Privatized Peacekeeping

Privatized Peacekeeping

Mini Teaser: Mercenaries are better than humanitarians.

by Author(s): Doug BrooksGaurav Laroia

It can be said that international peacekeeping is marginally better than the alternative of all-out war. Popular perceptions of peacekeeping frequently include noble, blue-helmeted soldiers hailing from a cross-section of the world's countries and representing the powerful will of the international community determined to end a conflict and rebuild a state. The ugly reality of modern peacekeeping operations belies that image, but increasing privatization of peacekeeping offers hope for improvement.

Peace operations have shown decidedly mixed results in recent years, frequently suffering from underfunding, understaffing, and horrific financial and sex scandals. And they are always tormented by the "ad-hocery" that inevitably characterizes large-scale international military cooperation. Largely devoid of superior Western military forces, most international peace operations make do with sundry odd table scraps for troops and resources. Analysts familiar with the turmoil of modern peace operations are often amazed they enjoy any success at all.

Peacekeeping success does not come from a splendid rebirth of Western interest in these missions, but rather from the unheralded role played by the private sector doing jobs once provided by Western militaries, and from a more realistic and pragmatic approach by the funding states. Sent by donor states, private companies are increasingly providing the missing skills, capabilities and, most importantly, the actual will to carry out international mandates in conflict and post-conflict (CPC) situations. The peacekeeping success stories that get the most play by advocates rarely include the central and growing role the private sector is playing to ensure that success. Private firms filling a myriad of non-traditional roles are creating fundamental changes in the way international peace and stability operations are undertaken. From a humanitarian perspective, this is long overdue.

Peacekeeping's Mixed Record

The usual vehicle for peacekeeping operations, the United Nations, can be both astonishingly incompetent and surprisingly capable at addressing international conflicts and crises, but both its most ardent supporters and its harshest critics largely misunderstand its nature. The organization's successes and failures can best be explained by looking into a mirror; UN missions are only as good as the UN members that support those missions with their own citizens. Western nations, to the detriment of UN peacekeeping, have largely abrogated this responsibility.

Thus, the robust and widespread support that the world gave to the East Timor mission virtually ensured success despite many challenges and setbacks. On the other hand, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) is floundering, not because of a lack of Western funding or a weak mandate, but above all because of a lack of Western participation in terms of professional soldiers and expertise. MONUC is a classic case of a difficult and complex mission being left to military forces from the world's poorest countries who field troops with a frightening lack of equipment and training. It is estimated that almost four million Congolese have died as a result of that conflict, despite an ongoing UN peace operation costing upwards of $1 billion every year. In fact, roughly 50 percent of peacekeeping missions simply fail, a schizophrenic record of success that is too often ignored when advocates call for yet more peacekeeping missions.

Nevertheless, the UN has several features that continue to make it the first option to launch international peace operations. First, it brings political legitimacy. There is no other international organization with such authority and recognition. Second, it spreads the cost of such missions among its members. And third, it brings some surprising capabilities to drive humanitarian relief, peace-making and state-building. In general, the UN's benefits far outweigh its faults, and it remains a useful organization. The key question, then, is how to improve the pathetic success rate of peacekeeping operations while recognizing that Western nations are rarely going to put their own soldiers on the ground or take the lead in places of no strategic value to them.

The Privatization of Peacekeeping

Private companies have long been involved in peacekeeping, and while their participation has not been widely acknowledged, it has hardly been a secret. Anyone who has spent time in the field with an international peacekeeping operation has seen the private sector in action. In some operations, private firms are limited to important but secondary roles supporting peacekeepers. In others, they are central to peacekeeping operations and increasingly critical to success. Private security companies are frequently utilized to protect UN field offices, warehouses and personnel, and in a few instances these companies have even been utilized to support UN mandates. Private firms are building bases for peacekeepers, maintaining infrastructure, operating water purification systems and airfields, and managing transportation systems and immensely complex logistics systems. Most of the heavy aviation assets that move peacekeepers and equipment in and out are privately operated, and private helicopters go places considered too risky by the UN's own pilots.

The kinds of services that private companies provide in support of peace operations have a force-multiplier effect, making regular peacekeeping troops far more effective and reducing the numbers necessary to carry out the mandate. Large military operations are by their very nature disruptive and carry numerous negative economic, cultural and criminal side effects. By providing aerial surveillance, helicopter transportation and other force-multiplication capabilities, the private sector enables far smaller numbers of peacekeepers to monitor and react in far larger areas.

Even before peace operations begin, it is often private companies that are doing much of the preparation and training of the peacekeepers. Programs like Operation Focused Relief, the Africa Crisis Response Initiative and its more robust successor, Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance, have been critical to recent peacekeeping successes. More recently still, there is the far more comprehensive Global Peace Operations Initiative, which will vastly expand these training programs around the world, giving militaries from less-developed countries advanced capabilities and better, more professional soldiers. And while militaries from less-developed countries rarely have effective engineering or aviation units, these services and all necessary logistic and medical support can be found in the private sector.

The Liberian intervention in 2003 is an example of how vital the private sector has become to ensuring peacekeeping success. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took the lead in procuring troops from their members. With U.S. financial support (and temporary military support), ECOWAS initiated a surprisingly successful humanitarian intervention before handing it over to the UN. What was especially unique and relevant about this mission was that many of the West African troops used for the operation had been trained by private companies, were flown to Monrovia by private companies, and once in Liberia were transported, based and supported logistically by private companies. The operation became a model for how to run a successful peacekeeping mission.

