Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Skip all menus (access key: 2) Skip first menu (access key: 1)
Français Contact Us Help Search Canada Site
DFAIT Home Media Room Embassies and Consulates About Us
Skip left menu (access key: 3)


A Private Security Panacea? A Response to Mean Times on Securing the Humanitarian Space


Christopher Spearin
The University of British Columbia

Prepared for the Second Annual Graduate Student Seminar
April 30 - May 5, 2000

Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a truism to state that humanitarian NGOs/IGOs in the field face new and difficult challenges in securing the humanitarian space. In the weak state environment, gone is the assumption that host governments are willing or able to provide security for the populace, let alone ensure that humanitarian operations are able to proceed relatively unmolested. Given the obvious importance of this issue, it is the subject of both policymaking and intellectual activity. One such combined endeavour is the 1999 report, Mean Times: Humanitarian Action in Complex Emergencies - Stark Choices, Cruel Dilemmas, issued jointly by CARE Canada and the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at the University of Toronto. In their report, the authors propose as a solution that humanitarian organizations should consider relying on the growing private security industry.

The focus of this paper is to expand upon and critically evaluate the private security option through analysis of the current evolutionary state of commercial security and a consideration of the dilemmas this poses for humanitarianism both now and in the future. Defining first what it means to secure the humanitarian space, the paper then makes two arguments. One, interaction between private security companies (PSCs) and humanitarian organizations is nothing new. Two, current capabilities, business strategies, and perceptions of the private security industry coupled with the lack of an effective regulatory framework for non-state security simultaneously raise unique complications to securing the humanitarian space.

Securing the Humanitarian Space

In 1995, then-Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali commented that securing the humanitarian space was "one of the most significant challenges facing the humanitarian community".(1) A basic definition for "humanitarian space" seems straightforward; "a consensual space for humanitarian actors to do their work".(2) However, the challenge for humanitarians is twofold. The first challenge is that securing the humanitarian space is a dynamic and multifaceted process made increasingly complex by the intra-state and violent context in which humanitarians now do much of their work. In revealing this dynamism, Larry Minear and Thomas G. Weiss suggest that the appropriate way to view this spatial metaphor is not as a walled room, but instead as an accordion.(3) For them, the expansion and contraction takes place along three main interrelated lines: geographical, meaning that humanitarian activity is restrained by facts of physical geography and the limited means of humanitarian actors to over come them; political, concerning the perceptions of local actors towards humanitarian activities, regardless of whether they are following the humanitarian ethic's characteristics of neutrality, impartiality, and humanity and; security, referring to violence or the threat of violence between combatants, often also directed at noncombatants, that prevents humanitarians from reaching those suffering. It is clear that securing the humanitarian space is not one way; it is determined by the capabilities and activities of each actor and their interaction.

It is similarly clear for humanitarians that tradeoffs must be made in their strategies and that in following the humanitarian ethic, they may actually end up limiting the quality and quantity of their assistance and even placing themselves at risk. For instance, they may have to turn a blind eye to banditry or the ways in which locals distribute humanitarian assistance, thus limiting the benefit of humanitarianism and perhaps even contributing to ongoing conflict. Conversely, taking steps to combat these measures can lead to accusations of partiality, real or perceived, which raise hostility, forcing a comparable contraction of the humanitarian space. Also, in some cases, just the provision of humanitarian assistance is antithetical to combatants following a strategy of terrorizing and sapping the morale of civilians, making humanitarians the targets for attack.(4)

Indeed, the physical security of humanitarians is also key for securing the humanitarian space; without humanitarians, the debate over tradeoffs would be meaningless. Over the course of the past five years, humanitarians of all organizational stripes have been subject to hostage takings, threats of violence, and killings. To name only a few examples, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has lost personnel in Rwanda, delegates for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were murdered in Chechnya, and CARE USA has suffered human loss in Somalia and Sudan. One 1998 study even made the astute observation that more Red Cross workers have been killed in action in recent times than U.S. Army personnel.(5)

