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Panel: UN reliance on private military security companies growing, lacks transparency

An expert panel called Thursday for more transparency surrounding the deepening reliance of the United Nations on private security companies for services from armed guards to police training.

The Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, an independent panel mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council, held a series of meetings and debates this week as part of its ongoing investigation into a practice that is drawing increasing scrutiny. The five-member group plans to present a report next year.

The discussion within the United Nations echoes a wider debate over the role of high-priced security firms in conflicts worldwide.

The U.N. has hired some of the same companies whose contractors drew outrage for violent or insensitive behavior while working for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some academics and U.N. member countries worry that the United Nations is compromising its legitimacy by involving such firms in its peacekeeping and peace building operations.

"We should not and do not want to wait until an atrocity occurs before we have in place a conversation and system of determining accountability," said Working Group member Gabor Rona, a human rights advocate. "Because violations will occur."

While the U.N. has taken steps to clarify its policies, panel members said many issues remain unresolved. Among those is how to hold contractors accountable for abuses committed in the field and the establishment of an oversight mechanism to ensure compliance with international standards.

Complicating the situation, security companies are sometimes hired not by the United Nations but by member states participating in its missions. Most recently, military contractor DynCorp announced in April that it won a State Department contract for up to $48.6 million to help support a U.S. contingent to the peacekeeping mission in Haiti. DynCorp, based in Fall Church, Virginia, said it will recruit and finance officers to join the Haiti mission's police unit.

DynCorp's involvement in U.N. operations has been controversial in part because the company secretly coordinated flights for the rendition terrorism suspects to CIA-operated overseas prisons. The firm also drew criticism in 2005 when three of its guards assigned to the protective detail of Afghan President Hamid Karzai got drunk and caused a scene in the VIP lounge of the Kabul airport. DynCorp fired the three guards.

Private security companies often become involved in U.N. operations "because of the outsourcing policies of implementing partners or member states," said Ase Gilje Ostensen, a Norwegian academic who last year published a report titled "The Political influence of Private Military and Security Companies on U.N. Peacekeeping."

"In fact, private military and security companies sometimes deliver their services within U.N. operations to little awareness or oversight of the U.N. at all," Ostensen said Wednesday during a debate at the United Nations.

U.N. officials said the world body needs private security firms because its growing peacekeeping operations and other missions increasingly operate in regions where conflicts are no longer between government armies that respect U.N. personnel, but between insurgents who do not.

Syrian insurgents have repeatedly attacked peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, prompting the U.N. to bolster its 40-year-old mission there. Peacekeepers frequently come under attack in Africa and gunmen have killed U.N.-backed polio vaccination workers in Pakistan.

"Twenty years ago, the protection of a blue U.N. flag was paramount and respected more or less by all," said Rick Cottam, who deals with security issues for the U.N. Staff Federation. "Unfortunately, we've seen over the years more and more direct, targeted attacks on U.N. staff. A lot of the staff that we lose unfortunately are locally recruited staff and there are organizations and insurgents who are directly targeting U.N. staff."

In a speech last year, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Stephen Mathias called the increasing attacks "a disturbing trend" that "has led to an increased use of armed private security companies." He said the U.N. had recently adopted a policy that establishes that such firms must only be engaged as a last resort. It requires that they subscribe to an "International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers," which was created in 2010 through multilateral discussions.

Critics note that the international code is not a legally binding document. Faiza Patel, a member of the Working Group, also noted that most individual countries have not committed to a similar requirement when hiring private security firms to help in their participation in U.N. missions.