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Washington File


28 November 2003

Contracting for Peace is Rational Approach, Says Scholar

SAIS's W. Douglas says mission not method determines morality

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- If peacekeeping is a moral obligation of the international community that cannot just stand aside when mass slaughter is going on, yet many countries are unwilling to act unless their own national security is directly threatened, what can the world do to stop the bloodshed? asked Professor William Douglas of Johns Hopkins University.

His answer to this no longer rhetorical question is: "If hiring private armed units to do the peacekeeping means that more peacekeeping will get done, with more bloodshed stopped, then it is moral."

Speaking at a November 20 conference sponsored by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on the subject of the use of the private sector in peacekeeping operations, the expert on international affairs judged the use of private security firms to enforce international peace as eminently ethical because it is the mission that determines the morality of the operation, not the types of troops that perform it.

"It does not disturb me that private armies are used to save people's lives on peacekeeping operations," the ethicist said. [Such an operation occurred in the 1990's when several private-sector security firms contracted with the Government of Sierra Leone to protect its citizens from a vicious rebel movement that specialized in hacking people's limbs off in order to gain international attention.]

"Some people have qualms about the morality of using private armed units for peacekeeping because they make an analogy to the concept of 'mercenaries'," Douglas added. "[But] these concerns are misplaced because soldiers in national armies are paid to kill people too. The morality of engaging in military operations depends not on whether the troops are paid. It depends on the morality of the mission."

For example: "Hiring a professional assassin to kill Hitler during the Holocaust would have been moral," the scholar asserted. The same could be said for paying soldiers to protect innocent civilians from predators masquerading as rebels because "peacekeeping in its very essence is a moral activity."

Douglas made his comments at a conference on "Public-Private Peace Operations" sponsored by SAIS and the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), a business association representing firms such as Pacific Architects & Engineers (PAE), Kellogg Brown &Root/Halliburton, MPRI and International Charter Incorporated (ICI), which contract to provide security and security-support operations worldwide.

IPOA President Doug Brooks said he believed the conference was the first of its kind focusing on private enterprise in peace operations.

"In the evolution of international affairs, peacekeeping is changing," he said, in part, because "there are fewer Western militaries becoming involved in it." So, the purpose of the conference, he said, was to grapple with the transformation from using national armies and their supply services to private companies that can furnish troops and firepower as well as food, laundry, supply, transportation and communications services to peacekeeping operations.

On an ethical plane, it makes no difference who provides the services, said Douglas, as long as the goal is morally acceptable. "Peacekeeping is a moral mission -- it stops bloodshed -- especially if it is authorized by the U.N. Security Council or by a regional organization such as the OAS, etc."

As for the "morality of the methods" used to carry out the mission, Douglas said, "The laws of warfare set out in the Geneva Convention apply to private-sector forces hired for peacekeeping, just as they apply to national armies. Such forces should not target non-combatants nor kill prisoners."

Nigerian Embassy Defense Attache Group Captain Adebiyi Okanlawan agreed with Douglas, declaring, "Although I'm a military person, I truly believe in the use of the private sector in peace operations." Having experienced peace enforcement operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Okanlawan said he spoke from "a combatant's perspective."

He indicated Nigeria and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) intervened in both countries because "nations have the moral obligation to get involved" in areas of conflict, especially if they threaten to destabilize whole regions, as was potentially the case for West Africa in both instances.

U.S. Special Forces trained a number of Nigerian battalions in the fall of 2001 as peace enforcers for the ECOWAS force in Sierra Leone in a military partnership called Operation Focus Relief (OFR). But the helicopters used to fly troops and supplies to the training sites were furnished by ICI, not the U.S. military.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, who worked diplomatically to resolve several conflicts on the continent, gave an historical perspective on the rising costs of traditional peacekeeping. He said in the early 1990's operations in places like Cambodia and Somalia became veritable budget busters that forced the U.S. Government to begin looking at alternative ways to do peace operations.

When the U.S. military was asked if it could provide support to peace operations during that time, Cohen said, "They replied, 'Yes, we can do it, but it's cheaper in the private sector.' And it turned out to be that way. USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) could get C-130 aircraft flying around Africa much more cheaply than you'd have to pay the U.S. Air Force."

Driving his point home, the retired diplomat said, "I worked with the first U.N. peacekeeping operation that was ever directed from New York and that was the Congo [cessation crisis] in 1960. I was in Kampala helping out with logistics. Well, that was all U.N. It was all government. Now, all this work -- carrying troops, supplies, providing communications, all sorts of things -- most of this is now private sector. Why? Because it's cheaper, more effective, and much more efficient."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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