Global Policy Forum

War and/or Peace: How the Private Military and Security Industry is Trying to Rebrand Itself as a Humanitarian Actor


By Global Policy Forum

February 29, 2012

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down, Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are looking to diversify and expand into new markets. They have identified NGOs and international organizations like the UN as a promising new area for their services. In recent years, both the UN and NGOs have increasingly used these companies for logistics and security services. Not only do PMSCs assist these traditional humanitarian organizations in the delivery of aid, they are even ready to entirely replace them, and perform work for a profit that used to be the domain of non-profit groups. For these companies, relief and development work can provide lucrative opportunities.

In a concerted public relations campaign, these companies are repositioning themselves as “humanitarian actors.” This rebranding process is part of a larger effort that includes the creation of “codes of conduct” and “ethical guidelines” for the industry, all aimed at improving these companies' public image.

The private military and security industry is keen to adopt humanitarian imagery and language to win over a skeptical public. The lobby group for PMSCs in the US is called “the International Stability Operations Association” (ISOA), and used to be named the “International Peace Operations Association.” Such feel-good description obscures the fact that many of the ISOA’s members produce military equipment and provide military services that include the operation of weapons systems, intelligence collection and analysis, special operations and interrogation of detainees. Regardless of this background, the ISOA asserts that its members provide “humanitarian aid” and “disaster relief.” This discourse signals a dangerous trend, where the military-security industry is in effect merging with a nascent humanitarian industry.

Take the example of International Relief and Development (IRD), one of the ISOA’s members. The company defines its mission goal in the following terms: “to reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable groups and provide tools and resources needed to increase their self-sufficiency.” IRD is a major implementer of US foreign assistance, and claims that it has “provided over $1.75 billion in humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations around the world” since it was created in 1998. Despite these philanthropic claims, IRD is part of a group that also comprises BAE Systems and L-3 MPRI, two big providers of military equipment and services to the US and UK militaries.

Military and “humanitarian” activities are sometimes combined within the same firm. DynCorp International, a notorious military contractor, has also invested in the development field. DynCorp is one of the US military’s biggest military contractors and is well-known for its controversial role in many conflict areas. In Colombia, DynCorp is officially in charge of the US’ drug eradication program but has allegedly engaged in direct combat with rebel groups. DynCorp was also involved in a sex trafficking and rape scandal in Bosnia in the late 90s, a case that was recently brought to the screen in the movie “The Whistleblower.” In spite of this checkered record, in early 2010 DynCorp entered the aid market by acquiring Casals & Associates, a company which had supported US development programs for two decades. On its website, DynCorp describes the three pillars of its new activities as “justice and governance”, “stabilization and reconstruction” and “humanitarian assistance.” These words could be taken from a description of the UN’s mission. This is not an accident.

PMSCs’ claims to humanitarian ideals not only ring hollow, they also represent a dangerous trend. These companies’ growing interest in the humanitarian sector is adding to an already complicated situation on the ground. In many conflict zones, soldiers and relief workers are difficult to tell apart. In Afghanistan, NATO’s controversial “winning hearts and minds” campaign has made humanitarian action an appendix of military strategy. Some NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have denounced this “militarization of humanitarian aid,” arguing that it puts aid workers at risk. As the lines between military aims and humanitarian work blur, employees of aid organizations have increasingly become the target of attacks by insurgents who see them as tools of Western militaries. The problem is particularly acute in Afghanistan, but also exists in other countries, including Somalia and Iraq.

The growing confusion between military action and humanitarian work is worsened when aid is delivered by for-profit organizations, especially if these companies also happen to offer military services to states involved in the conflict. Can a company operate the US’ drone program in Pakistan in the morning and distribute food in Afghanistan in the evening? The takeover of the humanitarian realm by PMSCs seriously threatens two key humanitarian principles, the concepts of independence and impartiality. By blurring the lines between military, political and humanitarian aims, these companies’ interest in the aid sector seriously threatens the reputation and security of traditional nonprofit aid groups.

The use of PMSCs by the UN and NGOs is also a worrying trend. By hiring PMSCs to support their activities, these organizations legitimize companies’ claims to humanitarianism and jeopardize their own legitimacy. Serious scrutiny is needed to hold these organizations to account and ensure that humanitarian aid does not become a for-profit activity used to further political and military goals.

A version of this article with links to resources is available on our blog.


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