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Multilateral Military Interventions: The Use of Private Security Contractors by International Organizations

Multilateral Military Interventions: The Use of Private Security Contractors by International Organizations

In the spring of 2022, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Elke Krahmann to discuss her work on the use of private security contractors by international organizations as part of multilateral interventions. This work was funded by the ESRC. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.  

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about how you ended up working on this project, and what the project has involved? 

Professor Elke Krahmann: When I first became interested in the privatization of security, I examined the privatization of security in states – the emergent practice of countries hiring companies to provide military and security services in international interventions. There was Blackwater, for example, which generated a lot of publicity in the Iraq War. A lot has been written about this, especially in the UK and America, and I added a German case study to the mix – which was interesting because Germany created public-private joint ventures for these services. When I finished the book, I began to hear about international organizations such as the United Nations using private military and security companies. There was anecdotal evidence, but no one really knew anything specific about it. We heard of American companies supplying UN peacekeeping missions with support material, for instance Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE). A colleague from Copenhagen and I decided we needed more research on this – empirical evidence as to what was happening. 

I am still finalizing the book, but essentially, what we ended up doing was case study research, examining the UN use of military and security companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, NATO’s involvement in security contracting in Afghanistan – which is the biggest case study, and an EU case study on the Central African Republic. The EU’s use of contractors is not very large, so that one is a small case study. However, I still went to Brussels to conduct interviews to understand whether they are planning on expanding their contracts.  

What are some of the main findings which have begun to emerge from this work?  

We found that the scale and type of use of private military and security companies by these three international organizations was not comparable in any way. The services they bought, how the contracts were designed, and the connections with the firms were all very different. So, it is hard to make cross-cutting generalizations about the use of private contractors by international organizations and their impact on military interventions.

I also learned that it is a lot easier to get civil servants interested in this than politicians. Politicians are not keen on discussing this issue because “mercenaries” are controversial, and they want to steer clear of that. However, officials talk to one another on a regular basis about how they can improve the collaboration with these firms and eliminate potential problems that could pop up in international missions. So, they are the group who I am most interested in reaching with the findings of my research. I have found that the UN is very aware of any problems and it was the first international organization to set up internal regulations on how to hire and vet these companies, and to explore what these companies should be allowed to do. Clear standards matter because these companies are not regulated internationally. There are Western companies which want to improve the regulation of the sector, but so far these regulations are self-enforced and not very reliable. The best way to control these companies is through the international organizations or states which hire them. The standards these clients set are included in the contract, and the UN’s standards are very clear and binding. We have shared some our research with the UN, and they have improved their standards since. The UN was initially only concerned about regulations for armed security contractors, and we encouraged them to extend their standards to other contractors with potential impacts on missions. So, that was a big success.   

The UN also does not subcontract – they go to firms directly and then determine the terms of the contract in a way which helps control who is employed, which is good. What is problematic is that they often hire locally – something we also found to be the case with other international organizations. And that’s a big problem, because if you carry out a mission in a country that is at war or has a failed government, you cannot rely on the local government to control, legislate, or regulate these companies. Local companies often work in a grey area, where they are free to do what they want unless the international organization that hired them exerts pressure and sets standards. That is beginning to happen. For instance, after an incident in Congo, the UN started carrying out training for security contractors on human rights standards. This is something that other international organizations can learn from.  

The NATO operation in Afghanistan was much more problematic. NATO did not, in most instances, contract directly. They hired supply firms which then hired local security contractors to protect supply convoys. Along the transport route from Kabul to Kandahar, where military supplies like water, equipment, and fuel were transported, the Taliban and local warlords often tried to attack the convoys. Because the security companies were controlled by the local warlords and clans in that region you needed to use a different security company along each stretch of road. NATO might have known what went on, but they had no interest in putting a stop to this. NATO had no control over the warlords setting up private security companies which served their personal and political interests. When NATO went into Afghanistan, there were no security companies in the country – NATO created this market. Now there were these semi-legal security entities which the Afghan government  tried to control; but couldn’t because of corruption. Sometimes the companies started fighting each other because they were linked to different factions within the government. The problems that this industry has created can be traced back to NATO’s practice of subcontracting. 

Finally, in the EU mission there were no security contractors, but there were military supply contractors who bought from big suppliers in the local markets. Local women were previously the backbone of the local economy – selling goods like food and water, but these women ended up sidelined through these contracting processes. Which goes to show that contracting can have implications for not just the security of the country where you intervene, but also for more day-to-day aspects of life there. It all depends on how you design your contracts.  

What would be your key message for practitioners working on policymaking in this area? 

For the public servants doing this work, my main message would be to contract military and security services directly, don’t leave it to others. And be aware the implications of how you contract extend beyond security implications. It isn’t just about “mercenary” firms killing people, it’s also about the changes you create in local markets which might have implications for how people survive on a daily basis. Look beyond the security and regulation issues to see the bigger picture. As part of that bigger picture, also think about how your mission is presented visually – the local population will have a different response if you are using barbed wire and high fences to protect yourself. They’ll think you are there to keep them out, not to help. So, the key thing here is that you need to think broadly – beyond legalistic terms, to think about the context you’re in. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your other ongoing work? 

I am interested in how the norms around privatization have changed, as well as in broader questions surrounding norms in peace and conflict. These was this strong norm against the use of mercenaries and private security companies – and then in the 1990s, that norm suddenly disappeared. How that happened – the erosion of the idea that governments should have the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence – interests me. I am also looking at how local norms contribute to peace, and how we can promote the spread of “peace norms”. If you promote norms linked to Western democracy such as electoral participation and equality,  for example, you are supposed to get democratic peace. But there is hardly any research which examines whether these norms are indeed contributing to peace, or whether it’s something else that makes Western democracies peaceful – like being wealthy.  So, I am interested in local norms that may contribute to peace.