Global Policy Forum

Armed Humanitarianism


By Patrick Cullen

ISN Security Watch
March 5, 2008

Though there are some limited examples of humanitarian actors using private security companies (PSCs) for armed protection in the past, the Iraqi conflict has become - as it has in so many other areas relating to the expansion of private security - a watershed moment for the international humanitarian community. Indeed, the sheer violence of the post-2003 insurgency in Iraq has forced many humanitarian actors - NGOs and various governmental and intergovernmental organizations alike - to either abandon their efforts completely, or rely upon the services of private security firms. This is happening for a number of interrelated reasons.

The humanitarian-PSC nexus in Iraq
The growth of this nexus between humanitarian actors and PSCs needs to be contextualized with three overlapping trends that have reached a critical mass in Iraq. First and foremost, it is much more dangerous today than it was 20 years ago to be a humanitarian aid worker. According to the Humanitarian Policy Group, major acts of violence against humanitarian workers have nearly doubled (up 92 percent) in the period between 1997-2001 and 2002-2005. As the work of humanitarian NGOs and governmental aid agencies has been transformed from merely alleviating immediate physical suffering (from food or water shortages, for example) toward also actively pursuing various programs with a political content (such as poverty eradication and women's rights) these organizations are increasingly being targeted by groups hostile to this progressive humanitarian agenda.

This politicization and deliberate targeting of relief personnel reached its apotheosis in Iraq with the deadly 19 August 2003 attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad - an event that has been likened to the 11 September attacks in terms of its sheer shock value and impact on the humanitarian community. Second, this and similar attacks instigated a controversial reconsideration within the NGO world regarding the utility and morality of using armed private security services to help protect humanitarian NGO personnel and facilitate the safe completion of their programs. For the majority of NGOs that entered Iraq, the cost of moving from the traditional NGO security strategy of acceptance (focusing on the acceptance of the NGOs' presence by the local population as well as belligerents) to a security strategy of protection or deterrence (an approach involving clandestine behavior, hardened facilities and/or armed protection) was either ideologically unpalatable or financially untenable.

These twin considerations of the cost of private security as well as the ethical implications of using them have caused the majority of NGOs to leave Iraq completely or attempt to run their operations with a skeleton crew of Iraqis via "remote control," with international management relocated to Jordan or Kuwait. Joe Donahue, managing director of one NGO continuing to operate in Iraq, witnessed this pullout firsthand. "Iraq definitely created a new level of threat to the Humanitarian Community," Donahue told ISN Security Watch. " Early on there were many NGOs who didn't think they needed security and many of those organizations are now out of Iraq. NGOs need to be much more cautious than they've ever been because they're being targeted." Among the minority of NGOs that continued operating in Iraq, many were able to combine the ability to secure the necessary financial resources for hiring private security along with an organization-level normative willingness to use them. As a result, a number of NGOs relied and continue to rely upon armed private security to keep their programs running during and after the NGO exodus from Iraq between 2003 and 2004. The third salient trend in Iraq tying humanitarian actors to PSCs relates to the growing trend of government agencies such as USAID, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the US State Department, as well as international organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), to rely upon NGOs and private contractors to implement their various governmental programs. As the post-invasion insurgency began to target various humanitarian and contractor personnel tied to the Iraq reconstruction effort, new questions surfaced regarding the legal, political and ethical duty-of-care responsibilities these governmental agencies had toward their NGO partners.

The DfID, for example, diverted over £278 million (US$551 million) from its Iraq reconstruction budget to pay for increased security, and has used emergency funds to provide the NGOs it supports with the money necessary to hire PSC support. Indeed, without the in-house resources to provide NGOs with security directly, these governmental and intergovernmental organizations opted - and have in some cases made governmental funding contingent upon - their NGO partners taking additional funds to hire and utilize armed private security during their work in Iraq. At the same time, the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) has advised NGOs and other humanitarian actors to implement "fortress" security measures to make themselves and their facilities more secure.

Services provided
On the one hand, a number of PSCs have offered their services to NGOs interested in implementing the "fortress" security measures recommended by UNSECOORD. Since NGOs are typically unfamiliar with these protection and deterrence security precautions, the British PSCs Chiron and AKE have provided security advice to NGOs interested in hardening their Iraqi facilities by using blast walls, concertina wire and potentially armed guards. Offering advice and assistance with hardening humanitarian compounds, however, is not the only security service being provided by PSCs. Numerous NGOs from the humanitarian community rely upon armed private security to help protect the lives of their employees operating in the field. To this end, PSCs have provided logistics support for humanitarian convoys involving both low-profile and high-profile armored vehicle escorts - complete with a cadre of security guards armed with sidearms and automatic rifles - to protect NGO workers en route throughout Iraq. Other, smaller NGOs have retained the services of PSCs to provide their personnel with discrete - but armed - personal security details while they conduct their work.

The international humanitarian demining community - which typically includes ex-armed forces personnel who are less uncomfortable with the idea of armed security - has on balance been more likely to engage with private security firms than other NGOs. While not relying on support from PSCs, for years the Mine Action Group has directly hired armed Iraqi security guards to protect its personnel operating in northern Iraq. Other demining NGOs have relied on PSCs directly. This includes not only western or international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), but local nongovernmental organizations (LNGOs) as well. One Iraqi demining LNGO, the Iraq Mine and UXO Clearance Organization (IMCO), for example, has relied upon the services of a western PSC for both convoy security as well as an armed guard presence during its operations. With the PSC using armed guards to set up a secure perimeter, IMCO has been able to focus on the humanitarian task of clearing mines and other unexploded ordinance affecting local communities.

Looking to the future
The view from the private security industry is optimistic regarding future collaborative opportunities with humanitarian agencies. Chris Taylor, a former vice president of the PSC Blackwater - the most ubiquitous and heavily criticized private security firm in terms of media exposure - tells ISN Security Watch that "one of the greatest opportunities is between NGOs and PSCs. "NGOs have great cultural understanding and relationships and PSCs have an experienced, capable capacity to make a real difference in conflict zones. They need to get past their preconceived notions of each other and partner to truly impact and assuage human suffering." Indeed, with mounting negative media attention - not least of which focused on Blackwater itself - creating a culture of trust between the private security industry and humanitarian NGOs may seem like a Herculean task. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that today the majority of NGOs are vocal opponents of the use of private security by humanitarian actors, and those who do use these security services typically attempt to hide this fact from both the public as well as their peers.

This negative view of PSCs is so strong that it has even led some local managing directors of NGOs in Iraq to occasionally hide or downplay their use of armed private security services from their own NGO's head offices. Nevertheless, this difficult task of changing the hearts and minds of the humanitarian community is one that the Washington, DC-based PSC trade group International Peace Operations Association seems determined to take on. In a telephone interview with ISN Security Watch, the association's founder, Doug Brooks, argued that "we often point out that security is 90 percent of the problem but only 10 percent of the solution, which is to say no organization can attempt reconstruction or reconciliation until their personnel have a safe enough environment in which to operate."

In Iraq today, this is a logic that more and more members of the humanitarian community - NGOs and governmental agencies alike - have been forced to consider. Whether or not the broader humanitarian community will continue to engage with PSCs for armed security services after Iraq remains to be seen. However, as more governmental agency grants require NGOs to implement their own "security plan" in the course of their work - and as long as this work continues to take place in areas of low-intensity conflict - the possibility for a post-Iraq continuation of humanitarian actors' use of armed private security services remains strong.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis
More Information on Corporate Contracts
More Information on State Sovereignty and Private Security Companies
More Information on NGOs in the Field


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