In light of this dangerous humanitarian environment, the second challenge is that although this new context has also necessitated the insertion of military forces such as multinational peacekeepers, this action nonetheless entails similar tradeoffs and complications along the three lines presented above. At the extreme, the ICRC asserts that complete independence of humanitarian activity is necessary, regardless of the need for protection or problems with delivery, because not only should humanitarianism be non coercive, it should also not be tied, or perceive to be tied, to a political agenda in which outside forces are but a representative of a larger scheme. Nonetheless, in recent years the ICRC has moved, albeit with great hesitancy, towards acknowledging the role outside forces often have in achieving general stability allowing for operations. Other humanitarians have embraced, to various degrees, the role of outside forces providing such macro elements as general stability through to the more micro aspects of assisting in the delivery and protection of assistance and providing protection for personnel and compounds. The promise and pitfalls in using military forces to help secure the humanitarian space are revealed in the comments of Jan Eliasson, the former United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs: "NGOs rightly need to maintain independence and distance from political issues in order to have access to the victims and to preserve their humanitarian credibility...Conversely, the presence of United Nations Peacekeeping forces may secure a suitable environment for humanitarian activities. These forces provide protection to relief workers and protect the distribution of aid".(6) Therefore, it is clear that in attempting to assist humanitarianism, the use of international force is a double-edged sword.

But, as the Mean Times report implies, and others overtly state, trying to dull the adverse effects for humanitarianism may be a moot point.(7) Problems discovered in operations in the early 1990s and a fear of sustaining casualties for causes not directly tied to the national interest of the most powerful states have led to a retrenchment, thus putting in jeopardy humanitarians and their work. Certainly, casualty sensitivity tied to the national interest is not necessarily a bad thing. Stephen Kinloch notes that "[t]he fear of casualties on the part of states can be considered a healthy phenomenon, reflecting governments' responsibility and their accountability for the lives of their citizens. National armed forces are, after all, primarily for the defence and protection of the interests and citizens of the country they serve".(8) However, no matter how healthy the sentiment, this once again catches humanitarians between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, humanitarianism, encompassing both the personnel and their activities, continues to require a reasonable degree of security which military actors can provide. This may only be provided, however, on a case-by-case basis depending on the interests of those on the United Nations Security Council or in regional forums. Moreover, once in theatre, the military agenda may not coincide with the humanitarian timetable. On the other hand, this means that provision of outside force, when it is offered, is due to particular national interest which might affect the humanitarian space.

Here lies the appeal of turning to the private sector. Undoubtedly, the outside introduction of potentially coercive means for the sake of humanitarianism, whatever its source, remains bothersome for many. But for those who have experienced the perils of post-Cold War humanitarianism and have gained a more pragmatic approach, commercial security seemingly mitigates many of the dilemmas surrounding force and securing the humanitarian space: it can be employed and dismissed on the basis of performance and humanitarian, rather than political, timetables and, in a related manner, is not only available but also comes with no political strings attached.

Private Security Providers and Humanitarians

To begin, it is important to define "private security". For the purpose of this paper, it refers to a spectrum of companies which have a distinct business nature with a permanent core staff and on-going marketing. Their range of services, their clientele, and their ability to operate internationally vary from firm to firm. They make up a booming industry both domestically and internationally, yet are but bit players in a much larger trend towards privatization of social and economic activity in states. In this way, the neo-liberal restructuring of state activity is also increasingly seen in the trend for states to rely on NGOs to provide international assistance.(9) James Fennell, a former CARE UK worker and now an advisor for Defense Systems Limited (DSL), recognizes this shared lineage: "The increasing role of commercial security companies may be viewed in a similar vein to the increased policy and technical input of NGOs over the past two decades to the provision of official relief and development assistance to Southern nations".(10) Certainly, it would have been surprising if the changing role of government in the developed world, manifest in the privatization of welfare and security in the domestic sphere, had not somehow permeated foreign policy.(11)

The scope of activities performed by private security providers to the benefit of humanitarians goes from soft (passive/protective)to hard (proactive/aggressive). Training is the activity nearest the soft pole. Depending on the nature of the humanitarian client, the benefits of security training have taken on increased importance for either practical or ethical reasons for post-Cold War humanitarian activities. On the practical side, despite the danger posed to humanitarians in weak and crumbling states, studies have shown that security-specific training has been the exception rather than the rule, particularly for NGOs.(12) Sean Greenaway and Andrew Harris found that only six percent of the humanitarians they surveyed reported no concerns with security, yet many NGOs, for example, do not have frameworks to assess risks or make contingency plans and much of their experience in security practices, techniques, and capabilities is garnered only from earlier operations.(13) On the ethical side, actors who wish to eschew robust responses for the sake of not compromising the humanitarian ethic favour training.(14) The ICRC, for instance, has an extensive array of developed and tested procedures and even has a simulation training site in Switzerland that resembles an Eastern European village. While in-house programmes such as this are elaborate and beyond the means of many humanitarians, there is nevertheless a growing marketplace for security training rooted in the basic realization that security awareness, increased competency, and level headedness are vital for the success of humanitarian operations.

