Armed contractors are flourishing in danger zones such as Iraq, triggering the need for international regulations to better control the murky field of private security, industry experts say. The lack of rules has created a grey area for private military or security companies to operate in, and enabled less reputable outfits to function alongside well established names such as Britain's Control Risks Group or Black Water of the United States, they warn.
"There isn't any international legislation and there probably should be," said Richard Fenning, the chief operating officer of Control Risks, which operates in 130 countries including Iraq where it protects British diplomats. A team of experts under the aegis of the United Nations is exploring proposals on possible codes of conduct for the security industry, while also discussing a new legal definition of the term "mercenary", taking into account the activities of certain private military operators as well as traditional action such as the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea.
But private security sources argue that the two issues are unrelated because their work has nothing to do with the age-old concept of soldiers of fortune. Shaista Shameem, the UN human rights commission's special rapporteur on the use of mercenaries, and 11 other experts met at the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva earlier this month to discuss the topic, in the third meeting of its kind since 2001.
The debate will help form a recommendation "to members of the United Nations exactly what to do to control the activities of mercenaries who obviously destabilise governments, upset the integrity of states and carry out human rights violations around the world," Shameem said. At the same time, the experts did not want to put all private security firms in the same category as mercenaries as many carry out a vital job, she added. However, debating who is a mercenary is not particularly productive, said Claude Voillat, an expert on private military companies at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"Obviously nobody likes to be called a mercenary because it is associated with images of... fighters following no law," he noted. "What would be more fruitful would be to create a regulatory framework for all these private military and security companies in their operations without calling them mercenaries." He also called for a clear definition to identify who is a combatant and a non-combatant under international law, saying the arrival of private security guards sometimes made it a tricky distinction. "Normally they would rather be civilians according to international humanitarian law, but they carry out operations that are very similar to a military nature," Voillat told AFP.
In Iraq, tough-looking men, sporting dark glasses and big guns, are often hired to protect the staff and property of governments and foreign companies. Many drive through the streets in armed all-terrain vehicles, with similar impunity to the US-led military, escorting high-profile figures such as ministers from the Iraqi government and US diplomats. This sort of work, insist the private security firms, does not equate to being a mercenary, which holds a much more assault-led connotation. "We provide protective security services, which by definition means defensive," said Christopher Beese, the chief administrative officer for British security giant ArmorGroup.
Officials from a number of leading private security companies in Britain met with other interested parties such as the ICRC earlier this month and agreed their role is not to conduct offensive action. "That is an interesting line that is now written in concrete and not in the sand," Beese said. For its part, Britain -- a prime source of private security outfits along with the United States and South Africa -- is rolling out new laws to govern the sector following the passage of the Private Security Industry Act.
ArmorGroup has suggested that any company based in Britain, which plans to send armed security officers abroad should notify the Foreign office. It also wants industry-wide standards established. The ICRC is also talking to other governments and companies about their responsibilities, noting that clear accountability is vital in the event that a private contractor, for example, tortures a prisoner. In addition, Voillat said, private security staff should be fully trained in international humanitarian law, as is the case with regular military forces.