Archive | August, 2013

The Politics of ‘Doing Something’

26 Aug

On Wednesday, August 21, a special briefing on peacekeeping was offered for diplomats and NGOs entitled: “Humanitarian law, peacekeeping/intervention forces and troop-contributing countries: Issues and challenges.” The briefing was organized by the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization and featured presentations from UN Legal Affairs, the ICRC and Dr. Scott Sheeran from the University of Essex.

The briefing had two objectives:   to explore International Humanitarian Law (IHL) implications for UN peacekeeping forces involved in coercive actions to prevent violence against civilians; and to examine from the UN’s perspective the value of the recently deployed Intervention Brigade in the DRC.

The IHL objective yielded some important insights. For instance, the panelists reminded participants that UN peacekeepers are ‘protected forces’ which underscores the issue of whether ‘protective’ status applies to peacekeepers engaging in aggressive actions, even if those actions are in accordance with a Security Council (SC) mandate (specifically the ‘do whatever is necessary’ mandate).  They also raised the issue regarding the applicability of IHL to peacekeepers who are, technically speaking, not parties to the conflict taking place in their zone of operations.   While Status of Forces agreements generally reference IHL responsibilities, most Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) appear to reject the notion that IHL applies to them in the application of their Security Council mandated tasks.  Thankfully, the UN explicitly affirms its responsibility to abide by IHL in all its operations, including ensuring that any applications of force by Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs) are proportionate and carefully targeted.

There were of course many more ‘challenges’ on the table than ‘resolutions’ to challenges, and this was especially evident when it came to the discussion about the Brigades, a deployment about which the panelists seemed more enthusiastic than was the larger audience. The stated objective of the Brigade is ‘to “neutralize and disarm” the notorious 23 March Movement (M23), as well as other Congolese rebels and foreign armed groups in strife-riven eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.’  Of prime importance, to be sure.

As some readers of this blog know, we facilitate work on a proposal for a UN Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS), a standing, complementary, gender and service integrated capacity that we feel has great promise but that has had limited traction to date within the UN system.  The community surrounding UNEPS (see for example continues to wrestle with a series of questions that are germane to the Brigades as well.   Such questions include the following:

Are there sufficient resources to honor this coercive mandate and the expectations that this deployment is creating?  The Brigade consists of 3000 personnel supplemented by other force arrangements, including drones.  Can such a force save at least some lives in an environment as unforgiving as the Eastern DRC? Clearly there is reason to believe that it can.  But should this be equated with a sufficiently strategic and robust response to years of violence perpetrated by a range of state and non-state actors?  The jury on this is still out.  I used to work as a chaplain in an urban hospital in a tough neighborhood.  If 40 patients are being rushed into an Emergency Room and I send an orderly, a shift nurse and a resident doctor to meet them, this is indeed ‘better than nothing,’ (a phrase that at least one panelist used while responding to concerns about the Brigade), but does it constitute a ‘good faith’ response?  Moreover, an overwhelmed capacity is one that is more likely to make mistakes – sometimes grievous ones.  Despite the best, most disciplined efforts of Brigade troops, mistakes that result in body bags of troops themselves or civilians caught in the cross fire will quickly dissipate expectations and even endanger other stakeholders.

How does this deployment affect options for an eventual political agreement?  There was some sensible discussion back and forth as to whether the deployment of the Brigade would make a political settlement more or less likely.  In the context of discussions about development of UNEPS, we have spent much time thinking through the contexts and implications of deployment. How does importing a coercive military presence into a region that has been coping with violence for many years affect the political and social dynamics of those communities, including their ability to participate in a negotiated settlement?  Our general (not universal) assessment is that such coercion is best applied at the earliest possible stages, before attitudes harden and violent recrimination becomes habitual.   The longer the fire is allowed to burn, the more problematic the efforts of the eventual ‘fire responders.’

Does this deployment increase the vulnerabilities of existing peacekeeping operations or other UN field activities that are NOT involved directly in forward projections of power?  From my years working in a crack neighborhood, I know that when police abuse or overstretch their mandates, it is not just the abusers who are placed at risk.  All police and other service providers within and beyond the security sector are at risk.   The Brigades may benefit from some institutional distance from the rest of MONUSCO (as well as from other UN activities on the ground), but M23 rebels are not likely to sort through the protocols to ensure that they only take out their hostilities on Brigade forces.   They see a UN helmet or convoy, they fire a shot.