To serve this marketplace, many PSCs either currently hold contracts with humanitarian organizations or have the capacity to provide the requisite services. While some of the training services are inappropriate for humanitarian operations (anti-industrial espionage, sharpshooting, and "getaway" driving to name but a few), many providers have developed product lines sensitive to the needs and operating conditions of humanitarians. Training offered deals with such diverse yet crucially important aspects as threat assessment, information management, contingency planning, and convoy and emergency vehicle operations. DSL, for one, provides a variety of security analyses, audits, and training for a number of humanitarian clients: CARE, Caritas, USAID, and United Nations bodies are some examples. These services supplied by DSL and its competitors do not entail the "hardening" of humanitarian organizations as feared by many organizations, but instead deal with the ad hocism that plagues many humanitarians' approach towards security.

"Hardening", however, is possible through the protection of humanitarian compounds and personnel. These guarding services are similar to those offered by commercial security to embassies, military bases, corporations, and mining operations around the world. While most PSCs have foreign nationals in the managerial positions in the field, local recruitment is key. The ratio of foreign nationals to local employees is determined by such factors as level of risk, the size of the contract, the wishes of the client, and whether or not training of the local workforce is required.(15) One company, the recently closed Lifeguard, employed nationals from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but operated predominantly in Sierra Leone. In its operations, which included providing guards for diamond mines and the United Nations and World Vision missions in Freetown, the ratio was anywhere from three to fifteen local employees to every foreign national. Similar operations performed by DSL for seven different United Nations humanitarian clients in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania also rely on local recruitment to varying degrees.

The "hardest" service, of course, is active military assistance that would provide the general stability in which humanitarians could work unmolested. Some PSCs operate as "force multipliers" in that not only do they provide military assistance in terms of procurement strategies and training to local state-led forces, but they also participate directly in combat on the behalf of their employer. Indeed, the operations of the now defunct Executive Outcomes (EO) in Sierra Leone (1995-1997) and Angola (1993-1995) and of Sandline International in Sierra Leone (1998) have been credited by local civilians and humanitarians alike for the relative stability their presence brought. Ian Douglas, a former Brigadier-General in the Canadian Armed Forces and later a security advisor to various United Nations operations in Africa, comments in the context of Sierra Leone that "EO gave us this stability. In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn't need an organization like EO, but I'd be loath to say that they have to go just because they are mercenaries".(16) As will be discussed below, given the connection with the non-state use of force, this option is the "hardest" in all senses of the word for securing the humanitarian space. But it is important still to note the praise given these PSCs for their effectiveness and willingness to work in environments that the international community generally avoids.

Current and Future Implications for the Humanitarian Space

Is the private option the panacea for humanitarians? The text above reveals that interaction between humanitarian IGOs/NGOs and private security proposed by Mean Times already exists on many levels. What is limited, however, is analysis of the actual effects of this relationship on securing the humanitarian space, analysis that considers the issues of privatized peacekeeping and its implications for consent, the problems related to legitimacy, and the long term financial and political implications. Generally speaking, the more one moves towards the hardened end of the spectrum, and the more robust the nature of these activities, the more controversial and problematic the effects on securing the humanitarian space. These effects are unique due to the current state of the private security industry.

Privatized Peacekeeping and Consent

Can there be such a thing as privatized peacekeeping? At first glance, because of the continued desire of humanitarians to have access to populations in need and a secure environment conducive to the delivery of assistance, the idea is appealing. Add to this the limited desire of states to contribute troops to humanitarian endeavours, let alone help devise rapid reaction capabilities or a stand-alone United Nations force. Two related elements, however, conspire against this.

First, the private security industry simply does not have the numbers of personnel or the capabilities to carry out post-Cold War peacekeeping. It is correct that though most firms have limited permanent staff, several boast hypothetical contractual access to several thousand personnel; EO was able to draw from a manpower pool rich in skills: engineers, medical personnel, demining experts, communications technicians, and pilots. Also through by-passing state and international bureaucracies, it was able to mobilize much faster. It is also true that smaller state-led humanitarian operations, such as France's 1994 Operation Turquoise in Rwanda which involved only 2,500 personnel, were deemed a relative success.(17) But even the management of some PSCs and analysts strongly supportive of private security question the ability of firms to provide the requisite number of skilled personnel for long periods of time.(18) In fact, during the course of EO's and Sandline Internationals' contracts in Africa during the 1990s, never was there more than approximately 500 personnel contracted for any given operation, a far cry from the 5,537 military personnel suggested for the United Nations Observer Mission in the Congo (MONUC).(19)

