Big Issue in the North magazine article by Mark Metcalf
The Foreign Office has denied claims it is failing to properly regulate private military security companies after it announced it was moving towards a system of self- regulation for the industry.
Tens of thousands of private contractors provide military and security services to clients including states, corporations, NGOs and individuals.
Most private military security companies (PMSCs) operate in conflict zones, undertaking functions such as combat, military support and training that were formerly the domain of the armed forces. The total expenditure on PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010 was around $146 billion – a fifth of total war spending for operations there.
Concerns have risen about human rights abuses by PMSCs, which critics say are little more than mercenaries.
British company Sandline International breached a United Nations embargo on arms for Africa in the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s. Its founder Tim Spicer now heads one of the UK’s largest PMSCs, Aegis.
In November 2005 an internet video showed UK personnel who were not part of the armed forces shooting at civilian cars from their vehicle on the road to Baghdad Airport.
The most notorious PMSC is the US group Academi, which changed its name from Blackwater after losing its licence to operate in Iraq when its personnel were also accused of shooting at civilians. The US government had insisted the Iraqi government grant contractors immunity from prosecution.
Many human rights organisations believe such cases are only the tip of the iceberg.
In his book The Circuit, former SAS soldier Bob Shepherd, who spent 14 years working for a PMSC, writes: “Knowledgeable security advisers don’t wave weapons at crowds – or worse, shoot into them... There are tens of thousands of security professionals working in flashpoints in the War on Terror who lack the proper skills, equipment and/or training to perform their tasks effectively. It is a despicable state of affairs.”
In 2009 a government consultation paper concluded self-regulation was the most practical solution for a UK industry estimated to be worth over £1 billion annually – even though it had previously floated the idea of legally binding regulation. Last year a UN group in Geneva also began to consider developing a binding framework for the industry, which would include standards on how to protect human rights.
Now Mark Simmons, the Foreign Office minister, has said the UK is moving forward with a pilot scheme to approve a self-regulation model whereby a commercial certification body will audit companies.
The anti-poverty charity War on Want is critical of the new proposal and claims Foreign Office staff previously said self- regulation was inadequate.
War on Want’s executive director John Hilary said: “We are surprised after our iscussions with the Foreign Office and MPs of all parties as we were led to believe there was appetite for stronger action to curb abuses.
“If you read the memoirs of private military security contractors they are extraordinary as they demonstrate they have no rules of engagement, which is unlike the military where there are very strict codes. But because these things are happening miles away from anybody then there is little chance of the press investigating.
“We want no PMSCs in conflict zones and combat situations. Otherwise the government is moving towards the privatisation of war.
“There should be a strict licensing regime like those for arms export, and proper regulation of every contract. We can’t allow Sandline situations whereby those involved with abuses simply reinvent themselves as another company.”
According to Hilary such controls would introduce democratic oversight of PMSCs.
Shepherd said: “Regulating those incorporated in Britain is absolutely achievable and we can set the standard by limiting firms to servicing only commercial contracts, getting them to perform due diligence on all employees and ensuring only properly trained qualified personnel are assigned to specific tasks.”
The Foreign Office has defended its latest moves. Its spokesperson said: “Those private security companies we have contracts with provide security to government staff in places such as Iraq, thus allowing armed forces to concentrate resources on other priorities.
“We question whether the draft convention that came out of Geneva would be effective in practice, especially as there is already legislation to prosecute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, as well as torture, genocide and crimes against humanity. Special legislation of the industry would not work because the international nature of the industry would mean that any breaches of legislation would be almost impossible to enforce.
“We dispute also that this is self-regulation. We are promoting a voluntary system of certification to professional standards, which are audited by professional, independent auditors.
“We want a system that is practicable and which applies on land and at sea in complex environments, and that raises standards globally.”