UN criticized for growing use of private security firms

A non-profit organization that monitors the United Nations has published a report criticizing the UN's growing use of private military and security companies as "dangerous."
Jordanian United Nations soldiers drive in a UN armoured personnel carrier, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2011. The UN spent $76 million US on private security contracts in 2010, with $18.5 million of that for UN peacekeeping operations. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

A non-profit organization that monitors the United Nations published a report Tuesday criticizing the UN's growing use of private military and security companies.

The Global Policy Forum said the UN's increasing use of these companies is "dangerous," may increase rather than reduce threats and attacks on U.N. buildings and personnel, and suggests a system that is "unaccountable and out of control."

According to the report, incomplete UN data shows a steady rise in the number of security contracts from 2006-2007, with the value increasing from $44 million US in 2009 to $76 million in 2010, the latest data available.

The majority of contracts in 2010 — $30 million US worth — were for activities by the U.N. Development Program followed by $18.5 million for UN peacekeeping operations and $12.2 million for UN refugee activities, it said.

The report said the overall value of contracts is likely to be considerably higher because data from some UN bodies, like the UN children's agency UNICEF, is not included or incomplete.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the United Nations believes it is appropriate to use armed private security contractors if the organization ensures "due diligence" in its operations.

"UN contracting policies have improved and we need to continue to improve them," he said. "The distinct differences in the ways that private security contractors go about their work also must be borne in mind."

UN drafting new policy

Nesirky said the UN has been working on a system-wide policy for the use of armed private security companies and a draft policy was approved by security chiefs from all UN bodies at a meeting last month. It must still be approved by the UN system, he said.

The draft policy includes a process for assessing potential contractors and states that "such companies may only be used in circumstances where the provision of armed security by the host country, another member state, or United Nations resources are not possible or appropriate," Nesirky said.

It also "emphasizes the need for strict protocols concerning the use of force," outlines UN management and oversight responsibilities, and sets guidelines for UN personnel on when to use contractors, he said.

According to the report, "in the absence of guidelines and clear responsibility for security outsourcing, the UN has hired companies well-known for their misconduct, violence and financial irregularities — and hired them repeatedly."

Lou Pingeot, the report's author, told a news conference that while these companies have been criticized for their roles in Bosnia, the U.S. government's rendition program, Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia she knew of no abuses in their work for the UN.

Greater scrutiny urged

She urged greater scrutiny of their work on the ground and called on the 193 U.N. member states to demand greater transparency on the number of contractors, their work and their effectiveness.

The report said the UN insists most companies are used for unarmed security services, but it said contractors are increasingly being used for risk assessment, security training and logistical support.

This effectively allows the companies to define the UN's security strategy "and even its broader posture and reputation," the report said.

It also called for a UN reassessment of its partnership with military and security companies to assess whose interests the contractors serve and whether they help the UN promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights.