Global Policy Forum

PMSCs & the UN

The UN has been closely following mercenarism since the wars of decolonization in Africa. In 1989, the General Assembly passed resolution 44/34, the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. The convention only entered into force in 2001. To this point UN efforts to regulate the private security industry have been largely inadequate, mainly due to the fact that the nations most likely to use PMSCs, including the US, have not ratified the Convention.

Although the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries has been extremely critical of private security contractors, the UN is increasingly turning to PMSCs in its missions abroad. Private contractors have not been used in combat roles, but UN reliance on these firms is growing as its personnel become increasingly targeted in zones of conflict. In countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, the UN is weary of relying on local police forces, and therefore resorts to private contractors to protect its personnel and facilities. Legitimate concerns have been raised that the use of PMSCs to provide protection for UN staff may create conditions where personnel are more vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, this trend has grown over recent years and is a cause for concern. This trend could eventually challenge the perceived neutrality of UN field operations around the globe.

The industry itself is Lobbying for a bigger role in UN peacekeeping operations. Doug Brooks, the President of the ISOA (International Stability Operations Association), claims that using PMSCs for humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping would be, “faster, cheaper, and better.” Advocates argue that private security could solve the current peacekeeping crisis by providing easily available, well-trained and well-equipped personnel. These proposals ignore the risk associated with the use of private firms for peacekeeping, including the hijacking of the UN mission and loss of public faith in UN institutions.

UN Efforts to Regulate PMSCs



Private Firm Flouts UN Embargo in Somalia (February 26, 2012)

The PMSC Saracen International is training a private army in Somalia, disregarding a UN arms embargo of that area. Saracen’s operation in Somalia is headed by a senior manager from the defunct Executive Outcomes. The operation is shrouded in secrecy, and its funding has been linked to Blackwater founder, Erik Dean Prince, as well as a former CIA officer. Saracen was contracted by the semi-autonomous Puntland State of Somalia and has now created the largest army in Somalia apart from UN peacekeeping troops. While Saracen claims to fight piracy, it has been accused of using force to pave the way for oil drilling in Puntland against the local population’s wishes. In spite of this record, the UN contracted Saracen Uganda, an affiliate of Saracen International between August 2010 and July 2011. (IOL News)


UN Seeks Controls on Private Armies (July 12, 2011)

The UN Working Group on Mercenaries has urged the international community to regulate private military security contractors (PMSCs).  A draft resolution has already been submitted to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. However, countries that heavily use PMSCs (predominately in the West) are reticent to pass a legally binding resolution. PMSCs have perpetrated armed and sexual violence with impunity. Thus, the lack of accountability mechanisms between PMSCs and governments are disconcerting and urgent action is necessary to ensure that PMSCs are adequately regulated. (IPS)

Recommendations for Overseeing Government Contractors (July 7, 2011)

Journalist Pratap Chaterjee gave testimony at a meeting of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries on July 7, 2011. In his testimony, Chatterjee provides examples of abuses committed by Private Military Security Companies (PMSCs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, stating that such examples do not constitute the exception. He also underlines that “men with guns” are not solely responsible for these abuses. Contractors hired for translation and interrogation are often unqualified and ill-trained in human rights standards. Many people are imprisoned, in large part because of poor translation. Chaterjee suggests a number of recommendations that he feels the UN Working Group on Mercenaries should adopt to try and provide “best practice” guides and to “name and shame” PMSCs that violate international law. (UN Working Group on Mercenaries)


UN on the Offensive Against Iraq Mercenaries (July 13, 2007)

The UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination visited Chile to investigate private Chilean security companies. These companies, which recruit former soldiers and send them to Iraq as mercenaries, have been charged with human right abuses, illegal association, possession of explosives and unauthorized use of army weaponry. Chile has not yet signed the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, approved by the UN General Assembly in 1989, but it has stated that it will sign and ratify the treaty by the end of 2007. (IPS)

UN Mission Probes Private Security Groups (February 7, 2007)

This Inter Press Service article details a mission to Peru conducted by a UN working group to investigate security firms that recruit mercenaries and violate human rights. The author argues that large corporations increasingly hire current or former police officers and military personnel to intimidate activists attempting to protect the environment or the rights of local populations from the actions of corporations. (IPS)

Use of PMSCs by the UN

GPF Perspectives

Open Democracy, an independent digital commons website championing human rights, has published a thought-provoking interview with Global Policy Forum Policy Adviser, Lou Pingeot, on private military and security companies. Private military and security companies (PMSCs) have become a relevant topic in international relations and in academic literature during the last decades: the case of Executive Outcomes in the 90s, the well-known actions of Blackwater in Iraq, and G4S controversial practices are good examples of this. The controversial collaboration of these companies with the United Nations has rarely been an open discussion, neither in the public sphere nor in academia. However, in recent years, several studies have attempted to illuminate this relationship, including the work of Lou Pingeot, whose interview with David Torres on the topic can be read below.

