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U.N. embraces private military contractors

For years, the U.N.’s top peacekeepers have been among the world’s staunchest critics of private security contractors, often portraying them as unaccountable mercenaries. Now they are clients. As the U.N. prepares to expand its operations in Afghanistan, it is in talks with a British security firm to send in scores of additional Nepalese Gurkhas to ...

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - OCTOBER 28: Afghan security officers stand in front of a United Nations (UN) vehicle where three foreign election workers with the joint UN mission were kidnapped October 28, 2004 Kabul, Afghanistan. The kidnapping, the first of its kind, comes as official election results are about to be realeased, assuring President Hamid Karzai of a victory. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

For years, the U.N.’s top peacekeepers have been among the world’s staunchest critics of private security contractors, often portraying them as unaccountable mercenaries.

Now they are clients.

As the U.N. prepares to expand its operations in Afghanistan, it is in talks with a British security firm to send in scores of additional Nepalese Gurkhas to the country to protect them.

The U.N.’s top security official, Gregory Starr, the former head of U.S. State Department Security, has also been advocating an increase in the use of private security firms in Pakistan, where U.N. relief workers have been the target of kidnappings and killings, according to U.N. officials.

The embrace of a private security contractor marks a shift for the United Nations, which has relied on governments to supply peacekeepers to protect U.N. staff. In Iraq, the U.N. used a contingent of Fijian peacekeepers for protection. But it has accelerated its move toward hired guns in Pakistan since the Taliban launched an October attack against a U.N. residence, killing five U.N. employees, including two Afghan security guards, and triggered the withdrawal of U.N. personnel from the country.

Those officials will return along with an additional 800 U.N. staff that have been budgeted for the Afghan mission. The latest drive has been led by Starr, who relied heavily on private security contractors to protect American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starr who joined the U.N. last May, once defended the security company Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater USA, following allegations that it killed Iraqi civilians. “Essentially, I think they do a very good job,” he told Reuters in 2008.

Starr declined to discuss the U.N.’s policy. But a U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, responded on behalf of Starr. “He wanted you to know that our understanding of the current usage of the term ‘Private Security Contractors’ typically refers to contractors doing close protection work for movement security, such as Blackwater/Xe, Triple Canopy, Dyncorps, Aegis, and many other companies providing this type of service. However, the U.N. doesn’t avail itself of this type of service. We do use some private companies to provide static security guards at some sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but primarily rely on host countries to provide our security.”

Still, the trend has alarmed some U.N. officials and experts, who fear that the U.N. will not be able to hold private contractors accountable. “I am not a fan,” said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the U.N.’s top peacekeeping official from 2000 to 2008. “The signal from the international community is we care about you, but not to the point of risking our own boys, and that’s not a good thing,” he said.

“This is a dangerous precedent for the U.N.,” added Jake Sherman, who served in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. Sherman recalls encountering a group of security guards that was hired by a western security firm to act as unarmed security guards at Afghan election sites. Sherman said they possessed concealed automatic weapons.

The use of private contractors has always been controversial at the U.N., which commissioned a feasibility study in the late 1990s to determine whether private military contractors could maintain security in the refugee camps established in Eastern Zaire following the Rwandan genocide. The idea was dropped as too costly and politically controversial. Today, there’s a U.N. special rapporteur who monitors their behavior, and routinely issues scathing reports on the alleged excesses of these firms, including the former Blackwater USA. The U.N. General Assembly has passed a resolution urging the U.N. to take precautions that its hiring practices don’t alter the international character of the U.N. or endanger its staff.

But a study by the Humanitarian Policy Group of security by the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations shows that U.N. peacekeepers have been quietly turning to private security, particularly in hazard stations like Somalia and Afghanistan. And the U.N.’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, recently confirmed that his organization will have to turn to the private sector to protect its people.

In Afghanistan, the U.N. has contracted an Afghan subsidiary of the London-based company, IDG Security Ltd., to provide 169 Gurkhas, according to figures compiled by the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan (some U.N. officials say there may be as many as 400 Gurkhas protecting U.N. officials). They are charged with supplementing security provided by the Afghan National Police.

Many U.N. officials in the field said it is naive to think you can rely on barely functioning governments to provide security for U.N. workers, particularly when they are being targeted by combatants or terrorists.

Nick Horne, a former U.N. political officer, said the Gurkhas were first brought in about three years ago because of concerns that the U.N. couldn’t count on the Afghans in a pinch. He recalled one incident in Gardez, when an Afghan police officer responsible for securing the U.N. compound there went on vacation, leaving his weapon with his 14-year-old son to stand guard.

“As a former beneficiary of this policy, I welcomed it. The gurkhas are professional, polite and discrete. It also frees up Afghan police for policing duties. Obviously it costs money — I don’t know how much — but it does enable the U.N. to continue operating in an increasingly hostile environment.”

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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