Second, PSCs with experience in providing what could be termed "top cover", or the ability to create a secure environment through robust measures as opposed to passive traditional peacekeeping, only engage in these contracts with sovereign clients. These firms, as force multipliers, capitalize on the manpower already available to the state through the provision of training and other assistance.(20) The implications of these PSCs' particular services being sovereignty oriented for the humanitarian space are twofold. One, even if a PSC was somehow able to generate the necessary manpower, it would accept a contract with a humanitarian organization only with the consent of the state in which the contract was executed, a highly unlikely occurrence give how states particularly in the South guard the sovereign prerogative. Private security has, for international legalist Juan Carlos Zarate, "developed a modus operandi compatible with the needs and strictures of the post-Cold War, state-based international system".(21) Two, though native soldiers combined with foreign force multipliers may provide the top cover desired by humanitarians, the space they create is not "consensual" as they are guided by sovereign political mandates fighting to win rather than to act impartially. For instance, while international peacekeepers usually attempt to persuade combatants that they are an independent force with third party status, EO, in light of its sovereignty orientation, specifically referred to its peacekeeping potential on its Internet site as "persuasion" services.(22)

The point is to recognize that reliance on private contractors combined with national militaries has unique effects on securing the humanitarian space. Access is limited because humanitarian operations can only continue effectively in areas under government control. Also, reliance on or association with these firms could potentially hamper the humanitarians' relationship with opposing groups. This impact with respect to partiality, real or perceived, is further complicated by the fact that many firms or family of firms provide both the ability to take and hold ground and provide guarding expertise. As noted by the ICRC, regardless of the service actually provided by a firm, the image of the humanitarian actor and its activities remains key, and as such "it might be delicate to have a contractual relation with a company which is actively engaged on the side of a party to a conflict".(23) Note, for instance, Lifeguard, which provided the less controversial product of guarding for mines and humanitarian organizations, was an offshoot of Sandline International. It shared with Sandline International connections not only at the managerial level but also in terms of personnel, many of whom actually participated in earlier fighting. With Boutros Boutros-Ghali, amongst others, arguing how difficult it is to employ force and still maintain or revert to a consensual environment, it is unclear if the corporate equivalent will fare better.(24)

Certainly, humanitarian actors have not been unappreciative of the relative stability these firms have provided when no one else would.(25) Moreover, for Michael Grunberg of Sandline International: "Sandline has found that NGO personnel on the ground are very supportive of closer relationships (because it provides them with access to protection when needed and information at other times)."(26) Yet despite the practicality of this stability and growing relationship, PSCs that offer these services remain sovereignty bound in the weak state environment where conflict is ongoing and governance is questioned. Thus, pragmatism comes at the cost of, or at least a shift in, the humanitarian ethic that works to sustain neutrality, impartiality, and humanity.


Likewise, the current issue of contested legitimacy complicates constructive relations between private security and humanitarians. While states have varying degrees of regulation governing the use of private security on their own territory or on its export abroad, there is no relevant international regulation related to private security. In fact, the terms and definitions pertaining to the non-state use of force applied in such recent endeavours as the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries and activities of the United Nations Rapporteur on Mercenarism are focused squarely in the context of 1960s/1970s' concerns regarding self-determination and decolonization. In other words, the language and subsequent prohibitions are a response to the earlier blatantly destructive activities of vagabond mercenaries in places like Congo, Biafra, and Rhodesia. Even Yves Sandoz, the ICRC Director of International Law and Communication, indicates the inappropriateness of this stance: "...I have the impression that the basic approach is not relevant today and that the problem of private security should not be essentially based on the mercenary issue as it was dealt with in the seventies".(27) Nevertheless, many humanitarians find it difficult to black out the prevailing fact that for at least 150 years nation-states have owned and controlled armed force and military expertise. Similarly difficult to ignore are the not so distant memories of destabilizing activities by mercenaries.

