Private military firms need greater scrutiny
In October 2007 two unarmed Iraqi women were shot and killed by private military contractors working for Unity Resources Group (URG), the same firm that now guards the Australian embassy in Baghdad.
Just over a year earlier, contractors from the same company shot and killed a 72 year old Australian academic for failing to stop at a checkpoint.
The Defence Department recently told a Senate committee it was aware of the incidents when it awarded URG the embassy contract, but based on third party reports from “American, Iraqi and British authorities” decided the shootings were justified.
Alarmingly though, it appears the shootings in question may not be isolated incidents. A former Washington Post journalist Steve Fainaru recently accused URG of involvement in 38 additional shootings in Iraq between 2005 and 2007.
The use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) has become an integral part of modern military operations. As a recent US Senate Inquiry confirmed, however, the industry is rife with bribery, corruption and repeated accusations of human rights abuses.
In the light of these claims there is an urgent need for Australia to re-evaluate the way in which it awards government contracts to PMSCs and to take a more active role in the formation of a practical and internationally applicable instrument for the monitoring and regulation of contractors themselves.
Contractors currently operate in a legal and ethical no-man’s land where they are not subject to any meaningful system of accountability, nor afforded any of the protections of the Geneva Convention.
Furthermore, because they tend to be deployed in war zones, local criminal justice systems are either dysfunctional or absent and where industry regulations do exist they are seldom enforced.
Consequently there is a widely held view of contractors as little more than 21st century mercenaries, loyal to nothing and answerable to no one.
These comparisons however, are simplistic and obscure the real problem. Modern PMSCs are slick corporate entities, well financed, well resourced and capable of offering a far broader range of services than the much maligned mercenaries of the past could ever have hoped.
In fact it is precisely because of their increased capacity that PMSCs require much closer supervision than currently exists.
The extent to which private contractors have encroached upon military responsibilities is nothing short of staggering. The massive US base at Camp Doha in Kuwait which served as the launching pad for the invasion of Iraq, was not only built by a PMSC but also operated and guarded by one. During the invasion, contractors maintained US weapons systems such as B-2 stealth bombers and Apache helicopters and even helped operate combat systems like the Army’s Patriot Missile batteries and the Navy’s Aegis missile defence system.
Similarly, European militaries lacking the means to transport and support their forces overseas now rely on PMSCs to do so.
Perhaps of even greater concern is that a number of larger PMSCs boast combat forces superior to many small nations’ armies. In 1993 the government of Sierra Leone paid the firm Executive Outcomes $35 million to beat back advancing Revolutionary United Front rebels.
The Executive Outcomes force, consisting of several hundred infantry supported by combat helicopters, armoured vehicles and light artillery, managed the job in a matter of weeks, something the Sierra Leone military had been unable to do and subsequent UN deployments were unable to repeat.
In 2005 the UN General Assembly authorised the creation of a working group on the use of mercenaries with a particular emphasis on the activities of PMSCs. However, attempts to crack down on the industry by expanding existing prohibitions on mercenaries are destined to fail primarily because the legally accepted definition of “mercenary” remains unworkable.
It requires, for example, the individual in question to have been “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain”, a definition open to such a broad interpretation it prompted one scholar to suggest that anyone who couldn’t beat it in court ought to be shot, along with his lawyer!
The push to define contractors as mercenaries has little support from western powers, the majority of whom view the use of PMSCs as a convenient way of boosting troop numbers without incurring the associated political costs, and of ducking the sort of parliamentary and public scrutiny that a normal deployment would generate.
Putting it bluntly, PMSCs often act as a shield, protecting governments from the sometimes unpalatable consequences of their decisions. If this situation is allowed to continue in an era when PMSCs are expanding in size, capability and ambition, the consequences for global stability could be dire.
More recent attempts at regulating the private military industry have focused on a combination of international guidelines coupled with stricter domestic regulation.
The challenge for governments is that PMSCs are transnational in nature, frequently operating outside the states in which they are incorporated.
Where governments are inclined to act, there is a risk that tougher domestic regulation will precipitate a race to the bottom as PMSCs shift their operations to countries with weaker mechanisms of accountability, exacerbating the original problem rather than solving it.
A meaningful international solution has proved elusive although some progress has been made. In September 2008, 17 countries, including Australia, endorsed the Montreux Document; a non-binding set of guidelines, obligations and codes of practice related to the operation of PMSCs.
While its non-binding status makes it something of a paper tiger, at the very least it represents a realpolitik advance on the abolitionist, mercenary-fixated approach of the past.
Although Australia has so far escaped relatively unscathed from the worst of the controversies involving private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the case of URG suggest we are not immune.
At the very least there ought to be a significant overhaul of the way the Australian Government vets the firms to which it awards contracts and then monitors the performance of the contractors involved. It is simply not good enough to allow civilian shootings to be dealt with via internal or third party investigations.
There is also a legitimate case for greater transparency in the way contracts are awarded and overseen.
Australians have a right to expect that any firm hired in their name is reputable and that its employees will be subject to acceptable levels of scrutiny.
With the private sector playing an ever increasing role in modern combat and peacekeeping operations we have a compelling reason to ensure the integrity of those we hire to help protect our national interests.
The alternative is to allow unaccountable gunslingers from around the world to tarnish our nation’s reputation.
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