Does the deployment represent a genuine, due-diligence response to violence or is it more about just ‘doing something’ after a period of insufficient engagement?  In the case of the Brigades, critics can point to a lack of capacity, a conflict that has been raging for years, a massively sized conflict zone, an expanded coercive mandate institutionally tied to less coercive operations, etc.   If this is in any way a token gesture of response or even a proving ground for a more coercive PKO that could set a precedent for future engagements, is this the right time or place for that?  Is this the population on which such an ‘experiment’ should be conducted?   This issue has come up often in the context of our own UNEPS proposal — assuming that it is eventually fully developed and authorized, where and when should it be best be used? And how should it be used to ensure positive security outcomes rather than mostly symbolic responses?

We were grateful for the efforts that went into this briefing, but we were a bit dismayed that none of the panelists seemed sufficiently sensitive to the direction of the questions being posed from the floor.   For instance, I assume that all of them have had experiences of being overwhelmed by external challenges in their personal and professional lives and making unfortunate mistakes as a result.  Thinking through the implications of capacity-related mistakes in a theater like the DRC is not a particularly high bar. Moreover, most responses during briefings like this tend to accentuate the political more than the normative, as in “everything here at the UN is political.”  Politics granted, though, it is not unreasonable to wonder at what point the weight of risks and challenges outweighs the need to simply ‘do something?’  Indeed, if this Brigade has some politicized elements of a half-hearted or even ‘experimental’ response with implications for future deployments, it is even more important that mission assessments are robust and free as possible from politicized dynamics.   As horrible as the violence in the DRC has been we need to take particular care to avoid ‘practicing’ coercive engagements on human lives, especially lives that have already gone through so much during these long years of conflict-related abuse.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Growing the Responsibility to Protect

24 Aug

On September 11, the General Assembly will hold what has become its annual rite of Late Summer – the ‘debate’ on the Responsibility to Protect norm.

As is usual for the GA, this isn’t really a ‘debate’ at all. Instead it is a series of parallel statements by governments that too rarely take account either of the opinions of other states or of the content of the remarks by the panel of experts.  Nevertheless, the discussion this year does allow for an official ‘coming out’ party for Professor Jennifer Welsh, the new UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.  It also allows the relatively small group of NGOs that take an active interest in RtoP to gauge the degree to which states are willing to offer public support (or express public concern) regarding the norm. 

GAPW has attended all of the GA’s RtoP focused debates to date.  We still think they are worth pursuing as an interim step, inasmuch as they allow states to comment on the various reports by the Secretary General on themes (regionalization, third pillar capacities, etc.) germane to the evolution and full implementation of the norm .  The debates also allow for limited NGO input, though the politics of NGO involvement on RtoP have never been transparent, nor has there been any clear role for NGOs aside from supporting what have largely been modest initiatives by states to begin to fill the RtoP toolbox, create focal points for state-based activities, and provide alternative narratives to help guide Security Council ‘use’ of the norm.

Clearly more is needed if the norm is to guide conduct more than provide rationalizations for conduct.  GAPW is quite supportive of the priorities of the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, though we have also maintained for some time that a more open-ended process that encourages diplomats beyond the Security Council to take regular account of the opportunities and challenges of RtoP would be to everyone’s advantage.  Moreover, the modest NGO community that engages with RtoP, by and large, has failed to provide leadership commensurate with efforts to ‘guard the gate’ from critics who would allegedly diminish the norm.  Such critics it seems can get on the ‘wrong side’ of the discussion merely by having the temerity to suggest that we must travel farther – and in some ways travel differently – if the norm is ever to achieve necessary levels of diplomatic trust and functional competence.

The International Coalition for the RtoP, which has done some good work expanding interest in the norm within diverse global regions, has recently shared their own assessment of what this September debate needs to accomplish.   Those recommendations appear at the end of this post.  There are some good (if vague) suggestions for what might grow from this debate, and we are particularly pleased with the gender references.  But our feeling is that we need to expect more from this flowering that, for now at least, blooms only once a year and for only brief periods of time.