The symbolic connection between the state and the use of force and the effect of legal norms designed for a particular type of activity have heightened the fears of many humanitarians, fears already triggered by the challenges of securing the humanitarian space in the post-Cold War weak state environment. Sandline International reports of a dichotomy in NGO operations where those on the ground are supportive of closer relations while the leadership of NGOs at the executive level remains hesitant and sceptical.(28) As well, Africa Confidential in 1996 noted that EO provided security and information to a major international aid agency that has since kept quiet to avoid the wrath of its donors.(29) Similarly, despite the need and advice from many UN personnel to take the private route, Kofi Annan and other Security Council members eventually balked at the idea of employing DSL to separate fighters from refugees in the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma. For Annan, "...the world may not be ready to privatize peace".(30)

This is not to say that PSCs do not strive to attain this legitimacy. Some companies have put forth their own proposals for regulation.(31) Also, DSL, which does not provide top cover, but does train militaries in the midst of conflicts and guard humanitarian compounds and convoys, states that it adheres to Red Cross/NGO Codes of Conduct.(32) As well, many of the firms even provide training in international humanitarian law. As for conduct on the ground, officials such as the head of Sandline International, Timothy Spicer, go to great length to explain that their companies follow human rights and humanitarian law religiously for the sake of reputation and repeat clients, let alone for enhanced legitimacy: "We like to conduct professional service in line with the Geneva Convention, international law and behavioural standards one would expect from a disciplined, organised and properly constituted military force".(33) In support of this stance, the ICRC believes that there is no reason to assume that the behaviour of private security would be worse than that of other actors.(34) To further this end, PSCs such as Sandline International and EO have acted outside their contractual obligations to client states to perform "humanitarian" activities. This has included such diverse activities as the repatriation of child soldiers, escorting humanitarian convoys, ferrying Sierra Leone's football team to the African All Nations Cup, and providing logistics, intelligence, and aerial evacuations for NGO personnel.(35) As a sign of progress in regards to legitimacy for PSCs that provide top cover and perhaps even for the service itself, if not an indication of operational schizophrenia within the United Nations system, PSCs such as Sandline International are now listed on the United Nations Supply Database for United Nations and United Nations related organizations.

However in the final analysis, humanitarians cannot rely on private security to provide top cover and other related spinoff benefits. On one level, for analysts of privatization, simple economic logic dictates that a profit-seeker cannot be expected "to attend at any significant cost to dimensions of value other than those specified in the contract".(36) In other words, while PSCs that provide top cover can act, for lack of a better term, as good corporate citizens with respect to interacting with humanitarians (convoy protection, information, rescue, etc.) for the sake of reputation, there is no contractual relationship demanding or even governing this interaction. Similarly, accountability rests in the relationship between the state client and the security provider, not the humanitarian organization. There can be no line of redress. In sum, as noted by one EO official "We are a commercial venture. We are not an aid agency".(37)

On another level, political pressure placed on contracting governments also limits humanitarians' reliance. The United Nations, for instance, did not engage EO in dialogue, despite the stability it brought to Angola and Sierra Leone, for fear of the label of collusion.(38) To sustain the pressure on contracting governments, the respective rebel movements, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) and Revolutionary United Front (RUF), both demanded that the contracts cease as part of any peace agreement. In the end for both cases, EO was forced to leave, peace broke down, the United Nations was unable to stabilize the situation, and fighting resumed. As for humanitarian operations, the renewed fighting forced a severe restriction of activities, compelling humanitarians to limit their work largely in the Luanda and Freetown areas due to theft and banditry. Therefore, PSCs that can provide stability for humanitarian operations cannot, under current conditions, be expected to follow humanitarian wishes or humanitarian timetables.

Long Term Implications for Future Research

There are three general areas where growing interaction between humanitarians and private security providers may have implications for humanitarianism worthy of future study. First, despite the inability or unwillingness of states to provide troops for humanitarian operations except for areas of national interest, a shifted reliance on private firms to provide top cover may be similarly limiting. While beyond the scope of this paper to delve into the triangular relationship between private security firms, mining operations, and governments, it is obviously clear that PSCs will only work for clients able to pay, usually the few states with access to lucrative and stable proceeds from gem and precious metal mining. Similar to those rulers in the 14th-16th Centuries who, wishing to hire Swiss mercenaries but possessing only limited means, were met with the response "kein Geld, kein Schweizer", leaders in the developing world in need of private expertise face the harsh realities of the business environment. Also, in their drive to achieve legitimacy, not only will PSCs providing top cover accept only state clients, they also will not accept clients who are either pariah states or on unfriendly terms with other state clients. In 1997, this is seen doubly in the former Zaire where EO declined working with the Mobutu government due to the infamy of the regime and its long time support for UNITA.(39)

The potential effect on humanitarianism in need of monitoring would be that in growing reliant on PSCs to provide top cover, the provision of humanitarian assistance would be based on business calculations rather than on the basis of need. While at the micro level humanitarians would continue to strive to maintain the humanitarian ethic on the ground, at the macro level humanitarian activities might be limited to those states lucky enough to have been blessed with rich ore deposits or a favourable political climate and reputation. One could argue that this problem might be handled by the United Nations actually hiring PSCs to provide top cover, thus overcoming issues related to the desired universality of humanitarianism. But this seems unlikely, not only due to the points above, but also given the long list of contentious issues related to the ongoing debate over the development of a stand-alone UN force (points of cost, appropriate capabilities, or control), which would also fall on the private option debate.

