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UN: Proposal for Private Soldiers Gathers Steam

by Stephen FidlerFinancial Times
November 5th, 2003

As the United Nations launches a high-level review to address how it can better keep the peace in the 21st century, a new initiative has emerged that proposes fielding forces of private soldiers to prevent conflicts in Africa and elsewhere from spiralling out of control.

The initiative is aimed at addressing the widely acknowledged failings of current UN peacekeeping efforts while avoiding the drawbacks of deploying private mercenary forces.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, announced the creation of a 16-member review panel this week that is expected to include a new look at the possibility of hiring private security forces in UN-led peacekeeping missions.

The proposal for dealing with low-intensity conflicts in Africa and elsewhere comes from a group called the Global Security Partnership Project. Its principals are two Britons, Edwyn Martin and Tobias Masterton, and a Canadian, Michael Hepburn.

UN officials privately concede there are severe flaws in UN-led peacekeeping efforts, agreeing that it takes too long before forces deploy and that the quality of the peacekeepers, most now drawn from poor countries, is often questionable.

But many governments are opposed to using private soldiers, some fearing what they call the "Frankenstein Problem" - that mercenary groups, once in a conflict area, are difficult to control and barely accountable. According to Mr Martin, the private soldiers now offering peacekeeping services are "there for either money or adventure, not for the benefit of the international community".

Under the proposal, the missions would be run by a private not-for-profit company established under English law, rather than a traditional non-governmental organisation. This "would bring the procedures and disciplines that come with the private sector without the baggage attached to being an NGO", Mr Martin said.

The company would establish a database of up to 5,000 former soldiers willing to work for UN daily rates, from which 200 or so could be drawn at short notice to deal with "brush fire" disputes before they get out of hand. "Two hundred armed men deployed early on can make a big difference," Mr Martin said. He said he was confident there would be no shortage of people who would make themselves available on a voluntary basis, in the same way that mountain rescue teams and Britain's lifeboat crews were volunteer forces.

The decision of when to deploy would be taken by a council of trustees composed of respected people from around the world. Equipment would be leased under an arrangement with Repaircraft, a British company.

To try to cut down the response time of peace missions, the UN opened an emergency logistics base and storage site in Brindisi, Italy in 2001. About $130m of equipment was purchased, but it has been used. "The cookie jar is now empty," said one UN official. "Another mission would leave us with a big problem."

While many member governments oppose the use of private companies in combat roles, they have not objected to their use in supporting peacekeeping missions. Yet the line between support and combat operations is blurred. At least two companies supporting UN missions have used deadly force: DSL, a British subsidiary of Armor Holdings, which provided armed guards in Angola, and Dyncorp of the US in East Timor.

There is a precedent for private sector intervention in peacekeeping by non-profit groups. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss foundation funded mostly by European governments, brokered a ceasefire agreement in December 2002 between the Indonesian government and rebels in the province of Aceh.

The centre also ran the agreement's international monitoring operation, using about 50 out-of-uniform troops seconded mainly from the Thai and Philippine armed forces. The monitors were withdrawn in May as the agreement collapsed.

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