Global Policy Forum

Firms Seek to Sell UN on Privatized Peacekeeping


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.

By Traci Hukill

National Journal
May 17, 2004

Last month, thinking that peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya, might finally yield an end to Sudan's 20-year civil war, Doug Brooks got on the telephone and started calling his contacts at private military companies. What would it cost, he wanted to know, to stage an effective peacekeeping operation in Sudan, a vast African country that is one-quarter the size of the United States?

The answer came back: for one year, taking advantage of the treeless terrain to use a combination of high-tech aerial surveillance equipment and a relatively low number (3,000) of U.N. blue-helmet troops, $30 million. Forty million dollars, if the firms handled the peacekeeping payroll.

This most likely represents significant savings. Although the United Nations has issued no cost estimate for a Sudan mission, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed spending $418 million on a 5,600-man mission to Burundi, a small Central African nation the size of Maryland.

"The practical reality is, the United Nations is probably going to try and do Sudan itself without using as much private support as we'd like to provide," Brooks says. But he is obliged to try. As president of the Arlington, Va.-based International Peace Operations Association, a consortium of 10 military firms available for hire, it's his job to drum up business. Lately, that means trying to persuade the United Nations to give privatized peacekeeping a chance.

The United Nations is facing a peacekeeping crisis. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations began emitting distress signals months ago about the number of blue berets and blue helmets it will be expected to muster this year -- up to 20,000 for missions in Ivory Coast, Haiti, and possibly Burundi and Sudan, and all at a time when troop-contributing countries are under pressure from Washington to send soldiers to Iraq. If the Burundi and Sudan missions become reality, the U.N. will have 45,000 peacekeepers deployed, the highest number since the mid-1990s.

For the United Nations, bringing private military firms into peacekeeping is anything but a trouble-free solution. The involvement of two CACI International employees in the Abu Ghraib prisoner- abuse scandal in Iraq is an exclamation point at the end of a long list of problems with private military firms: They undermine the principle that the state should have a monopoly on organized violence; they lure away, with high salaries, special forces in whom the military has invested heavily; they operate beyond the public's field of vision; and they're functionally accountable to no one. The U.N. would have no guarantee that the firms would stay in a situation that gets messy or runs over budget, and if a firm's employees misbehave, the U.N. would have little recourse.

Yet privatized peacekeeping has caught the interest of top U.N. officials in the past and still does, even though public endorsement of it is perilous. Annan has said that during the 1994 Rwanda crisis, when he was the U.N. undersecretary general for peacekeeping, he considered hiring a private firm; U.N. member nations were too spooked then by the memory of the slaughter in Somalia to send in their own troops. The now-defunct South African firm Executive Outcomes said it could have had troops on the ground in 14 days. In the end, Annan decided that "the world may not be ready to privatize peace."

Avoiding new genocides is frequently invoked as a reason to use privatized peacekeepers, who, for the right price, could be deployed quickly in a crisis. But mercenaries are talked about for less dire peacekeeping missions as well. Doug Brooks sees involving the better private firms -- those with proven records of good service and behavior -- in U.N. peacekeeping operations as an opportunity to do the right thing.

"The reality is, the West has pretty much abrogated its responsibility for supporting U.N. operations with boots on the ground in places they don't care about. So in Congo, Liberia, you're not going to see many Western troops getting involved, and that's a shame," he says. "If the biggest, richest, best-equipped militaries do not participate, it's really ridiculous to expect a mission to succeed."

David Wimhurst, a spokesman in the office of the U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, dismisses the privatization idea. "It's not going to go anywhere. Forget about it," he says. "So you get a gang of mercenaries in there, basically. Who do they report to? Who controls them? It's a nonstarter."

Wimhurst's vehement response is typical at the United Nations, says Peter Gantz, a peacekeeping associate at Refugees International, a private humanitarian group: There, people's aversion to putting soldiers of fortune among blue helmets gets in the way of an honest assessment of what private companies could offer.

"The thing that disappoints me is that the people who oppose the idea oppose it so categorically, it seems, particularly the United Nations, so they don't open themselves up to the middle ground," he says. "To me, what the Department of Peacekeeping Operations should be doing is looking at what companies are out there and what they can provide and having an honest debate within the United Nations about it. If you have the United States and the United Kingdom and France and these other major military powers utilizing private companies to support military operations, then the United Nations should be able to at least consider doing the same thing."

To some degree, it already is. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Los Angeles-based Pacific Architects & Engineers revamped the airfields and now manages air traffic control, a crucial part of operations in a country as vast as that one, where a paltry 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers cannot possibly be expected to be everywhere at once. PAE is providing fuel, vehicles, and rations for the new mission in Ivory Coast.

The United Nations regularly relies on International Charter Incorporated of Oregon for heavy airlifting jobs and to bring blue helmets into peacekeeping theaters. In its work with West African peacekeepers, ICI has proven its willingness to fly troops into combat hot spots; in the mid-1990s, after a crew was caught in Liberia and tortured, the company outfitted its helicopters with machine guns.

This is where things get complicated, says Gantz. "It's all well and good to say the company will not at some point be in a combat situation by providing logistical support. But if the provider of logistical support is to get in a helicopter and fly U.N. troops around, and fly over [refugee] camps, and there might be some armed people there, and they start shooting at the helicopter, is the company still in a noncombat situation? Probably not. These are hard issues someone has to work out."

Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution fellow and the author of Corporate Warriors, a detailed analysis of the rise of private military companies, says, "Logistics is not just innocuous tasks. It is things that are critical to the overall operation. The second thing is that on the modern battlefield, there's no fixed front line, so any part of the operation can come under threat. And any part of the operation may be called on to play a role in combat."

A more robust version of logistical support would use private firms as "force multipliers" to leverage the power of U.N. troops. This is the key to Brooks's Sudan proposal: Refurbish five airfields, plop U.N. troops down to guard them, and rely primarily on surveillance equipment with a satellite connection so that government officials and rebels can monitor the truce in virtual time. Do more with less.

One area in which the United Nations has consented to use private companies for personnel on the ground is in policing. Lacking a national police force, the United States taps DynCorp, PAE, and an Alexandria, Va., company called MPRI when it wants to contribute to a U.N. police force. Those companies in turn recruit and transport police to the mission.

DynCorp's presence in the Balkans became infamous three years ago, when a DynCorp employee in Bosnia reported that several of her fellow employees were running a child-prostitution ring. The accused were transferred out of Bosnia, but they never faced charges. The whistle-blower, meanwhile, was fired by the company (and was later awarded $173,000 in damages by a British court).

The incident goes to the heart of the accountability issue. Brooks maintains that market forces keep firms in line, because no one wants to hire a company with black marks on its behavior or performance record. This is a reasonable argument and may prove right in the long run, but in the short term, DynCorp does not appear to have suffered much from the Bosnia scandal. The company dropped a court appeal against the whistle-blower only after it was awarded a $50 million contract last year for work in Iraq.

In the meantime, Brooks is advocating for greater transparency among private firms. His association has a code of conduct for its members, and Brooks says that his firms would welcome impartial observers to monitor their employees' behavior.

A lot of issues remain to be worked out before the United Nations accepts private peacekeepers, Singer wrote last June in Policy Review. But whereas 10 years ago the notion would have been considered absurd, it is now a "real prospect."

"Obviously, such proposals hold great promise, which explains the enthusiasm for them," Singer wrote. "But before the international community leaps into the privatization revolution, it would do well also to consider its perils.... These challenges are certainly better resolved before peacekeeping is turned over to the private market."


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