Second, once dependent on PSCs for services for which they must pay, humanitarians, especially cash-strapped NGOs, might face a financial crunch necessitating a reduction in activity. Referring again to the Renaissance example, the Swiss cantons knew that there was a substantial market for their citizens' highly valued services and prices were inflated accordingly.(40) In comparison, the current state of the private security industry may be susceptible to providers taking substantial economic rents. While the private security business is booming worldwide, the marketplace, as noted in The Wall Street Transcript, is incredibly fragmented.(41) As such, the distribution of competition, both service-wise and geographically, may permit this excessive rent seeking behaviour. It is certainly the case that not all PSCs provide services applicable to the needs of humanitarians. Consider also the current trend towards amalgamation of PSCs, creating less choice for the security consumer. In 1996, DSL, for example, joined ArmorGroup which itself is a division of ArmorHoldings. In light of this other similar acquisitions, ArmorHoldings has been labelled a growth through acquisition oriented company in a marketplace that is currently undervalued and thus presents no barriers to further acquisitions.(42) In fact, ArmorHoldings was included in Fortune magazine's 1999 list of "America's 100 Fastest Growing Companies". In a corresponding way, PSCs based in the state of operations, while offering greater levels of expertise and professionalization than other options, may capitalize on this advantage and the desperation of a humanitarian organization in an unsaturated marketplace.(43) Obviously, humanitarians will continue to require security obtained through various means, but the commodification of security may pose a financial challenge for humanitarians lacking competitive choice or access to redress via national or international anti-trust regulations.

Finally, placing humanitarianism entirely in the hands of private actors entailed in a NGO-private security relationship might remove any outside diplomatic pressure directed at solving the problems that led to the humanitarian crisis in the first place. Management and eventual resolution might be overtaken by simple containment. As outlined by Mark Duffield, the internationalization of public welfare is due to the collapse of effective governance.(44) This internationalization, however, comes via the sub-contracting to NGOs, a reflection of the change in governance in aid providing states. But one can argue that this devolution might not be a tactical form of privatization, meaning done for the sake of cost and efficiency, but rather as a strategic privatization where the developed world is slowly disengaging itself from not just the realm of assistance, but also of resolution. Humanitarianism itself would be a "humanitarian alibi", activity performed that avoids essential political measures made by states.(45)

The provision of outside military force is usually seen as a sign of political commitment towards resolving conflicts. As shown above, the intrusion of politics is a difficult issue for humanitarians. Nonetheless, it is also clear for conflict resolution to occur in the current humanitarian context, one cannot employ the Cold War mindset where humanitarianism and political activity were isolated from each other. For Thomas G. Weiss, " ...there is no longer any need to ask whether politics and humanitarian action intersect. The real question is how this intersection can be managed to ensure more humanized politics and more effective humanitarian action".(46) But turning to the private sector for security in the face of the retreat of the "public sector" does not bring any improvement in the management of Weiss' intersection because political commitment has been removed entirely.

Reinforcing the security of humanitarians via private means will certainly protect humanitarians and facilitate operations, but at the cost of minimal applied diplomatic pressure. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mercenarism, Enrqiue Ballesteros, complains that the actions of PSCs such as EO leave the deep-lying problems untouched in the client states.(47) Yet, while their activities certainly have political implications, PSCs themselves indicate that they steer clear of client state politics. It is similarly difficult to contemplate NGOs attempting to resolve conflicts due to either a desire to maintain the humanitarian ethic, or failing that, possessing the requisite political authority to offer carrots or use sticks when needed. In short, placing humanitarianism increasingly in the hands of private actors and outside any larger diplomatic framework may reinforce the trend of treating humanitarian activity as a sign of commitment and a cure-all, thus preventing many conflicts from reaching the frontpage and receiving much needed international attention.


It is clear that for humanitarians to embrace the private option as Mean Times suggests, there would be effects on both the humanitarian ethic and correspondingly on the dynamics of securing the humanitarian space. While appealing in light of the retraction of the public sector in providing security, interaction between PSCs and humanitarians cannot be understood as a value-free economic relationship subject to the forces of supply and demand. As one moves along the spectrum of security services from passive to active, the interaction becomes complicated by the issues of consent, legitimacy, and longer term factors relating to the universality of humanitarianism, cost, and conflict resolution. Simply put, the concept of a free and competitive marketplace where humanitarians can chose from and contractually control a variety of providers offering an array of services does not exist. Furthermore, it may not be altogether wise if political endeavours are needed to solve the problems that led to the humanitarian problems in the first place. Assuming an expansion of the already existing relationship between humanitarians and private security providers, the nature of the industry as currently structured and regulated would, depending on the service, change in varying degrees how humanitarian activities are perceived, delivered, and make an impact.

