Private Military Contractors: a human rights dilemma

By Janie Whitlock

The use of Private Military Contractors (PMC) in war efforts around the world has increased, especially by the United States since 9/11. The US Department of Defense reported spending 388 billion dollars on military contracting companies in 2008 alone, and over 40% of the work of the Department of Defense, is now contracted out to these companies. One of such companies, Blackwater, drew attention through the criminal activity, human rights abuses and lack of accountability that has been prevalent within the industry at large. The debate entitled “Market Forces: Private Firms for Public Wars” focused on the extent to which these problems within the industry can be avoided with increased regulation.

This debate was part of a three-day symposium called “A World of War: Dynamics of Conflict in the 21st Century” – the 47th Annual International Affairs Symposium, held at Lewis and Clark College on April 6-8, 2009. The two speakers on this topic were: Erica Razook, the Policy Director of Economic Relations at Amnesty International USA, and Andy Bearpark, the Director of the British Association of Private Security Companies.

The changing face of war

Mr. Bearpark explains that the use of these companies is essential to the changing face of war. The end of the Cold War has led to governments reducing their military forces, while at the same time, increasing the responsibilities required of them. Essentially, Bearpark holds that the responsibilities delegated to these private companies are tasks that military personnel cannot afford to spend their time on, with reduced resources and increased responsibility.

The U.S contractors are hired mostly by the Department of Defense and other government agencies to assist military operations with a variety of work such as maintaining facilities, cooking food for troops, doing laundry for troops, construction, security for military convoys, security for military officials, and intelligence in the form of interrogation and translation. However, Bearpark acknowledges the fact that the potential exists for corruption, and a gross misuse of power with the increased use of these companies, and that increased regulation is required to ensure that personnel in these companies only engage in defensive, rather than offensive actions. He argues the case of Blackwater is not the rule of how these companies behave, but an isolated incident that can be stopped with better regulation.

International Affairs Symposium 2009

Ms. Razook supports that these companies require better regulation, but feels that the extent of regulation required to stop the human rights abuses and the potential damage that the industry could cause, would radically change the purpose of the industry, maybe to the extent that the industry would cease to be profitable. She points out the case of Blackwater is not an isolated incident and most other companies have had reports of similar behavior.

Human rights abuses

Razook explains the dangers of the use of these companies for military operations fall into two categories: human rights abuses and criminal behavior committed by personnel within the industry, and the problems inherent to the use of private companies in public wars. The human rights abuses and criminal activity associated with the industry are: unprovoked attacks against officials and civilians, labor trafficking, sex trafficking, arms trafficking, violence against women, beatings, murders, torture, detainee abuse and political coercion. The issues inherent to the use of private companies in war similarly come in a variety: labor rights violations, corruption, fraud, lack of transparency, and the undermining of political authority.

Labor rights violations

Because a central concern of all companies is profit maximization, the primary objective is to lower costs and increase demand. A primary way in which this is done is through cutting the cost of labor. Many of the employees in these companies are from lower income nations, because they can be paid less money, and often work under less strict labor conditions than employees from the U.S.

In addition, these workers are often given more dangerous jobs to do. For instance, workers from lower income countries have higher casualty and injury rates than any of the other employees within the industry. Razook further points out that there have been several instances in which employees have been lured to work for these companies under false pretenses. Often, these employees are told that they will be engaging in completely different work than they will actually do, and then, once in the country, their passports are taken, and they are unable to leave their jobs.

Undermining political autonomy

When discussing the dangers of using private companies in war, Razook brought up the issue that the industry undermines political autonomy by making military presence readily available in many different countries at once. Because this industry essentially works as a government hired military force, the government no longer requires public support for military occupation, but only the support of hired forces. In a similar vein, political parties can hire these groups to enforce their power, rather than relying on public support for legitimation.

The fundamental issue is the fact that the actions of these companies are not monitored in the public eye, giving them the potential to engage in corrupt, criminal and unsavory behaviors without being held accountable. One thing is certain, these companies are being used with increased frequency, and they remain poorly monitored. This has resulted in several human rights abuses that have gone under the radar of the international community, and we will not know the extent of the impact that the use of these companies has had on political sovereignty, crime, violence and other human rights abuses until the damage has been done.

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