, competency and unified purpose often lacking in UN peacekeeping operations. In terms of branding by their advocates they can be thought of as the Bionic Men of peacekeeping; they promised to do it quicker, cheaper and more decisively than state forces.

The model that everyone turns to is the legendary South African firm, Executive Outcomes. EO, which ended in 1997, was the mother of all modern private military companies and is famous for its operations in Angola (1993 - 95) successfully fighting against Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebel forces, and in Sierra Leone (1995 - 97) fighting against the murderous forces of the Revolutionary United Front. Generally, EO recruited its personnel from the former South African Defense Force's counter-insurgency special operations forces (SOF).

EO is usually cited as the possible alternative model to UN peacekeeping forces because EO's soldiers had common operational experiences and training, they utilized similar equipment, they spoke the same language, and they relied upon a pre-existing rank structure.

But Spearin notes that while the PMSC industry still values individuals with SOF expertise, its utilization of these personnel now differs from the earlier EO composition. These personnel often hold managerial or training roles or they perform specific tasks such as close protection and VIP convoying in high-risk environments. To complete these latter tasks, former SOF personnel often work with other PMSC personnel that have previous experience only in law enforcement and the regular armed forces.

While these PMSC personnel may well share a common language, they usually do not work together in large numbers, nor can they necessarily rely upon common understandings and organizational frameworks developed during earlier state security sector employment.

And then there is the cost efficiency argument, long touted by industry advocates. Competition introduces cost-cutting trends regarding nationality and tasking that increase disparities. For example, third country nationals (TCNs) often receive a tenth of the remuneration that developed world PMSC personnel do.

Supposedly this reflects globalization and a variation of theory of comparative advantage. Both first and third world nationals earn lots of money by working in a country like Iraq, even if the TCNs are making ten or a hundred times less.

But, Spearin writes, TCNs will often conduct activities not performed by developed world PMSC personnel, which makes some of the pro-PMSC arguments less persuasive. Put differently, the industry's multinational character leads firms to put specific jobs into 'silos'; this makes it difficult to recapture the coherence and commonality of the EO example.

Certainly, PMSC employment and managerial practices may also affect the efficacy of the silo approach. For example:

A firm's laxity regarding personnel capabilities could hamper efficacy and coherence. In March 2010, the U.S. State Department's Middle East Regional Office conducted an audit of Triple Canopy's contract to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The audit discovered severe language difficulties among PMSC personnel. In some cases Spanish-speaking Peruvian supervisors could not communicate with their Ugandan staff.

A bigger problem, however, lies in the evolution of both UN peace operations and the modern PMSC industry.

Most Cold War era peacekeeping operations did not feature the offensive application of violence serving enforcement mandates. Generally, peacekeepers applied force minimally, rarely and then only in self-defense. But after the Cold War the UN Security Council increasingly devised mandates, particularly in response to humanitarian crises that made the application of violence more likely. It was this sort of muscular peacekeeping that a firm like EO excelled at.

But that was your daddy's PMSC. Today's PMSC, in comparison, have more in common with Caspar Milquetoast. They are there to protect, not to fight. Spearin writes that:

It is, therefore, ironic that as the UN Security Council becomes 'enforcement minded' in its mandates, the PMSC industry is becoming less oriented towards enforcement. It now stresses self-defense credentials and makes this distinction:

Mercenaries apply violence offensively whereas PMSCs operate in a defensive and reactive manner. Put differently, one can increasingly view EO's activities as anomalous. Consider the distinction made by one Chilean PMSC employee in Iraq: '[t]he people were contracted for static work, to help in watch posts, towers, hotels, and supermarkets... We weren't organized or prepared to attack'.

A Fijian employee similarly rejected the mercenary label: '[t]hey are only armed to defend themselves and these are light weapons we are talking about'. In fact, the PMSC ArmorGroup turned down the opportunity to increase its firepower in Iraq because, 'as a publicly traded company, they did not want to be perceived as a mercenary force'. As well, in their promotions and advertisements, many PMSCs highlight their defensive nature. Triple Canopy's motto, for instance, is 'Assess, Avert, Achieve.' Likewise, Erinys, the PMSC tasked to develop Iraq's Oil Protection Force, indicated that it did not conduct 'offensive, preemptive or maneuver operations.'

But perhaps the biggest irony is the argument that PMSC can respond more quickly than UN forces. Certainly there is no doubt that watching the UN put together a peacekeeping operation is similar to watching a tortoise race or paint dry on a wall.

But in recent years states have intervened and attempted to manage their citizenry's participation in the PMSC industry. This affects the availability of PMSC personnel for, and the rapidity of PMSC responses to requests. If states make approval processes more stringent, apply effective domestic monitoring and assert national prerogatives, then the ready flow of PMSC personnel may become further constrained. This would affect the speed of PMSC response.

In that regard an evolving international regulatory device restrains PMSCs: the Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States Related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies during Armed Conflict. For signatory states the document suggests means by which states can increase their knowledge and oversight of PMSC activities and allow for close relations with PMSCs. In particular, the document advocates the merits of different types of state authorization. And that is a problem because:

Such authorization would reinforce national prerogatives regarding violence applied extraterritorially. Factors related to the sort of PMSC service offered or the state in which operations could take place would likely come under government purview. Put differently, one cannot assume that states will give a PMSC offering privatized peacekeepers only a cursory overview just because the UN is the client. With states becoming increasingly reliant on PMSC services, they may be loath to allow some of that capacity to serve UN peacekeeping rather than fulfill other tasks. Preventing PMSC involvement could therefore challenge the UN's ability to undertake a mission. Other issues might concern how these issues resonate in a home state's domestic politics.

That said, it still might be possible for the UN to use PMSC but some things would have to be done differently, according to Spearin.

On the supply side, one cannot entirely discard the possibility of peacekeeping being privatized, but the arguments presented here point to some of the issues that the UN would have to consider should it attempt to contract a PMSC for peace-keeping. Contractual arrangements and oversight mechanisms would likely have to include common language requirements, sufficient equipment allocations, and the grouping of personnel to take advantage of uniformity developed in past public service employment. The UN might also demand specific training and interaction amongst PMSC personnel, regardless of nationality or past public sector experience, to ensure operational coherence.