This should not be an excuse, however, to attempt to limit this relationship or dismiss it out of hand for fear of jeopardizing humanitarianism. Danger still confronts humanitarians in their daily operations. Calls such as the recent demand made by Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy for a humanitarian intervention force operating outside the confines of the United Nations Security Council reinforce the need for something to be done to resolve conflicts and protect humanitarians and those they serve.(48) While security was not a worry for humanitarians during Cold War times, current conditions demand that it no longer be neglected. Indeed, increased interaction between humanitarians and international forces earlier in the last decade revealed that many, while holding some reservations, are willing to deliver humanitarian assistance in a more pragmatic manner where flexibility is stressed over holding the humanitarian ethic as a moral absolute. While the private security industry, due to its business orientation and own limitations, is not a panacea allowing for humanitarians to return to the moral absolutes, it does serve as an option, and in fact is the only option other than humanitarians scaling down or pulling out, if public providers do not step forward. Whether it becomes the sole option or efforts are made to mitigate its more controversial immediate and long term effects are matters for future needed discussion.


1. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Confronting New Challenges: Annual Report on the Work of the Organization (New York: United Nations, 1995), p. 172.

2. Sean Greenaway and Andrew J. Harris, "Humanitarian Security: Challenges and Responses," paper presented at the Forging Peace Conference, 13-15 March 1998, Harvard University, p. 34, note 45.

3. Larry Minear and Thomas G. Weiss, Mercy Under Fire: War and the Global Humanitarian Community (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 38-45.

4. Cedric Thornberry, "Peacekeepers, Humanitarian Aid, and Civil Conflicts," Journal of Humanitarian Assistance., posted on 15 September 1995.

5. Greenaway and Harris, "Humanitarian Security," p. 5.

6. Jan Eliasson, "Humanitarian Action and Peacekeeping," in Olara A. Otunnu and Michael W. Doyle, eds., Peacemaking and Peacekeeping for the New Century (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,. 1998), p. 209, p. 211.

7. See Richard Falk, "Human Rights, Humanitarian Assistance, and the Sovereignty of States," in Kevin M. Cahill, ed., A Framework For Survival: Health, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Assistance in Conflicts and Disasters (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 122-136; Richard C. Longsworth, "Phantom Forces, Diminished Dreams," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March/April 1995), pp. 24-28. Some examples of trying to improve the relationship between international forces and humanitarians are the UNHCR's handbooks Working with the Military and Handbook for the Military. Similarly, the latest British Army Field Manual stresses the dynamic and challenging nature of humanitarian operations and the need to maintain consent throughout.

8. Stephen P. Kinloch, "Utopian or Pragmatic? A UN Permanent Volunteer Force," International Peacekeeping 3 (Winter 1996), p. 171.

9. Mark Duffield, "Famine, Conflict and the Internationalization of Public Welfare," in Martin Doornbos, Lionel Cliffe, Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed, and John Marakis, eds. Beyond Conflict in the Horn: Prospects for Peace, Recovery and Development in Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan (London: James Currey Ltd., 1992), p. 58.

10. James Fennell, "Private Security Companies: the New Humanitarian Agent," presentation to the Conference on Interagency Co-ordination in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, 19 October 1999, Cranfield University/Royal Military College of Science Shrivenham, p. 5.

11. Mark Duffield, "NGO relief in war zones: Towards an analysis of the new aid paradigm," Third World Quarterly 18 (No. 3, 1997).

12. Greenaway and Harris, "Humanitarian Security," p. 11.

13. Ibid., p. 2, p. 11.

14. Yves Sandoz, "Private Security and International Law," in Jakkie Cilliers and Peggy Mason, eds.

15. Interview, Bernie McCabe, Director, Lifeguard, 10 April 2000.

16. Cited in Herbert M. Howe, "Private security forces and African stability: the case of Executive

17. Donald C. F. Daniel and Brad C. Hayes, "Securing Observance of UN Mandates Through the Employment of Military Force," International Peacekeeping 3 (Winter 1996), p. 123 note 19.