Contracting Insecurity – Private military and security companies and the future of the United Nations (February 2014)

Global Policy Forum and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—New York Office publish a new report on recent developments and practices of the security outsourcing of the UN. GPF's Lou Pingeot discusses the increasing use of private military and security companies (PMSCs), the shifting understanding of their role and activities, and how this influences the perception of the UN by other actors. The report discusses the UN’s attempt to increase transparency and accountability in their selection processes of PMSCs. Finally, Pingeot calls on the UN, member states, and civil society to adopt a more ambitious and radical approach to PMSCs.

Should the UN Use PMSCs? Pro/Against (September 2012)

In the summer of 2012, the German journal welt-sichten asked GPF to contribute an editorial as part of a pro/against feature on the use of PMSCs by the UN. Siddha Hover and Doug Brooks from the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) wrote the "pro" piece, in which they argue that PMSCs provide irreplaceable and cost-effective services to the organization. In the "against" piece, GPF's Lou Pingeot stresses that, given the track record of the private military and security industry, the UN should seriously consider the costs, governance implications and policy issues posed by PMSCs before rushing into the private option.

Dangerous Partnership: Private Military and Security Companies and the UN (June 2012)

GPF’s investigative report examines how the UN has dramatically increased its use of these companies in recent years, hiring them for a wide array of “security services” and giving them considerable influence over its security policies. An executive summary of the report is also available here. For more information on the report’s reception, including responses from PMSCs and the UN, click here.

War and/or Peace: How the Private Military and Security Industry is Trying to Rebrand Itself as a Humanitarian Actor (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. (Global Policy Forum)



The Use of Private Security Providers and Services in Humanitarian Operations (October 2008)

This report by the Humanitarian Policy Group looks at the use of Private Security Providers (PSPs) by humanitarian actors ranging from NGOs to international organizations such as the UN. As humanitarian workers are becoming targets for insurgents, rebel groups and criminal networks, they are increasingly relying on the private sector to protect their personnel and facilities. But this new practice has not been thought through, and organizations lack guidelines to hire, vet and monitor PSPs, exposing them to serious liability and reputational problems.


Commercial Security in Humanitarian and Post-Conflict Settings: An Exploratory Study (March 2006)

This report by International Peace Academy explores how humanitarian actors have increasingly been relying on private security providers in dangerous environments. The author, James Cockayne, presents the different types of services the UN and NGOs have been using, and highlights the pitfalls of this practice. He also offers recommendations on how to better select and monitor these companies.


Humanitarian Action and Private Security Companies: Opening the Debate (2002)

This report by International Alert highlights the challenges faced by humanitarian actors in insecure environments and questions their recourse to private security providers for protection. The report provides several example of UN and NGO use of PMSCs. The authors underline that private security may not make humanitarian actors safer at the end of the day, and that there has been no serious reflection on this practice.



GPF Podcast: Private Security Contractors and the UN (May 19, 2010)

This discussion focused on the role of private security contractors (PSCs) in contemporary politics, warfare and particularly within the United Nations system. The panel consisted of: James Cockayne (Senior Fellow and New York Director of the Center on Global Counter-Terrorism Cooperation), Scott Horton (New York attorney and expert in military and international law) and Jeremy Scahill (Investigative journalist and Puffin writing fellow for the Nation Institute). Drawing on the expertise of our three speakers, the discussion addressed crucial questions like: does the UN use PSCs and should we strive to restrict or regulate PSCs?

UN embraces private military contractors (January 17, 2010)

In recent years, the UN has become increasingly reliant on Private Security Companies (PSCs) to protect its personnel and facilities in unstable crisis and conflict zones. As UN workers have become the targets of mounting attacks in Afghanistan, the UN has decided to hire the company IDG Security to provide Nepalese guards for UN compounds and guesthouses in the country. The use of this type of services has proven controversial within the organization, with some worrying that it might affect the credibility and legitimacy of UN missions abroad.

Peacekeeping, Inc?

