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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