UNITED NATIONS - A booming private security industry - triggered mostly by terrorist threats, domestic insurgencies and drug wars - deploys some 20 million armed personnel worldwide: twice the number of police officers, according to the annual 2011 Small Arms Survey released here.
Outside of war zones in Asia and Africa, the Latin American region has the highest ratio of arms per employee: about 10 times higher than in Western Europe.
Keith Krause, director of the Small Arms Survey Programme, says in prisons, at airports, along borders, and on the street, security provision is increasingly in the hands of private actors.
"The key question to which we don’t know the answer is whether these evolving arrangements are enhancing or impairing security," he adds.
In some countries, the survey points out, the 20 million figure represents a doubling or even a tripling of the number of private security workers over the past 10-20 years.
Government outsourcing of many security functions appears to be driving the boom, among other factors.
Still, despite the rapid growth of the sector, private security personnel hold far fewer firearms than do state security forces, according to the survey.
A review of data for 70 countries reveals they hold no more than four million firearms, compared to some 26 million held by law enforcement and 200 million held by armed forces.
The Survey also includes case studies examining the dynamics of both public and private security provision in Cote d'Ivoire, Haiti and Madagascar.
The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project funded by multiple governments, is the 11th annual global analysis of small arms issues.
Published by Cambridge University Press, and commissioned by the Small Arms Survey Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the study says regulation and accountability mechanisms have not kept up with the growth of the private security industry.
Meanwhile, a United Nations Working Group has been trying to rein in the widespread human rights abuses by these private military and security companies (PMSCs).
A draft International Convention on the Regulation, Surveillance and Monitoring of PMSCs 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.
The PMSCs currently operating in war zones include ArmorGroup International, 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.
Asked about the proposed convention, Nicolas Florquin, one of the authors of the chapter on private security companies in the Small Arms Survey, told IPS there are several ongoing processes to improve regulation of private security companies.
One is the intergovernmental working group appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to discuss options to regulate the industry. He said one option on the table is a convention.
Although experts have produced a draft, he pointed out, it is unclear how many states will support it, as it is a very controversial topic in a rather politiciSed forum, as a background check on the U.N. Human Rights Council will illustrate.
For instance, he said, the 1989 U.N. Convention on Mercenaries has only 32 states parties (those signing and ratifying), and mainly from the coalition of non-aligned countries.
Another process, he said, is the Montreux Document, basically a 'summary' of states' obligations with respect to PMSCs under international law, along with examples of good practices.
Some 36 states 'support' the process, including major 'contracting' states like the United States and UK, and also 'affected' states such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is not binding, but the standards it summarises are taken from other legally binding documents.
Additionally, there is an offshoot of the Montreux process, the International Code of Conduct for PMSCs, which basically enables PMSCs themselves to commit to many of the standards outlined in the Montreux Document.
Some 150 PMSCs have signed it, but mechanisms for oversight, monitoring, and accreditation are still under discussion, he added.
Asked whether an international convention to regulate the industry is feasible, Florquin told IPS: "The question of feasibility depends greatly on whether states involved in the Montreux process will back or not such a convention project."
"Obviously, they are more keen on the Montreux process, but we'll have to wait for more meeting of the government working group to see the positions of everyone," he noted.