Private Security Companies and Humanitarian Organizations

Adele Harmer

Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute
Harmer conducted a two year study, examining the use of private
security companies (PSCs) by aid agencies. This sector in recent
years has faced increased security concerns and violence against
its aid workers.

Based on this study, the panelist identified the following trends:
• The use of private military companies is on the rise.
• In the past 5 years, a significant number of humanitarian
actors have contracted commercial security entities.
• Private security companies are used more often in postconflict
and conflict situations, as opposed to areas
recovering from natural disasters.
• Most organizations are using unarmed services as guards
to provide physical security of premises, and employ
international private security forces for risk management
and training.
• Armed protection remains an exception. 22% of agencies
reported hiring armed protection services. However, the vast
majority of agencies surveyed hire unarmed local security
• It is significant that armed security has been hired by
virtually all the relevant humanitarian aid agencies.
• The use of armed services is dictated by the local security

The panelist found from her survey that aid workers are currently operating in a complete policy vacuum in terms of hiring private security companies. She notes that there is a universal lack of vetting policy and guidelines. Within the UN, the policies are ambiguous. The panelist has also found that headquarters are “entirely unaware” of the actions undertaken in the field. This extends to unaccounted budgeting and the lack of clear cost-effective metrics.

The panelist concluded by noting that this is a frustrating topic because this is a very sensitive issue for all the organizations involved. She noted that security is an interdependent topic, and the actions of one organization will affect the interests of others in the field. The sector would benefit from greater communication and sharing the development of common criteria for selecting between different services and providers.

Benjamin Perrin
University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law
The central focus of Perrin’s presentation was the legal ramifications for aid agencies when hiring private security companies. More specifically, whether or not a decision to hire such services would suspend the aid agency’s protected status under international humanitarian law.

The panelist discussed the legal dimensions of contracting private security companies. First, do humanitarian personnel lose their protected status by using private security companies? Second, do they lose their access to conflict regions by retaining such services?

Perrin is of the position that all employees of a private security company in an armed conflict are protected under international humanitarian law. This remains the case so long as they are not hired by the belligerents in the conflict, or take direct part in hostilities. On a case-by-case basis, this panelist believes that the protected status is dependent on the activities engaged by the contractors. He stated that where NGOs hire private military contractors to deal exclusively with criminality and banditry, any response with armed forces should not entail an automatic loss of protected status. Conversely, any armed action undertaken by such contractors without provocation will result in the loss of protected status.

In conclusion, Perrin believes that aid agencies will not automatically lose their protected status for hiring private military contractors. The option to hire such individuals is seen by NGOs as being the only viable option in light of the alternatives such as withdrawing or suspending their activities. Finally, Perrin concurred that there is an unwillingness to discuss the use of private military contractors generally, which poses serious ramifications for the adoption of best practices.

Andrew Bearpark
British Association of Private Security Companies
The third panelist provided a viewpoint from the security industry’s perspective. He notes that there is no longer a debate as to whether or not NGOs should use private security contractors – the reality is they do; rather, Bearpark believes the focus should be how NGOs use such services.

He stated that the industry should be self-regulated in addition
to being subject to regulation under national legislations where
appropriate. While controls can be established both on an international and local level, Bearpark noted that given the transnational nature of the industry national legislation is often ineffective. The panelist cited South Africa’s problematic attempt in using domestic law to regulate private security companies. Instead the panelist offers the Montreux principles as a starting point for developing practical policies for the industry.

Bearpark advised that NGOs and private military companies would gain from discussing policy and best practices concerns. The industry is willing to discuss the perception of private military companies generally, and to review whether or not its role in guarding facilities like diamond mines in Africa may be beneficial to the continent overall. Additionally, Bearpark suggested that NGOs should develop their capacity to select and negotiate with private security companies, which can increase effectiveness while decreasing costs.

Jamie Williamson
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Williamson began by addressing comments made by the other panelists. He echoed Perrin’s observation that generally armed individuals working alongside aid workers are deemed to be civilians, until such time they take part in direct acts of hostility. Williamson also supported the utility of Montreux document in PSC regulation given that 17 states have signed on, and that both NGOs and private military contractors participated in its creation. It was this panelist’s belief that there is no vacuum of law as such.

As a legal adviser for the ICRC, Williamson stated that the use of private security remains exceptional. Generally, the ICRC does not use private security, and prefers dialogue between the parties. He sees the use of private military contracts only viable in instances where there is a paralysis of humanitarian action, or where inaction will lead to civilian deaths. Williamson supports the use of local security rather than international forces where possible, to minimize the risk of being targeted.

Williamson concluded by looking at what steps can be taken to
further develop guidelines and procedures in selecting private
security companies. One suggestion included having more
effective sanctions, thus making the industry accountable for
their actions.

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