The Private Security Sector and Human Rights: The Puzzle of Regulation

Peace & security

The last fifty years have seen a jaw-dropping increase in the outsourcing of security services to private military and security companies (PMSCs). This now not-so-new trend has been marred by numerous instances of human rights abuses. With shortcomings in regulation rapidly emerging to the fore, both states, at the national level, and the international community more generally, at the international level, have taken considerable steps to remedy to some of the existing loopholes. However, limitations remain, and more stringent measures are needed to mitigate the negative human rights impacts of this fast-growing industry.

PMSCs are commercial entities that provide a wide array of security services, from logistics and intelligence, to training, defence and military support. Some are multinational corporations, with thousands of boots on the ground and in the office, while others are small localised enterprises. Their services are sought by a varied clientele, which includes states, international organizations, and private companies.

As with any type of business activity, the provision of private (military) security services can have negative effects on local communities, clients and employees alike. This is especially a risk whenever these companies are hired to carry out operations in complex environments, where governance is weak, and the rule of law is compromised. Human rights abuses by PMSCs have been recorded time and time again. The recent US presidential pardon of former Blackwater employees reminds us of the painful events of the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, where fourteen Iraqi civilians lost their lives at the hands of private contractors. Another infamous instance concerns the firm DynCorp, whose personnel, employed by the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, were involved in the sex trafficking of women from 1995 to 2002. Unfortunately, these are just but two examples of a long and regrettable list.

To prevent history from repeating itself, a framework of transnational governance was developed for the private security industry, which, only until fifteen years ago, was less regulated than cheese. Finalised in 2008, the Montreux Document defines the international legal obligations of governments with respect to PMSCs. Additionally, it contains a series of best practices to help states comply with international humanitarian and human rights law during armed conflict. Parallel to this, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) and its Association (ICoCA) were developed in 2013, with the aim of improving respect for human rights in the industry through a certification process, monitoring and institutional oversight. It includes guidance on issues related to the use of force, human trafficking, slavery and forced labour, and sexual exploitation and abuse, amongst others. Though these international standards represent a significant expansion of governance over the activities of PMSCs, adherence to them remains voluntary and non-binding.

Discrepancies in regulation are also reflected at the national level, as many countries have a fragmented system for overseeing the private security sector, when they have one at all. A recent study of 78 states shows that only a few have legislative or policy measures in place, and that these contain very few human rights safeguards and guidance on issues such as licensing, registration, and vetting of personnel. In Kenya, for example, despite two industry associations, a large number of providers has no knowledge of them and of the overall framework of regulation. In Guatemala, 99% of private security providers were reportedly operating illegally in 2014.

The glaring cracks in state regulations perhaps suggest that, while limited in effectiveness, voluntary international standards might be the way forward. However, as egregious human rights abuses are still being committed by PMSCs all around the world, in contexts as diverse as extraction sites and immigration centres, significant ground remains to be covered. The private security industry’s global reach makes it particularly important to reinforce the balance between government and international regulatory actions, and to strengthen existing frameworks with further considerations on issues such as gender, class and race. These are necessary steps towards bringing this secretive yet ubiquitous industry in line with human rights standards.