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The contracting of such PMSC for UN activities is highly controversial and frequently regarded as problematic and dangerous.

Robust UN Peacekeeping and Private Military and Security Companies

May 4th, 2015

By  Darja Schildknecht

The United Nations, functioning as the world’s main keeper for international peace and security, deployed its first United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in 1948 to monitor the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Since 1948, more than 69 peacekeeping operations have been deployed to several conflict and post-conflict situations in the world. Over the past seven decades, the organisation and structure of these missions have drastically changed, involving more complex and confusing conflict and post-conflict settings, leading to a stretched understanding of the peacekeeping principle of ‘non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate’. Alongside this development towards so-called robust peacekeeping missions, the UN increasingly hires private military and security Companies (PMSCs) within these missions. The contracting of such PMSC for UN activities is highly controversial and frequently regarded as problematic and dangerous.

United Nations (Robust) Peacekeeping

The United Nations Peacekeeping Operations function as a tool to maintain international peace and security, where their initial and main focus lies on the support for the implementation of a ceasefire or peace agreement after a given conflict. These operations are based on three principles:

1) Consent of the parties, implying that a peacekeeping operation can only be deployed if all parties to the conflict agree to it;
2) Impartiality, denoting the importance of peacekeeping operations to engage impartially with all parties of the conflict (though this is not to be confused with neutrality or inactivity);
3) Non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate, referring to the peaceful character of the mission, yet allowing a few exceptions where the use of force is authorised by the Security Council.

In theory, peacekeeping is strictly bound to these three principles and has, therefore, been associated to be under the legal premises of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which deals with the peaceful settlement of disputes. However, over the last few years the lines between the several UN activities to maintain international peace and security (e.g. peace making, peace enforcement, peacebuilding) have become blurred, particularly regarding the third principle, namely the non-use of force.

One important change within UN peacekeeping missions can be noted after the end of the Cold War, as the strategic and geopolitical context altered dramatically. More peacekeeping missions where deployed to increasingly internal armed conflicts, where the line between war, organised crime and large-scale violations of human rights got progressively blurred. With this, former binary categories such as state/non-state actors or combatant/civilian became redundant, as there was an incline in involving civilians into war and conflict situations, both as perpetrators and victims. The confrontation of the peacekeeping forces with such new situations of conflict and post-conflict has led to several cases of failure of these missions. The examples of peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Srebrenica, Bosnia, illustrated the failure of the UN to prevent genocidal mass murder and to protect civilians accordingly.

After incidents like these, questions have been voiced about the effectiveness of the non-use of force in relation to the protection of civilians. In 1999, the United Nations first introduced the Protection of Civilians mandate; today, the Protection of Civilians doctrine is a steady condition for UN peacekeeping operations. Consequently, more and more peacekeeping mandates are adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorised to use ‘all necessary measures’ to fulfil their mandate, particularly to protect civilians when under imminent threat of physical violence. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) as well as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) are two recent examples where the Security Council authorised peacekeeping operations under Chapter VII, turning them into so-called robust peacekeeping missions.¹

Private Military and Security Companies in Robust Peacekeeping

The shift towards militarised peacekeeping operations involves increased risks for the peacekeepers in such missions, where they often become targets themselves. As of February 2015, the total fatalities in current peacekeeping missions are as high as 1,564. To make matters worse, robust peacekeeping missions are often hampered by a lack of personnel, adequate equipment and leadership necessary to conduct these offensive operations. The lack of personnel manifests itself in the shortfall of troop contributing countries (TCCs), as Western states are less willing to send their soldiers into rough climates, leaving the implementation of peacekeeping to countries of the global South.

The difficulty in recruiting staff for an added number of violent and complex conflicts has caused the increased use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) by the UN within peacekeeping missions². This outsourcing process to the private sector has experienced a steady rise over the past few years. In 2010, the UN spent $76 million on contracting security services, compared to $44 million in 2009. The UN justifies this increase with the argument of cost-effectiveness, immediate availability and the need for a “last resort” option. The PMSCs’ tasks include armed and unarmed security, risk assessment, security training, logistical support and consultancy.