Reports | Articles


2003 | 2000


Peacekeeping, Inc. (June, 2003)

The UN often uses PMSCs to protect their diplomats and humanitarian actors. It has also considered outsourcing peacekeeping to PMSCs when no state is willing to send troops. But according to Peter W. Singer, “the profit motive clouds the fog of war.” Profit maximalization encourages PMSCs to hide failures, overcharge, and prolong conflicts. PMSCs have the option to break contracts when the job becomes too difficult or non-profitable without fear of military or international law. Hiring PMSCs to stop conflict in a weak state does not built the legitimacy of the state’s public authority. The underlying problems will remain, conflicts will reignite, and PMSCs will continue to profit. (Brookings)


The Privatization of Peacekeeping: Prospects and Realities (2000)

This UNIDIR article explores the idea of using PMSCs for UN peacekeeping, and it examines how the UN has come to consider PMSCs in the first place. In international conflicts, powerful governments are reluctant to volunteer their own national troops to multilateral peacekeeping missions unless their own key interests are at stake. PMSCs, on the other hand, are able to act quickly without political agenda. But PMSCs are often too small to deal with serious conflicts, and the UN International Convention condemns the use of mercenaries. While the UN needs to address a number of challenges if they are to respond effectively to crises, outsourcing peacekeeping to PMSCs is not the solution.  (UNIDIR)



The PMSC Perils of Peacekeeping (February 15, 2012)

The “market efficiency” argument for the use of PMSC in peacekeeping refers to PMSCs alleged willingness to serve UN mandates and their readiness to respond. The authors argue, however, that in order for the UN to use PMSCs, much more UN directed training to improve coherence and effectiveness would be needed. But are the resources and efforts required for creating a profit-driven army worth the outcome? (Huffington Post)


Outsourcing Peacekeeping (February 29, 2009)

After the genocide in Rwanda, then Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan considered hiring DSL, a private military and security company (PMSC), to separate Hutu perpetrators from refugees in camps in Zaire (Congo). Ultimately, he decided not to, arguing that the world may not be ready to privatize peace. While the world may not be ready to completely privatize peace, the world is ready to subcontract peace. Military experts argue that the UN charter (under Chapter 7, Article 29) allows the UN to hire “accountable” and “cost-efficient” PMSCs to establish an agile UN Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) that would carry out UN Security Council resolutions. While a PMSC backed RRF may strengthen UN international policing, its legitimacy as the world’s moral agent for international peacekeeping would surely be questioned. (Cato Institute)                  


Private Firms Eye Darfur (October 1, 2006)

Private military companies have proliferated following the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This article highlights how the industry is mounting a campaign calling for private security firms to join United Nations peacekeepers in humanitarian interventions. (The Washington Times)


UN Rejects Private Peacekeepers (August 27, 2004)

Even though the Department of Peacekeeping Operations faces a shortage of troops, the UN is skeptical about privatizing peacekeeping forces. Some critics' concerns include "[jeopardizing] norms of neutrality among aid groups and... further multiplication of armed forces on the ground." (Inter Press News)

Firms Seek to Sell UN on Privatized Peacekeeping (May 17, 2004)

This article, written as the UN was preparing to deploy a mission in Sudan, explores the private security industry's claim that it could do a better job at peacekeeping than the UN currently is, and for a lower price tag. Advocates of privatized peacekeeping argue that idealistic moral principles get in the way of an honest assessment of what private companies could offer. However, critics point that the notion of privatized peacekeeping misses the point entirely, as peacekeeping is not about bringing "boots on the ground" but rather establishing a credible political presence. PMSCs expert Peter Singer warns against narrowly focusing the debate on peacekeeping, arguing that logistical privatization is just as important. (National Journal)


The Private Sector's Role in Peacekeeping and Peace Enforcement (November 18, 2003)

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. (Refugees International)

Help for Beleaguered Peacekeepers (June 2, 2003)

The author of this article points out that UN peacekeeping is beleaguered for lack of funds and resources. The article suggests that Private Military Security Companies (PMSCs) offer the most comprehensive package of services to assist UN peacekeeping, and could provide a “model for improved peace operations in the future.” Such an assessment fails to take into account the problems associated with PMSCs. PMSCs have been known to have poor labor standards for their workers and inadequate training in the laws of war or human rights standards, for example. This is particularly problematic in light of the fact that PMSCs have little accountability towards the countries they operate in and so can often act with impunity. Further, PMSCs are motivated by profit rather than peace and security. PMSCs are being increasingly used by the UN in peacekeeping missions. UN bodies should carefully consider the use of PMSCs and regulate PMSCs when used in peacekeeping missions. (Washington Post)


New Role for Mercenaries (August 3, 2001)

Most rich governments are "unwilling to commit troops yet unwilling to pronounce the M-word [mercenaries]" for peacekeeping. But most poor countries do not have a choice – either mercenary-protection or no protection at all. (LA Times )

Privatizing Protection (August/September 2001)

According to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, "some people contribute the blood and some contribute the money." But the Secretary General admits that the option of using private military companies "cannot be relinquished" when States offer neither. (World Today RIAA)


Should We Privatize the Peacekeeping? (May 12, 2000)

As more countries express reluctance to contribute peacekeeping troops, a new alternative might be to hire private military companies, such as the South Africa-based Executive Outcomes (EO), to undertake peacekeeping tasks. (Washington Post)

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