February 18, 2014

Contracting Insecurity: Private Military and Security Companies and the Future of the United Nations

Lou Pingeot

The UN’s use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) is not a technical issue – it is a deeply political one. Although the UN has taken some steps to improve the selection and oversight of these companies and to make its practices more transparent, these efforts have tended to focus merely on technical issues, such as the selection process and the definition of which services PMSCs can perform. There has been little reflection on the reasons behind the need for more security, the influence of PMSCs on UN security policies, or their potential impact on the perception of the organization by local populations.

The UN’s focus on oversight and regulation reflects the general approach to PMSCs. Both governments and civil society have often addressed the private military and security industry through the lens of regulation. Some have advocated for binding regulation at the national and inter¬national level while others have preferred to promote voluntary instruments. They have given less attention to these companies’ profit-base – such as the operation of private prisons – and their role in making democratic societies less averse to war by making it more palat¬able to the public. While regulatory efforts may bring welcome transparency and accountability to the private military and security industry, they also run the risk of legitimizing and normalizing it.

The issues raised by PMSCs cannot be dealt with through regulation alone. They demand an interrogation and debate of the power dynamics and interests behind the private military and security industry, the impact of the growing privatization of security, and the effect of PMSCs on the democratic control of the use of force. At the UN, this debate must address whether PMSCs threaten the mandate and principles of the organization, how they contribute to the militarization and securitization of UN missions, and whether they can negatively affect the organization’s image and legitimacy. Ultimately, the question behind the UN’s use of PMSCs is what the organization is today and what it might become.

In her previous study “Dangerous Partnership,” Lou Pingeot revealed the UN’s increasing reliance on PMSCs and the great secretiveness around this practice. The report was widely picked up in the media and created a stir within the organization. In her new study, “Contracting Insecurity,” Pingeot, independent researcher and policy adviser to Global Policy Forum, provides an update on recent contracting data and trends in UN security outsourcing. She examines how the UN has tackled the issues raised by its use of PMSCs – through more reporting and new guidelines – and the limitations of this approach. Pingeot finally addresses the shifting understanding of PMSCs as well as the recent public mobilization around them and identifies alternatives to PMSCs and potential paths for future mobilization.