Our own (arguably limited) sense from talking to persons worldwide who were originally attracted to the possibilities suggested by the norm is that the proverbial bloom is starting to come off the rose.  Thankfully, none of these discussions has indicated a serious reconsideration of the basic premise of sovereignty as responsibility, nor of the fundamental belief that the international community has a critical role to play in situations where states fail to protect populations.   The caution expressed is less a function of the norm itself and more of the political compromises of some of its caretakers, both institutionally authorized and self-appointed.  When people tell us that RtoP is ‘dead’ (it isn’t) they mean in part that those tasked with promoting and/or authorizing RtoP have planted at least some of their seeds in the wrong soil.

At some point in the future, it would be interesting to have a real debate focused on where this entire process of norm implementation is headed and the extent to which our structures and strategies are capable of getting us there.  Such a discussion would be rather un-UN-like and might possibly shake up the current ‘consensus’ working methods and civil society alliances which, in our view, have uncertain benefit for the credibility of the UNs commitments to prevent mass atrocity crimes and respond rapidly and with minimum coercive force in those situations (hopefully rare) in which diplomatic and other tools fail to halt the path towards violence.

If what we all say is true about the urgency of mass atrocity prevention, then clearly our emotional conveniences, political compromises, career interests and funding needs must always take a back seat.   More than any single responsibility, we need to find ways to lengthen the growing season for this norm and do more to ensure the right amounts of energy and commitment for it to reach full bloom.   At present, we seem to be in a developing situation that reminds us of the crocuses of early spring, a beautiful purple plant that has to work far too hard to force itself through cold soils and then threatens to disappear almost before we realize it is there.

ICRtoP 2013 GA Debate Recommendations

  • Conduct assessments and analyses of domestic capacities and best practices to prevent atrocities, so as to adopt, establish or strengthen existing mechanisms and state policies;
  • Develop a national plan of action for the prevention of atrocities and the operationalization of the Responsibility to Protect and/or appoint a focal point tasked with integrating RtoP within national policies;
  • Establish or enhance existing domestic early-warning mechanisms and ensure that the information gathered is analyzed as well as shared with relevant international actors to guarantee swift, preventive action;
  • Adopt or further strengthen existing policies to ensure the full and equal participation of women and minority populations in all political, judicial, reconciliation, and peacebuilding activities, as well as safeguard the protection of equal rights for such populations;
  • Create processes that cultivate dialogue between the State and communities that allow open communication and mutual trust-building, mechanisms that can support an early dissimulation of tensions.
  • Promote a safe and dynamic space for civil society, which includes ensuring an independent and fair media, as well as continue to form key partnerships between government and civil society actors to contribute to the prevention of atrocities.


Dr. Robert Zuber, Director GAPW

Avoiding Inter-Generational Gender Traps

14 Aug

As many readers of this Blog already know, the primary preoccupation of GAPW is with the ‘gender dimensions’ of UN policies – from peacekeeping and disarmament to youth leadership and social development.   Together with program partners at UN headquarters and in many communities and countries worldwide, we are convinced that efforts to promote women’s full participation in political and social life, as well as ending impunity for gender violence (which itself constitutes a significant barrier to participation) are key to both effective international security and the promotion of sustainable development priorities.

A gender lens is also valuable in approaching the Fourth session of the Open Ended Working Group on Aging.  It is true, as a brochure distributed by the Subcommittee on Older Women notes, that “older men and women both face age discrimination but older women also face cumulative effects of gender discrimination throughout their lives, including less access to education and health services, lower earning capacity and limited access to rights to land ownership, contributing to their vulnerability in old age.”

But there are other vulnerabilities for older women which are cultural in origin, and which may constitute the ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination.  In my years of providing faith-based counseling for communities of largely older women and in my current work characterized in part by providing mentoring options for women working at UN headquarters, it is clear that older and younger women remain disconnected, that most younger women do not have older women who are not their mothers as ‘accompanying elders’ in their lives and, perhaps most relevant in this context, that younger women are not prepared (and indeed are largely ignoring) the long term, “cumulative” effects of all aspects of this subtle gender discrimination, but especially those aspects that are embedded in cultures that value physical beauty over character and worldly riches over connection.

Despite the dramatic anxiety that too often accompanies women in the early years of their life journey, these women often believe that they can alleviate some of the implications of anxiety and develop a competitive edge by ‘purchasing the surfaces.’   In this context, that means spending lots of energy on the things that win approval of peers and family members – focusing on enhancing physical beauty, having a clearly articulate career path, finding a mate and engaging in conventional family life.

None of these are problematic in themselves, perhaps aside from their implications for the lives of many women as they age.  Eventually, the wrinkles cannot be hidden, the hair greys, joints ache more often, life partners become more sporadically attentive, children move to distant cities, skills that defined a career are supplanted by new technology in younger hands.

In other words, the things of their youth that made these women ‘valuable’ in the eyes of their societies (and often in their own eyes as well) begin to slip away, sometimes slowly, other times with a speed that would shock a gazelle.

Many older women report feeling ‘invisible.’   The world’s attention has flowed elsewhere.   And sadly and unacceptably, respect and appreciation, including too often from younger women, flow away as well.

When that happens, the capacity for generosity is compromised.   The capacity to communicate hope through the aches of aging is undermined as well.  Prospects for life-giving connectivity are reduced to peer groups that are sometimes more restricted than the relationships of school – needlessly age and class specific.

In such circumstances, women are the losers.  Indeed, we are all the losers.    The ‘cumulative’ effects that lead too often to social isolation, feelings of ‘invisibility’ and other psychic deficits are, especially in western societies, undermining respectful and dignified engagements with the ‘last years,’ years that we are all destined to face and for which we are so often emotionally and materially unprepared.

As important as the Convention proposed by delegates to this Working Group would be, these psychic deficits cannot be addressed solely by recourse to resource-focused policies.   This is a problem that will more likely be solved through a robust, multi-generational engagement, an engagement that requires older women to be transparent about the ‘traps’ that they fell victim to in their early years, and younger women who are demonstrably less and less content to rely for their self-worth on things they will surely lose long before their life cycles have run their course.

This ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination is deeply embedded and too rarely interrogated.   As we lobby for more health, employment and education options for aging populations, we should commit to expose the cultural ‘traps’ that keep too many younger women anxious and too many older women invisible.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Bookends: The UN Takes on the Challenges of Aging

13 Aug

August 12 was one of those interesting and even ironic days at the UN.   On the one hand, there wasn’t much happening in either the North Lawn or Conference Building as many delegations and secretariat officials have wandered off for a bit of pre-September rest.   What WAS happening though was certainly worthy of attention by all policymakers – a morning session devoted to youth empowerment and an afternoon session of the Fourth Open Ended Working Group on Aging.

For GAPW, which has long been involved in youth development, a focus on the elderly is both timely and directly relevant to our mandate.   Given general increases in life expectancy based, in large parts of the world, on increased access to higher quality health care, there is little reason to believe that our seniors cannot be productive contributors to the growth and maintenance of human security frameworks – in both local and international contexts — long past any arbitrary retirement ages imposed by our organizations and agencies.

One question that we struggle with almost daily:  How do we promote the transition in leadership to younger persons without disenfranchising older persons who, in many cases, provided the conceptual and logistical guidance that built and maintained our organizations over many years?

This is clearly a more challenging problem than it might first appear. The ‘cult of youth’ that plagues much of western culture and which is, so far as we can tell, more a marketing ploy than an intentional policy choice, has limited value for the development of the fair and robust human security frameworks that we endeavor to promote.  Creating narrow peer frameworks in a world that offers virtually limitless options for meaningful participation, friendship and intimacy seems almost a cruel rebuke to those who have labored over many years to dismantle barriers of race, gender, sexual preference and, yes, age.

We support the movement, suggested by the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and many other States, to create a process leading to the adoption of universal standards of treatment for older persons.  At the same time, we resist any policy that inadvertently reinforces the ‘ghetto’ that too many older persons find themselves increasingly restricted to.   Perhaps even more than younger people, older citizens require human connection as much as fresh air and mobility assistance.   Services for the elderly matter – and States are right to make this more of a priority — but what matters more is cultures that promote cross-generational interaction that is open to and respectful of diverse lenses on how the world works, and how it can work more effectively.

