01/03/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

UN Use of PMSC? It's a Reality, Not a Hypothetical

I've previously written about the longstanding debate over whether the United Nations should be using private military and security contractors (PMSC). But upon reflection I should have phrased it differently. It is not a question of if the UN should be using them; instead it is a question of how much. This is because, although it is not widely realized, the United Nations already uses them, and to a far greater degree than is commonly realized.

People who work in the industry have long understood that there are a variety of U.N. agencies that use a variety of companies for both logistical and security needs and have competed for those contracts. Some of them have been present in most UN operations since the 1990s. In fact, Executive Outcomes, the legendary South African private security contractor was a U.N. approved vendor. Indeed, some companies have a history of working with the United Nations which dates back decades. Admittedly, the monetary payoff is not as big as are U.S. government contracts but they are avidly competed for nonetheless. Some of the same companies you've seen and heard mentioned in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, such as Aegis, DynCorp, ArmorGroup and Global Risk Strategies are frequent UN partners.

A recent paper "UN Use of Private Military and Security Companies: Practices and Policies" by Åse Gilje Østensen, published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) in Geneva, Switzerland, whose mission is to assist the international community in pursuing good governance and reform of the security sector, goes into this in detail. And it is a good thing it does because in early 2011 the UN Department of Safety and Security initiated the development of a policy proposal which offers recommendations for more responsible and coherent PMSC contracting practices. Thus, PMSC will likely assume a higher profile in future UN activities. Although, given the heterogeneous nature of the United Nations it can't be assumed that the UN actually has a common policy on PMSC use.

Although, if you wonder why you've not heard about this before the reasons are similar to those that national governments give for not releasing detailed information on PMSC use.

UN agencies have released little to no information about contracting practices with PMSCs. While some may be willing to share information on this topic 'for the right reasons', others do not authorise their staff to participate in or provide information to studies of UN use of PMSCs. Information on security arrangements is often both proprietary and confidential, and the sensitivity of the issue in UN circles has clearly limited the amount of information available. Several companies will acknowledge having worked for UN affiliated clients, but mainly due to client confidentiality clauses in PMSC contracts this information is normally limited in detail and substance.

If you think of all the different UN agencies and offices as comprising one big UN family it turns out that many of the siblings, especially the UN humanitarian organizations, have been using PMSC.

But before spelling that out let's pause to consider exactly what PMSC can do for the UN. Put simply there are things they can do and things they can't.

Firstly, PMSCs do not supply the United Nations only with security services; frequently they supply other specialised services such as advice, training, demining, logistics, etc. Secondly, corporations do not stand to substitute UN missions any time soon, though in the past some have prepared proposals for rather extensive operations to remedy UN member state inaction. PMSCs are not used as front‐line peacekeepers, and peacekeeping is therefore far from being taken over by private companies as some have feared and others have suggested.

And, the report takes exception to the claims made by some PMSC advocates that PMSC could take on some of the armed UN peace operations missions.

As Spearin has pointed out, it is also highly unlikely that most contemporary PMSCs would have the capacity to muster the adequate response to do so in a timely manner. PMSCs are most often composed of diverse personnel, not gathered to capitalise on their collective abilities in ways which would be the case with armed forces.

Who in the UN uses PMSC? The UN directly procures PMSC services from its headquarters and in the field, and "a variety of agencies, programs, funds, departments and divisions within the UN family are regular PMSC customers, including the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Food Program (WFP) and UN Development Program (UNDP). Direct contracting is apparently done from time to time in spite of the general rule that only the specialized agencies should procure directly. In 2008 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees contracted ArmorGroup Kenya for 'office security services', while UNDP bought security services from Saladin Security in Afghanistan.

Some may recall the "The Whistleblower" movie that came out last year, which depicted the life of Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer. She was assigned as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in the 1990s, a job that exposed her to a world of international workers complicit in and in many cases fostering the international trade of young women for sex. Ms. Bolkovac's investigation led to her firing.

While that movie got a fair amount of publicity, the larger point is that PMSCs also frequently get involved in UN operations through member state contingencies. This is a particularly common practice as far as US contributions to the United Nations are concerned. In fact, since the US administrative structure does not allow for a federal police force to be seconded directly to international missions, the State Department (DoS) relies entirely on recruiting police personnel from private contractors.

These companies vet and hire civilian police personnel from state, local and municipal law enforcement agencies and subsequently supply police services to international peacekeeping and other missions without consulting or informing the United Nations. Police-contributing countries merely undertake to provide the service and the number of agreed police officers without further specifications given to the United Nations.

Until April 2004 DynCorp International was the sole supplier of US civilian police to the DoS, meaning that every US police officer taking part in UN Civilian Police (UNCIVPOL) was in fact a DynCorp employee. Since then the contract has been split up between a few additional companies that maintain rosters of police personnel. Pacific Architects & Engineers (PAE) is part of the effort, and according to its website currently contributes civilian police personnel to the UN missions in Haiti and Liberia.

Developing countries may also rely on PMSCs in order to be able to take part in UN peacekeeping operations.

For example, Paramount Group specialises in 'peacekeeping packages' tailored to help developing countries meet UN equipment, training and logistic requirements. According to the company's website, Paramount Group covers a niche in the market which US PMSCs often overlook: UN troop‐contributing countries which are eager to mount a battalion for UN deployment, sometimes motivated by the UN reimbursement system.

Of course, it can only be described as ironic, or perhaps hypocritical, that the UN, which has a working group to combat mercenaries looks benignly on while member countries participate in peacemaking operations primarily for the reimbursement they get for sending their troops. Good talking point for industry though; they're just helping states be all they can be; to use the old U.S. military recruiting slogan.

Some other examples of PMSC use:

Services can be required specifically by the organisation but paid for by member states. Both Aegis and Global Risk allegedly have been paid by member states to provide protection to senior UN officials in Iraq.

PMSCs may also take part in UN operations through subcontracting procedures. A 'regular' contract for support or reconstruction functions may require security measures which may be subcontracted to a PMSC, which is consequently associated with the overall UN project, mission or organisation.

Some member states also exercise their host‐government responsibility to protect the United Nations by providing armed or unarmed security personnel from a private company instead of using public protection.

Given the byzantine nature of the UN it should not come as a surprise that sometimes the UN seems a bit conflicted about PMSC use. A UK parliamentary committee reported in 2002 that while the UN civil security division restricted the use of PMSC services by UN humanitarian agencies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) very often demanded them.

Would further UN use of PMSC be a good thing? In fact, it might. One of the paper's conclusions is:

In an ideal world, the United Nations would probably not buy PMSC services in the first place. However, in the current situation a more proficient and proactive approach to PMSCs should be beneficial not only to the United Nations but also to affected populations. The benefits potentially extend to other PMSC clients, as it would enable the United Nations to use its client leverage to set standards for PMSC performance. By becoming a responsible and smart consumer of PMSC services, the United Nations could influence the market for security in a positive way.