Global Policy Forum

The Private Sector's Role in Peacekeeping

Britain and France stepped in to revive faltering UN peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and DR Congo. This article points out the dangers of private sector peacekeeping involvement, but argues that the UN should consider using private contractors for logistical support.

By Peter H. Gantz

Refugees International
November 18, 2003

What would the world do if another Rwanda happened? If conflict breaks out in a failed state and no nation with a first-class military is willing to lead and/or provide troops to a United Nations peace operation or coalition of the willing, the conflict might again lead to genocide. In Rwanda, a small UN peacekeeping mission was powerless to do more than save a small percentage of those killed, despite the pleas from its Canadian commander. This sorry episode haunts the UN and humanitarian organizations to this day. Yet, if you ask the question "What would the world do if the scenario repeated itself," no one has an answer.

Refugees International has been writing and speaking out for many years about the weaknesses of the current UN peace operations system. These weaknesses are the result of a system of voluntary contributions of troops to missions. The UN is forced to take what it can get, and too often what it gets cannot get the job done. Most peace operations in Africa, for instance, rely on troops from developing nations. These troops are frequently ill-trained, poorly equipped, and often prove to be incapable of stopping routine violence, much less dealing with the well-armed thugs that are the so-called "spoilers" of the peace. Liberia is the latest example of a leading developed nation (in this case the United States) refusing to get involved in a peace operation. While UN operations in Sierra Leone and the Congo were rescued by the British and the French, respectively, ad hoc interventions of this type do not constitute a reliable international system for conducting peace operations.

As policymakers confront this dilemma, some individuals have proposed a controversial solution: using private contractors in peace operations. If nations with first class militaries refuse to put their troops in harm's way in remote locations, and if the UN is saddled with troops from developing nations that are not up the task, then perhaps the UN should hire the private sector to save the day. This idea has appeal because it promises a rapid response to protect victims of systematic, large-scale violence.

Proponents suggest the private sector might play a constructive role in two ways. First, the organization in charge of a peacekeeping operation could hire a private company to buttress or augment capacity that otherwise would be provided by troops from contributing nations. For instance, various firms have the capacity to provide logistical support, such as troop and equipment transport, aerial surveillance operations, communications gear, and technology for intelligence gathering, which would substantially upgrade the capacity and overall effectiveness of troops from developing countries. Or, a company might be hired to provide training services to the militaries of developing countries, enhancing their capacity to provide effective troops to UN operations.

The second way the private sector could play a role in peace operations is more far-reaching. The UN, or possibly another interested third party, would hire a private military company (PMC) to recruit and deploy troops for an entire peace operation. The PMC would hire soldiers, deploy them to a conflict zone, defeat any spoilers to the peace process, and then presumably hand over the operation to a follow-on force of the more traditional sort, provided perhaps by the UN. Alternatively, a PMC could provide a rapid reaction combat force that would deal with spoilers that regular peacekeepers either could not or would not (for domestic political reasons) be able to deal with.

As tempting as this second option might appear -- and to this day many Sierra Leoneans recall the 1990s intervention force organized by a private company, Executive Outcomes, with fondness -- privatization of combat capacity is not a panacea. Accountability is the primary concern. No international regulatory scheme exists to bring the operations of private companies under the authority of international law. At present, either the laws of the nation where the PMC is based or those where the PMC operates must apply. Yet most peace operations take place in failed states, where the absence of the rule of law is a crucial problem, making legal oversight from this source unlikely. As for the home country of the PMC, there is already ample evidence pointing to the difficulty states have monitoring the actions of transnational corporations, whether they provide military services or other services and products. Further, with the profit motive being primary, what is to prevent a private firm from precipitously withdrawing from an operation should it prove to be too complex or dangerous?

Destructive and illegal behavior by company employees is also a risk, just as it has been for troops involved in UN peacekeeping operations. In Bosnia, a private company's employees were found to be involved in the sexual exploitation of women and children. Is the potential future loss of contracts enough of an incentive for a firm to police its own employees?

In a failed state, the tasks confronting any peace operation are numerous. The restoration of the rule of law goes hand in hand with the need to establish the legitimacy of the state, including ensuring that the control of organized violence rests only with the state. In this context, a private sector role in a peace operation could well be counterproductive. The varied tasks performed by peacekeepers require a set of skills fostered by a culture of peace building, something a private company may not be able to provide.

Therefore, Refugees International recommends that:

- The U.S. and other governments support the implementation of the Brahimi Report's recommendations on how to improve UN peace operations. If the UN had greater capacity to conduct effective peace operations, private companies would not be needed.

- The U.S. and other governments explore and support the establishment of a standing constabulary capacity at the UN to respond to post-conflict situations that lack policing capacity.

- The UN, with the full support of the U.S. and other leading countries, establish an international regulatory scheme covering the operations of private military contractors. Whether private companies are ever used for combat in a peace operation or not, they are active globally, and should therefore be regulated.

- The UN consider using private contractors for logistical support, given appropriate systems of oversight and accountability. The U.S. military and many other countries already rely on private contractors for support operations. The UN could greatly enhance the effectiveness of troops from developing countries, perhaps using companies to better prepare troops for peacekeeping, or to provide transportation and communication capacities that are often lacking. Non-combat roles for private companies may prove an acceptable compromise between the need to enhance peace operations capacity, and the need to keep military capacity in the hands of the state.

*Peter H. Gantz is Peacekeeping Associate with Refugees International, and is Coordinator of the Partnership for Effective Peace Operations.


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