The elderly are not a ‘population group’ as some delegations casually referred to them, but rather a diverse set of human longings and capacities seeking to remain relevant in the eyes of those with skills and energy to whom they have (perhaps not quickly or gracefully enough) given way.

The peaceful planet we all seek will be characterized in part by the welcome extended to new life and the gratitude extended to those at life’s end.   The elderly represent the direction towards which we are all headed.   An investment in older people – not only their material conditions but their ongoing, respectful connection – will yield great benefit.  After all, the time will come soon enough when we will take their places at the end of the life cycle.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The Urgency of Genuine Participation: The UN’s Youth Initiative

9 Aug

UN Headquarters has welcomed hundreds of youth from around the world who are gathering this week to discuss issues, network across global regions and have first-hand access to how the UN conducts its policy business.  All of this is anticipation of International Youth Day on August 12.   Here, Kritika Seth of Mumbai reflects on an interactive Question and Answer session between hundreds of youth delegates and the Secretary General in the temporary General Assembly Hall.


The Urgency of Genuine Participation: The UN’s Youth Initiative


On Monday, August 5, United Nations Headquarters issued 700 passes for young leaders and participants to attend an ‘Interactive Dialogue on UN Youth Initiatives with Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon’ in observation of International Youth Day.

“Your generation is the largest the world has ever known,” Mr. Ban told young people taking part in the Global Interactive Dialogue on UN Youth Initiatives. “The tools at your disposal for communication and acting are unprecedented. But so are the challenges – from growing inequalities shrinking opportunities, to threats of climate change and environmental degradation.”

Mr. Ban’s Five-Year Action Plan has as one of its priorities working for and with young people. As part of this commitment, Mr. Ban appointed his first ever Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, earlier this year. He added that Mr. Alhendawi is working with the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development to bring all parts of the UN together under an action plan for youth. The event also witnessed the launch of an online United Nations Platform for Youth in unification with his Special Envoy on this issue.

The presentation of this meeting was unique as there were young people from Nigeria, India, Brazil, Brussels and Lebanon joining the General Assembly audience via videoconference. Each of these country teams posed questions to UN Secretary General which were based on the My World Survey carried out among thousands of youth from around the world earlier this year, emphasizing on five thematic areas: employment and entrepreneurship; political inclusion; civic engagement and protection of rights; education, including sexual education; and health.  

This inspiring dialogue also featured a panel of national and global leaders as they addressed a room full of nation builders on the importance of accountability, transparency and participation. “Hold us accountable” demanded Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNPFA) as he proceeded to highlight the benefits and relevance of twitter and facebook. As for the interaction between youths and leaders, interestingly, most of the questions posed by the young citizens in Lebanon, India, Brazil, Brussels and Nigeria begun with the offer of, “what can we do to participate in…” for which the responses were limited to the listings of current and future projects for youth empowerment.

What does it mean to ‘participate’? Does getting involved in a dialogue or a conversation mean ‘participating’? – yes, if the listener takes the speakers thoughts and recommendations into account and thus takes action along those lines, assuming the listener has the will power, networks and access to resources to do so. Or does participation equate to being one of the players on the field as opposed to the cheering squad on the sidelines or the audience in the bleachers? One of the major challenges of ‘participating’ is the limited access to resources the young generation faces today.   Another challenge is being clear about what ‘participating’ means so that we know when we have achieved it.

Despite of the infection enthusiasm and positive energy that filled the General Assembly Hall, the event failed to lay down a robust strategy for real engagement. Nonetheless, Mr. Ban and panel members inspired the audience with personal stories, life experiences and humor while conveying the important message that “the world belongs to you (youth).”

Kritika Seth

The UN Security Council: First and Lasting Impressions

8 Aug

The following is by Shannon Rogers, a cadet at West Point who has been in residence in our office to explore the UN and its various policy organs. Shannon accompanied GAPW to what we felt was an important debate organized by Argentina on “cooperation between the UN and regional and sub-regional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.” The presence of so many Foreign Ministers in the Council testified to the urgency of creating strong, flexible and mutually respectful relations between the Council and regional arrangements.   Shannon was asked to pay attention both to the content of the meeting and also her ‘sense’ of the room as someone who does not have access to Council deliberations but whose professional life is potentially impacted by Council decisions.

