UNITED NATIONS (AP) — An expert panel called Thursday for more transparency surrounding the deepening reliance of the United Nations on private security companies for services from armed guards to police training.
The Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, an independent panel mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council, held a series of meetings and debates this week as part of its ongoing investigation into a practice that is drawing increasing scrutiny. The five-member group plans to present a report next year.
The discussion within the United Nations echoes a wider debate over the role of high-priced security firms in conflicts worldwide.
The U.N. has hired some of the same companies whose contractors drew outrage for violent or insensitive behavior while working for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some academics and U.N. member countries worry that the United Nations is compromising its legitimacy by involving such firms in its peacekeeping and peace building operations.
"We should not and do not want to wait until an atrocity occurs before we have in place a conversation and system of determining accountability," said Working Group member Gabor Rona. "Because violations will occur."
While the U.N. has taken steps to clarify its policies, panel members said many issues remain unresolved. Among those is how to hold contractors accountable for abuses committed in the field and the establishment of an oversight mechanism to ensure compliance with international standards.
Complicating the situation, private companies are sometimes hired not by the United Nations but by member states participating in its missions, said Ase Gilje Ostensen, a Norwegian academic who last year published a report titled "The Political influence of Private Military and Security Companies on U.N. Peacekeeping." ''In fact, private military and security companies sometimes deliver their services within U.N. operations to little awareness or oversight of the U.N. at all."
Most recently, military contractor DynCorp International announced in April that it won a State Department contract for up to $48.6 million to help support a U.S. contingent to the peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
DynCorp International, based in Fall Church, Virginia, said it will recruit and finance officers to join the Haiti mission's police unit.
Dyncorp International drew criticism in 2005 when three of its guards assigned to the protective detail of Afghan President Hamid Karzai got drunk and caused a scene in the VIP lounge of the Kabul airport. The company fired the three guards.
U.N. officials say the reliance on private security firms is reflection of an increasingly dangerous world for United Nations workers. Many conflicts are no longer between government armed forces that respect U.N. personnel, but between insurgents who do not.
The United Nations is scrambling to bolster a 40-year-old mission in the Golan Heights after Syrian insurgents repeatedly kidnapped and attacked peacekeepers in the region disputed between Syria and Israel. Peacekeepers frequently come under attack in Africa, while gunmen have killed U.N.-backed polio vaccination workers in Pakistan.
"Twenty years ago, the protection of a blue U.N. flag was paramount and respected more or less by all," said Rick Cottam, who deals with security issues for the U.N. Staff Federation. "Unfortunately, we've seen over the years more and more direct, targeted attacks on U.N. staff."
In a speech last year, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Stephen Mathias called the increasing attacks "a disturbing trend" that "has led to an increased use of armed private security companies."
There is no overall figure for how much the United Nations is spending private security firms. Lou Pingeot, researcher for Global Policy Forum, a watchdog that follows the United Nations, said in a report last year that the U.N. spent $76 million for "security services" in 2010, a 73 percent increase from 2009. Pingeot, whose report cited U.N. procurement records, cautioned that the data is incomplete because it does not include some U.N. agencies.
In his speech, Mathias said a new policy adopted in 2012 establishes that such firms must only be engaged as a last resort and requires that they subscribe to an "International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers," created in 2010 through multilateral discussions.
Critics note that the international code is not a legally binding document. Faiza Patel, a member of the Working Group, also noted that most individual countries have not committed to a similar requirement when hiring private security firms to help in their participation in U.N. missions.
The Working Group, which is investigating the U.N. policy as part of its wider mission to monitor mercenaries and security contractors around the world, drafted a possible international convention on private military and security companies.