The UN has been widely criticised for this practice by NGOs, think tanks, governments and the media. There are two main arguments against the contracting of PMSCs for UN purposes. Firstly, history shows that employees of these private firms lack democratic accountability, and thus their application of a “hard security” approach³ – instead of the by the UN promoted acceptance model – leads to more insecurity in the specific context of their mandate, often connected with private individuals who abuse their power (see the example of DynCorp in Bosnia in the 1990s or Delta Protection in the DRC today). Moreover, this approach to UN conflict resolution and peacekeeping manifests itself in a so-called ‘bunkerisation’, which refers to the fact that UN staff are increasingly protected and, therefore, cut off from the population in the conflict region. This is a clear step away from the idea of working together with the civil society – instead representing a move towards a militarised approach. This has the effect of a weakened local acceptance of UN personnel, which in turn leads to more insecurity for deployed UN missions – a vicious cycle.

The second central argument against the contracting of PMSCs is the lack of transparency and accountability by the UN. As such, there are no system-wide standards for the use of private companies in UN mandates, there is no complete list of private companies hired by the UN, and the system has failed to conduct a comprehensive policy review of the impact of this practice. Moreover, there is a clear lack of debate among UN member states. Only in 2012 did the Secretary-General first present a report on the use of private security, which included an overview of the adopted UN guidelines on the use of PMSCs. One year later, the controversial practice was firstly openly debated in the General Assembly. Both outcomes stressed the importance of the use of armed private security as a “last resort” and highlighted the potential negative impacts in terms of effectiveness and reputation of the organisation.

Guidelines introduced in 2012 by the UN Department of Safety and Security on the use of PMSCs are a first attempt to introduce standards, transparency and accountability into the UN system of contracting private security companies. Moreover, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries in 2013 adopted specific guidelines on the UN contracting private security services. Although this has been a step in the right direction, there are many voids to be filled, such as the problem that the guidelines overly rely on self-reporting of PMSCs.

This lack of regulation from the UN side is underlined by the failure of the international community to create a far-reaching legal system for the regulation of the use of PMSCs. Neither the Geneva Conventions nor the UN Convention on the Use of Mercenaries from 1989 give the necessary (legally-binding) regulation needed to regulate the industry. In 2010, a multi-stakeholder initiative created the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, with overarching goals to articulate human rights responsibilities of PMSCs involved in conflict situations. By 2013, 708 companies have formally committed to apply the Code of Conduct. However, this initiative is only voluntary and not-legally binding, thus lacking effective enforcement measures.

International reports such as the Montreux Document of 2009 have established that international law does apply to PMSCs, implying that there is no legal vacuum regarding their activities. Thus, PMSC personnel have no immunity from prosecution for crimes committed under a UN mission. However, regardless of this legal definition, the reality appears to be quite different, with a culture of impunity for crimes committed by private security firms, repeatedly fostered by powerful governments as well as the UN who are in need of the PMSCs. This again reinforces the importance of having a legally-binding regulatory system, specifically tailored to the use of PMSCs in conflict situations.

Yet, by having such a regulatory system in place, the contracting of PMSCs by the UN would become normalised and legitimised. Here, the ethical question is if the PMSCs are really appropriate partners for the UN. The UN, as one of the most prominent international organisations, has a political mandate which gets legitimised by UN member states. Establishing international peace and security is more and more turned into a business strategy with private firms deploying the required service. Remarkably, the UN’s argumentation for contracting PMSCs is based on economic grounds, rather than political. This privatisation of UN mandates results in societies that are less averse to war through a disconnection of the public with the conflict situations; citizens are not identifying with PMSC personnel – particularly compared to their national military personnel – leaving casualties unnoticed.

The UN, therefore, needs to be clear about its political mandate and the role it wants to play given the changing nature of conflict situations. An amended mandate – maybe towards a more peaceful and less militarised approach – would also ensure more support of UN member states again, making the controversial outsourcing process of peacekeeping tasks redundant.


¹Robust peacekeeping missions need full consent of the host government to operate, in contrast to peace enforcement missions, where no consent is needed. Both robust peacekeeping as well as peace enforcement are legally located under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

²The UN peacekeeping missions in the DRC (MONUSCO), Haiti (MINUSTAH) and Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) are three important operations where UN outsources a major part to PMSCs.

³PMSCs base themselves on a different set of values than the UN; their security strategy (often called “hard security”) relies on military war fighting, secret intelligence operations and other non-humanitarian methods.

About Darja Schildknecht

Darja Schildknecht is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence Team. Darja is currently working at the London School of Economics (LSE) as a Graduate Intern on the research project Above the Parapet – Women in Public Life. Previously, Darja has worked for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the UN, covering all Security Council issues.