The UN Security Council: First and Lasting Impressions

The United Nations holds a certain prestige especially to those unfamiliar with its campus, members and politics. Even more so, the elite and powerful Security Council is held in such high esteem it sets in motion many expectations, not all of which disappoint. My first – and most likely only – experience at the Security Council was quite enlightening regarding the realities of its power and bureaucratic limitations. The Council room was large and impressive, with a large mural on the far wall and a large circular desk allowing the 15 members, many at the level of Foreign Minister – to engage each other in high-level discussions that have varying implications for the global population.

Off the Council floor was the seating for other diplomats, the press and non-governmental organizations, rising as a theater does, to allow spectators to watch the drama unfold that in part dictates our common future. Despite the formal attire, there was a very informal feel to the room as the diplomats mingled and sought to talk to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the presiding leader of the meeting President Kirchner of Argentina, delaying the 0930 start of the meeting.

The dialogue in itself was impressive for an outsider. The topic of discussion was “Cooperation between the United Nations and regional and sub-regional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the first to brief. It was easy to get lost in his clout as Secretary General and not notice his relative lack of enthusiasm for the topic, at least compared to his Question and Answer session with the World Youth Council the day before. The Secretary General was followed by high representatives of the regional organizations present and then opened up to statements by council members. The African Union represented by Ethiopia underlined the importance of the entire meeting by noting that “The UN needs a strong AU and the AU need a strong UN.” Each organization stressed the need for more accountability, transparency and cooperation for the resolution of challenges specific to their region. There was at least variety and some urgency during that part of the discussion. Once it was opened to the Council members however, the remarks became more monotonous.

It is often only upon reflection that disappointment sets in. In this case, it was so easy to be swept up by the grandness of the room and the titles of the people within it. This is what the United Nations relies on:  its ‘soft power’, its reputation to broker agreement in the international community. The room was full, and had I not received training in a military order characterized by lots of full birds and stars on uniforms, I would have been intimidated. I could easily see how others might be, but it is not a man in a pressed suit that I fear. These delegates socialized while other stakeholders waited for the event to begin; diplomats were on their phones during briefings; they were reviewing their own speeches while another was speaking. Inattention has a harsher consequence than simply being perceived as disrespectful. On the battlefield, a lack of situational awareness gets soldiers killed.

Government policy leaders may not always see the impacts of their conduct first hand, but the world relies on them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, including being on time, properly prepared and focused. As a future soldier, I consider myself to some extent a pawn of the decisions made by these people. These diplomats are the arbiters of my fate; they dictate where I move across the chessboard, ever so tactically, in order to fulfill the security goals that they establish. I have to be able to trust that these people with this incredible power are wise, and that they are committed to overcoming human weakness, pride and greed. And as a future military officer, I expect diplomats to behave with the same professionalism that I have to display, and that their countries would surely hope to be represented by. The frustrating lack of depth and attentiveness of the conversation fostered the disturbing realization that the UN is indeed a bureaucracy as much as it represents hope for the world.

Shannon Rogers

The UN’s Use of Mercenaries: Two Views

3 Aug

Below are two responses to an event organized by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, the first article was written by Shannon Rogers, a cadet at West Point Military Academy and current GAPW intern and the second by Dr. Robert Zuber of GAPW.  Both the views of Cadet Rogers and Dr. Zuber are their own.


Transparency, Discretion and Discipline in the Use of Security Forces

The UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries held its nineteenth meeting on July 31 focused on the “Use of private military and security companies by the United Nations.” The discussion of private military security companies (PMSCs) was very balanced, with panelists providing a lens into the practicality and benefits of their use, while also depicting the dangers of their misuse and the impact such misuse might have on the legitimacy of the United Nations. The lack of transparency of their use by member organizations and the United Nations itself was raised as a major issue during the discussion. Screening, accountability and haphazard risk mitigation were elements that needed to be improved.