18. See Kevin O'Brien, "PMCs, Myths, and Mercenaries: the debate on private military companies," Royal United Service Institute Journal (February 2000), accessed at on 18 February 2000; Correspondence, Ed Soyster, Vice President, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, 23 March 2000. James Fennell of Defense Systems Limited suggests that private firms could take part in a train and equip programme for peacekeeping operations or could provide logistics and management expertise. As for more active participation, this too could be possible, but only as part of a larger multinational operation. Correspondence, 7 April 2000.

19. United States, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Africa, Statement for the Record made by Richard C. Holbrooke, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, (Washington 15 February 2000). It is interesting to note that DSL is currently providing the local security for MONUC operations in Kinshasa.

20. The term "top cover" can be attributed to Michael Grunberg. Correspondence, Financial Advisor,

21. Juan Carlos Zarate, "The Emergence of a New Dog of War: Private International Security Companies"

22. This information was taken from the Executive Outcomes webpage ( before the company shut down operations on 1 January 1999.

23. Yves Sandoz, "The Privatisation of Security: Framing A Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Agenda," paper presented at Wilton Park Conference, 19-21 November 1999.

24. Point by Boutros Boutros-Ghali found in Adam Roberts, "Humanitarian Action in War: Aid, protection."

25. Interview, Brigadier-General Ian Douglas (retired), Canadian Armed Forces, 6 April 2000.

26. Correspondence, Michael Grunberg, Financial Advisor, Sandline International, 23 March 2000.

27. Sandoz, "Privatisation of Security".

28. Correspondence, Michael Grunberg, Financial Advisor, Sandline International, 23 March 2000.

29. Cited in Kirsten Sellars, "Old dogs of war learn new tricks," New Statesman (25 April 1997), p. 24.

30. Cited in Michele Griffin, "Blue Helmet Blues: Assessing the Trend Towards 'Subcontracting' UN Peace Operations," Security Dialogue 30 (Number 1), p. 47.

31. See

32. Correspondence, James Fennell, Defense Systems Limited, 7 April 2000.

33. Cited in Sellars, "Old dogs of war learn new tricks,", p. 24.

34. Sandoz, "Privatisation of Security".

35. Good corporate citizenship was also reportedly done by Lifeguard. Bernie McCabe indicates that Lifeguard promoted "collateral benefit" which had both passive and active components. On the passive side, the mere presence of the firm provided a degree of stability for the local populace. On the active side, Lifeguard provided, free of charge, such services as food, medicine, and water distribution. Interview, 10 April 2000.

36. John D. Donahue, The Privatization Decision: Public Ends, Private Means (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1989), p. 80.

37. Cited in Kevin Whitelaw, "Have Gun, Will Prop Up Regime," US News & World Report (20 January 1997), pp. 46-48.

38. David Shearer, "Outsourcing War," Foreign Policy (Number 112, Fall 1998), p. 76.

39. Zarate, "The Emergence of a New Dog of War," p. 149.

40. James Larry Taulbee, "Reflections on the Mercenary Option," Small Wars and Insurgencies9 (Autumn 1998), p. 155.

41. The Wall Street Transcript (17 April 2000).

42. Ibid.

43. For instance, before the arrival of UNTAF in Somalia, many humanitarian organizations were forced to rely on local "technicals" from warring clans. This situation was in fact a protection racket where NGOs paid the technicals, usually young men in machine gun laden pick-ups, not to steal relief food and medicine. Moreover, because the pay was high, the number of technicals quickly multiplied. Correspondence, Lansana Gberie, Researcher, Partnership Africa Canada, 28 March 2000.

44. Mark Duffield, "The Political Economy of Internal War: Asset Transfer, Complex Emergencies and International Aid," in Joanna Macrae and Anthony Zwi, eds., War & Hunger: Rethinking International Responses to Complex Emergencies (London: Zed Books, 1994), pp. 64-65.

45. Larry Minear, "Humanitarian Action and Peacekeeping Operations," background paper for the UNITAR/IPS/NIRA Singapore Conference, 24-26 February 1997. See also Cornelio Sommaruga, "Humanitarian action and peace-keeping operations," International Review of the Red Cross (No. 317, March 1997), pp. 178-186.

46. Thomas G. Weiss, "Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action," Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999), p.22.

47. See David J. Francis, "Mercenary intervention in Sierra Leone: Providing national security or international exploitation?" Third World Quarterly 20 (April 1999), pp. 319-338.

48. Mike Trickey, "Canadian Axworthy urges humanitarian force outside UN," Montreal Gazette, 11 February 2000.

Last Updated:

Top of Page
Important Notices