Peacekeepers-for-hire? Not so fast, critics warn

Is the UN willing to emulate the U.S. model of engaging private defence and security firms in dealing with issues of war and peace? UN officials say no. But some analysts and observers hold that in the future, the privatisation of peacekeeping may be accepted as an international norm. Their main argument in support of privatisation stems from the notion that most governments are unwilling to risk their own soldiers’ lives for international peacekeeping operations. At a recent panel discussion here, Jean-Jacques Roche, the head of the Higher Institute for Arms and Defense at Pantheon-Assas Paris II University, cited the wide use of private firms for both military and civilian roles in Iraq as evidence of a consensus among U.S. officials and the larger public on privatisation.

“What is legal inside should naturally become legal outside,” he said, noting that the use of private security services in the United States is very common. Rocher thinks protecting civilians abroad could be better handled by private firms because mercenary casualties are more acceptable to the public than regular troops.

Not everyone shares his views. “This is a dangerous trend,” said Jim Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, an independent think tank that monitors UN policies and their implementation.

Paul said that instead of considering such options as privatisation of security, the world body should focus on measures to improve funding and training for peacekeepers. He suggested that the U.S. and other powers which do not send their soldiers on peace missions need to rethink their policies and do more to make UN operations effective. The UN conducts peacekeeping operations in some 17 countries around the world, with most of the troops drawn from the poorer countries of the South. Washington has declined to contribute troops to UN peacekeeping operations since 1993 when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and some of their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.

The U.S. has since increased its reliance on private security to manage its affairs in many hotspots around the world, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, the major firms involved in U.S. military operations abroad include BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Blackwater USA, and Northrop Grumman, to name a few.

BAE, which makes military vehicles, provides anthropologists to the U.S. Army to help monitor resistance in Afghanistan. Lockheed is involved in training soldiers in Africa. Blackwater has been in the headlines over several high-profile incidents, including one in 2004 when four of its employees were killed and their corpses publicly displayed in Fallujah, and in 2007 when Blackwater contractors shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. All these private companies secured contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush. But, considering the views of diplomats representing the countries of the global south, it’s unlikely that private firms would be able to get similar deals from the UN “We will not accept this kind of stuff,” one North African diplomat said. “We need peacekeepers, not mercenaries.”

Currently, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has over 100,000 personnel, making it the world’s second-largest military force after the U.S. Army. Its operations in Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe and Asia cost about 5 billion dollars a year, an amount which mostly comes from the Northern rich nations. However, the world body is having a hard time accomplishing its peacekeeping tasks because one of its major donors is not living up to its promises regarding financial contributions. Observers and officials note that many of the UN peace operations are suffering because Washington failed to pay past dues amounting to more than a billion dollars. They seem optimistic about the future, however, as the new U.S. administration has pledged to work closely with the world body, including support for its peace missions. “I think things are going to be better,” said a UN official who is to close Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and closely follows the organisation’s peace operations. Meanwhile, in reflecting on the issue of privatisation, a source close to the UN security apparatus said it would be better for the UN if it relied more on individuals rather than big companies to make its peace efforts more meaningful. “Private corporations can’t take deep interests in peacekeeping,” he said. “Their goal is profit-making. What they want to do is to provide the soldiers of fortune, not peace.” UN officials acknowledge that the debate on replacing “blue helmets” with private soldiers could change things. But many insist it is a distant possibility.

“The DPKO does not employ private sector, nor do we have any plans to do so,” DPKO spokesperson Nick Birnback said. “We don’t use private contractors. We believe that military assets should be provided by member states.” — IPS