Panelists stressed the necessity of notifying the UN and member states of the intention of inserting private security forces into UN operations in host countries. Complete transparency is necessary for clear decision making and general “good governance,” said Mirko Sossai of the University of Rome. The panel stressed the necessity for security companies to report not only to the state that hired them, but also to the state they are working in and to the UN itself. However, they did not address the need for tolerance for the discretion necessary to properly carry out responsibilities that might require coercive response to unknown threats. It is completely understandable that the UN might not want to divulge this criteria widely in order to protect their human and monetary investment in a mission. This need for both transparency and discretion is an obvious issue for security companies because the UN seeks to remove security threats from the equation. The panel needs to quickly address and define just how ‘transparent’ they want PMSCs to become in order to prevent them from ignoring this aspect of their obligation.

The panelists also discussed the versatility of PMSCs and how that complicates regulating them; their capabilities range anywhere from armed security, to logistical support, to risk assessment and security training. The panel agreed they’re practical and efficient when a force needs to assembled and deployed quickly. On the off hand, these companies often employ locals, which is problematic when very little to no screening is done to understand the history and motivation of these potentially dangerous individuals. There were varying opinions, however, on how well PMSCs abide by the ‘use of force’ protocol. While Steve Groves, a former Chief Security Coordinator himself, accounted for the fact that decisions on the ground can’t be judged by those in a padded chair, others continued to press for regulations with less ambiguity.The working group highlighted a pressing concern that with very little oversight and accountability, any missteps of misidentified forces can impact the credibility of the UN around the world. This is the unique and harmful reality of mercenaries.

Perceptions of security arrangements within the communities receiving UN assistance matter greatly. If an organized military or other government security arrangement is already in place in the area, and the local group is unable to distinguish between the legitimate military – which is constrained by the ethical standards of their nation – and armed security forces – who with little supervision often circumvent ethical standards – hostility in the region can be fostered that extends beyond the period of mercenary involvement. Uniforms, armed convoys, and essentially everything visible needs to be clear to the local population as to the identity of the organization hiring them and the member state responsible for it all. The nationality of security forces — hired and otherwise — is most important in order to place responsibility in an event that something goes wrong. The anonymity of security services and the lack of a clear chain of command allow for the continuation of behavior unacceptable to any member in the profession of arms.

Also, the lack of a common national or ideological standpoint between employer and employee inhibits development of a strong sense of loyalty to the mission as well as the sense of responsibility to complete it to the best of their ability. There is nothing other than previous experience – and without proper screening that’s not a guarantee – that allows for a group of mercenaries to function cohesively, a necessary factor for any mission to be carried out successively and with minimum use of force. Panelist Stuart Groves mentioned the harsh reality of the constrictions of screening employees in the business of armed security. He said that there is no mechanism capable for the UN to use that could possibly filter prospective mercenaries in the short amount of time that forces often need to be organized. He mentioned that the European Union does a full screening of all staff but it can take up to two years to complete, impractical for the immediacy of action that the organization requires. Participants spoke about the limited amount of UN security staff at hand, as well as the need to pull from local resources because of shortages. A simple solution – more ethical yet less fiscally convenient – is to keep a constant stream of people in training, create a standing force, one that is ready to deploy, engage and subdue security threats at a moment’s notice.

Mirko Sossai asked the disturbing question, “To what extent should lethal force be contracted?” The inability to answer this difficult question foreshadows the challenge the working group will face in pairing policy with reality. The use of open communication and supervision by member nations and their hired PMSCs would go a long way to address the fear and confusion of unknown occupation. These discussions lend hope to a future where UN staff can get the security they need and local communities can be assured of the professionalism of those providing it.


Shannon Rogers




Mall Cop:   The Limitations of Outsourced Security

The Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries ( held an important, timely and captivating event on Wednesday, July 31 at UN Headquarters.  The focus of the discussion was on the “use of private military and security companies by the United Nations,” especially in challenging security contexts, and primarily in situations where host governments cannot or will not provide adequate security for UN personnel carrying out their own vital development, conflict prevention or relief efforts.

The discussion represented a diversity of opinion on the legitimacy and value of such private security services. Some of the disparity in views was based on judgments regarding the UN’s capacity to properly screen and regulate companies and individuals tasked with providing supplemental security to UN staff in some of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.  As Lou Pingeot, a researcher with Global Policy Forum, noted during her excellent remarks, we lack a viable “chain of accountability” that can reassure those organizing protection (not to mention those needing protection) that the ‘reasonable risk’ willingly assumed by many UN staff in the field does not become unreasonable.

This issue of ‘due diligence’ on screening and related oversight took on several interesting overtones.   In the context of peacekeeping operations, it was noted that Troop Contributing Countries also contract out for private security, which can further isolate such security personnel from human rights obligations that the UN is bound to uphold.   Moreover, as noted by Richard Cottam from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, some of the people recruited for supplemental security services, especially in post-conflict settings, might actually be former human rights abusers.   It is quite reasonable that UN personnel who are unable to receive protection from UN sources would want to know as much as possible about the people who are being ‘hired’ to protect them.   Such information may indeed be hard to come by and might turn out to be unsettling in those situations where it is more readily available.

There was also disagreement related to the position that, in some cases, armed guards provided through private security companies actually create security risks to UN personnel rather than eliminate them.  Guards who are both highly visible and heavily armed, and who are authorized, albeit generally with restrictions, to respond to threats with force, could make targets of people and infrastructure that would probably not be targeted otherwise.   In addition, as we have learned through our disarmament work, armed personnel tend to attract their own kind with implications that are not particularly reassuring to UN personnel already serving in highly challenging field placements, nor to local populations in communities being served by those personnel.

The ‘reassuring’ references to ‘last resort’ engagements noted by a couple of the presenters were unconvincing to participants, as they rely on judgment calls – often made under stressful conditions and based on short-term security assessments — regarding the appropriate context for coercive response. But even more such engagements also presume the existence of alternative ‘resorts’ of sufficient skill and robustness in the form of less coercive methods of conflict prevention and resolution.  It is not clear that such response options exist, let alone have been exhausted. A similar dilemma arises in the context of the Responsibility to Protect norm, where ‘last resort’ responses to atrocity crimes authorized by the Security Council are actually closer to ‘sole resort’ measures given the lack of attention by many UN stakeholders early warning, conflict resolution, and other preventive capacities.   In the absence of these ‘resorts,’ coercion at the point of a gun becomes virtually a default response which is as likely to endanger (or extend the cycle of violence) as to protect.

The UN, at the end of the day, is most successful at building norms to guide conduct by Member States.   With regard to human rights obligations, there are clear laws regulating State conduct as well as treaty bodies that can scrutinize the most problematic, State-sponsored activities.   Our concern with respect to mercenaries is that such scrutiny has been difficult to institutionalize and can be undermined by situations where financial shortages prompt policy responses that endanger both the UN’s ability to protect it’s staff and the UN’s legitimacy as a guardian of human rights.  If the UN can too easily justify its own use of non-State security and military services, how can they credibly work to regulate the deployment of unofficial armed groups by States that seek, among other things, to subdue “troublesome” populations.  Whether we like it or not, and whether it is fiscally feasible or not, we have a high obligation when it comes to authorizing the use of security services.   As Mirko Sossai of the University of Rome noted, the “outsourcing’ of lethal force” is always problematic, but especially so in the case of the UN given its pivotal role in holding States accountable to their own human rights obligations.  For better or worse, the reputation of the UN itself as well as the precedents that are being established for State conduct are both on the line any time that UN officials authorize the ‘purchase’ of armed security.

One final thought relates to a question posed by Venezuela, wondering if the world really is more dangerous now?   The question is more significant than it might first appear.  Many psychologists and others have noted the high levels of generalized suspicion, anxiety and fear – some of which is certainly stoked by media and governments – found in our populations.   If the world is as scary a place as we sometimes believe, then there might be sufficient warrant to outsource more muscular security arrangements.  But if the world is actually not so scary, but is perhaps only made to seem so by a media system on steroids and governments sometimes seeking to plant seeds of doubt in populations, then maybe all those hired armed guards in front of UN convoys aren’t as helpful or necessary as we’ve been led to believe.

We greatly value the activities of this Working Group and hope that they can motivate more Member States to examine the full implications of employing security services, rethink the need to fund more of the UN’s own capacity to protect its own personnel, and reaffirm the responsibility to protect the integrity of the UN as it engages its critical, cross-cutting activities in some very challenging environments.


Dr. Robert Zuber