Faster, Cheaper, Better

In peace operations it sometimes makes sense to use the services provided by state militaries, simply because the services are provided at no cost to the peace operation budget. On the other hand, when services are covered from a fixed mission budget, it is far cheaper to look to the specialized companies within the peace and stability industry. As a rule of thumb, private sector services costs the UN 10-40 percent of what it costs for similar state-provided services, and this rule holds true whether the services are specialized engineering projects or security. The reason that private companies can offer such an advantage in cost-savings is because of the competitive nature of the industry, but also because of the "off the shelf" capabilities of the private sector. It is significantly cheaper to "rent" expertise and equipment from companies than it is for militaries to attempt to maintain them for years or decades.

Critically, private sector deployment times are invariably faster than those of militaries supporting peace operations, and private peacekeepers are far more willing to remain in chaotic, hostile environments. UN peacekeepers have rarely been able to deploy effectively in less than six months after the passing of a peacekeeping mandate. In addition, blue helmets have an unfortunate reputation for frailty in the face of risk. The private sector almost always operates on a two- to six-week deployment timeframe, enforced contractually. And companies in the peace-and-stability industry do not shun risk. They often continue to function even when militaries around them pull out, as many did when rebels attacked the UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone in May 2000.

The UN peacekeeping budget has surpassed $4 billion. The need to improve the cost-effectiveness of peacekeeping operations has been an increasingly critical issue for the U.S. Congress. Unable to ignore the potential efficiencies and capabilities offered by the private sector, a recent Senate appropriation bill included the following clause:

"The Committee is aware that, in some cases, private companies can carry out effective peacekeeping missions for a fraction of the funding the United Nations requires to carry out the same missions. At a minimum, such companies should be utilized to supplement the number of blue berets and blue helmets which, in these turbulent times, the United Nations is having a difficult time recruiting. The United Nations can no longer afford to ignore the potential cost-savings that private companies with proven records of good service and good behavior offer."

This remarkably strong language reflects not only a genuine congressional concern for more effective peacekeeping, but also a growing confidence in the private peace-and-stability industry.

The capabilities and inherent flexibility of the private sector mean that even for Western militaries, outsourcing just makes sense. Consider a situation where the U.S. military in Afghanistan needs a bridge to be constructed. The military could fly in its own military engineers, equipment and material, tying up limited heavy-lift aircraft and requiring supporting logistics and security. A private firm could be given the required specifications and contracted for a fraction of the price. A handful of experienced, well-paid Western managers would be flown in to contract and supervise local companies utilizing local labor and materials. This is not to say there is not a role for military engineers, as sometimes the security situation or technical needs do require the military to use its own capabilities. But in the vast majority of CPC cases, the private sector proves to be faster and infinitely more cost effective.

Common fears about the private security sector revolve around issues of accountability and regulation. But these companies are controlled legally, financially and ethically. Good reputations mean new business, so high ethical standards are critical. But legal systems in CPC states are rarely functioning, creating challenges for companies striving to operate legally and ethically. One measure that would substantially support effective peace operations would be a "default legal template" that would be declared in any state where legal systems had broken down, offering both conflict victims and companies recognized judges, jurors and arbitration. In the current system, jurisdiction usually falls to the state that contracted the corporation, a system that the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) supports absent any international legal regime.

Although the industry receives a great deal of criticism, which is often ideologically driven, companies must operate under legal authority or international mandates to avoid being closed or fined. The peace-and-stability industry advocates for rational international regulation, and willingly engages with policymakers and non-governmental and humanitarian organizations to improve oversight and accountability. Companies are currently faced with contradictory domestic and international laws, making their operations unnecessarily complex and difficult to insure. Good regulations and laws are good for business, which is why the industry has been active in addressing these issues. It is a truism that the industry already offers greater transparency and accountability than state militaries have provided in past peace operations, but the nature of CPC environments means we must have full confidence in the industry. There is no reason we should not demand the highest standards of companies in this field. Clarifying laws and regulations is a good place to start.

While the private sector is already successfully supporting peace, it is at the same time important to ensure internationally recognized standards and codes. Members of IPOA have agreed to abide by the association's code of conduct, a feature that clients and governments should require from all their contractors. At the same time, the industry supports national and international regulations ensuring the most responsible companies are engaged in these operations--while preserving the competition and flexibility that make the private sector faster, cheaper and better.

Ultimately, if we in the West care about ensuring that the people we are trying to help actually receive benefits from our conflict-alleviation efforts, we need to be realistic about the limitations of international peacekeeping and pragmatic about addressing those limitations. The West is not prepared to send its own soldiers to carry out peace operations in non-strategic CPC situations. We must therefore better prepare the militaries from those less-developed countries that are willing to go. At the same time, we must support and facilitate these missions with the capable and robust services of the private sector. Finally, peacekeeping needs to be understood as a long-term exercise. We must expect some peacekeeping operations to be deployed for five, ten, twenty years or more. Short-term expectations, reliance on weak militaries and ideological bias against utilizing private-sector services have already resulted in the deaths of millions. This must change.

Doug Brooks is president of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), a private, nonpartisan association of peacekeeping companies. He has worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where he is a research associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. Gaurav Laroia is a research associate at IPOA.

Essay Types: Essay