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Draft UN Treaty Targets Security Firms in War Zones

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - A United Nations Working Group that monitors the activities of mercenaries worldwide is now trying to rein in the widespread human rights abuses by private military and security companies (PMSCs), which are being increasingly deployed in war zones and peacekeeping operations.

A draft International Convention on the Regulation, Surveillance and Monitoring of PMSCs, which is to be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next September, has already been discussed by more than 150 academics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) worldwide.

The proposed draft, which spells out legislative oversight and judicial measures to punish private security firms for any unlawful acts, has also been submitted to member states for their comments.

If the treaty is eventually approved by the U.N. General Assembly, perhaps next year, all 192 member states will be called upon to abide by it.

Amada Benavides, a member of the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, told IPS a new convention was necessitated also because the current definition of "mercenaries" could not be applied to PMSCs and their employees.

A "mercenary" is categorised as an individual gun for hire, while PMSCs are collective enterprises established as legal entities.

After three years of negotiations and discussions, the Working Group has finalised a draft related exclusively to PMSCs, she added.

Asked about the extent of U.N. involvement with PMSCs, Benavides said she does not have the exact numbers, but confirmed that there are number of U.N. agencies which use these private security firms.

"There is an industry lobby promoting their services," she said.

In the 1990s, there were more than 100 new private military companies offering their services to governments, multinational companies, humanitarian agencies, NGOs and to the United Nations and its multi-billion-dollar peacekeeping operations.

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Defence released in April, there are now more private contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan alone: 107,292 civilian contractors compared with 78,000 soldiers.

The duties of these PMSCs include protecting personnel and military bases, providing staff at checkpoints, training police forces, advising on security and military strategy, providing and maintaining weapons and ammunition, interrogating suspects and prisoners, providing intelligence services and even participating in combat operations, said Benavides.

The U.N. Common Supply Database (UNCSD) reportedly consists of several PMSCs, including Sandline International, IDG Security, and Greystone of the Blackwater Group.

Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, told IPS: "I find it deeply disturbing that the U.N. should be hiring private security firms in what is a creeping privatisation of the security functions of states and international organisations."

He said that Blackwater, and Sandline International before that, both private security firms, "have exposed the neo- mercenary character and accountability shortcomings in these arrangements, especially in the context of the Geneva Conventions" governing the rules of war, particularly in the treatment of prisoners of war (POWS) and civilians.

"The linkages of the security firms hired should be transparent to the member states of the U.N. at all times," he added.

Meanwhile, there has been a claim by 250 plaintiffs under the alien tort act accusing some of these PMSCs of rape and threats of rape; sexual assaults; electric shocks and beatings; prolonged hanging from limbs; forced nudity of POWs; hooding; isolated detention and religious intolerance.

These abuses have been prevalent mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan where military forces from the United States and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are in command.

Following a conference on Haiti in March, which was organised by a trade association representing many PMSCs, 18 NGOs wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging that funds pledged by the United States and other members of the international community "should be directed towards rebuilding Haiti, not to international private security contractors".

The NGOs included the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the American Friends Service Committee, TransAfrica Forum, Foreign Policy in Focus, Grassroots International and the American Jewish World Service.

The estimated value of the PMSC industry rose from 33 billion dollars in 1990 to about 100 billion dollars in 2006.

That figure is expected to increase to over 200 billion dollars in 2010, according to Benavides.

The PMSCs currently operating in war zones include ArmorGroup International, Blackwater Security Consulting, Dyncorp International, EOD Technology Inc., KBR, Kulak Construction Co., Prime Projects International, PWC Logistics, Global Risks Solutions, Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the Shaw Group and Sallyport Global Services.

Some of these companies have been accused of advising the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on torture and body- guarding techniques, and also trained police forces in torture techniques in at least one Latin American country.

The killings of some 17 civilians in Nisoor Square in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in September 2007 have been attributed to one of the security contractors hired by the United States.

Additionally, some of these contractors have also been accused of several irregularities, including poor working conditions, excessive working hours, ill-treatment, and deprival of medical services to employees, particularly those from developing nations such as Nepal, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Speaking at a recent seminar on 'Accountability for Private Security Contractors: the Role of the U.N.', Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist, said so far no one has been prosecuted for crimes committed by PMSCs.

"Now they are hiring private contractors to keep an eye on security contractors," said Scahill, author of "Blackwater: the Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army", pointing out the irony of the situation.

Phillip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions, is quoted as saying that the existence of a zone of de facto impunity for killings by private contractors operating in Iraq and elsewhere has been tolerated for far too long.

"Government officials, with whom I met, acknowledged this lack of accountability, and it now seems to be recognised that this vacuum is neither legally or ethically defensible - nor politically sustainable," he added.

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