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An Act of Faith: Building the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers

Jul 19, 2012 Written by  Whitney Grespin, Contributor

146078124The activities of private military and security companies (PMSCs) in armed conflicts have traditionally drawn minimal attention when compared to their historic presence and importance. Such entrepreneurs have played a role in wars from ancient times through present conflicts, though the media paid only peripheral coverage to their modern practices until scandals of the past decade. In the last 20 years, PMSCs have grown to become a seemingly indispensable part of the modern western stabilization arsenal, and the governments who secure their services put a great deal of faith and trust in their operations.

Since the end of the Cold War, demand for PMSC services has grown to a grand scale, and the industry’s capabilities now encompass a wide array of services that are vital to the success of on-the-ground war fighting. As public calls for corporate responsibility and accountability across sectors have heralded successes such as the Kimberley Process and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, there has likewise been a movement to codify and implement a code of ethics for the retention of services and operations of private military and security service providers.

Voluntary Accountability

In 2008 the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, with contributions from the NGO sector and private security company industry, developed and proposed the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies, which reaffirms the obligations of States pertaining to the use of PMSCs during armed conflicts. The document delineates pertinent international legal obligations and lists specific recommendations related to procurement practices and operational oversight.

Although representatives from the United States government and over 30 other countries have affirmed their support of the Montreux Document, a general consensus emerged among stakeholders that a supplement to the recommendations of the document would be beneficial, if not inevitably necessary, for its principles to be integrated into and compatible with the practices of private security companies. Thus, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC) was born.

The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is a set of principles that articulates and reinforces the obligations of Private Security Providers (PSPs) with particular regard to international humanitarian law and human rights law, as well as aiming to improve industry accountability by establishing an independent oversight mechanism. Once established and operational, the ICoC strives to expand its coverage beyond PSPs into all sectors of the stability operations industry in the future. While the Montreux Document guides the engagement practices of States, the ICoC guides the performance of assigned activities by companies.

The Code lays out a comprehensive list of human rights-based principles and industry best practices that must be followed for the responsible provision of private security functions. These principles include not only on-the-ground issues like rules for the use of force, prohibitions on human trafficking, torture, and other human rights abuses but also specific commitments regarding the management and oversight of companies. Such governance guidelines cover issues like ethical personnel recruitment, vetting practices, and grievance recognition and investigation. Regardless of the stories that have made the news in recent years, most PSPs are carefully administered professional enterprises with remarkably comprehensive quality control processes.

As Colonel Phil Rudder, U.S. Marine Corps (ret) posited on behalf of G4S Government Solutions, “The International Code of Conduct represents a commendable effort by many organizations to offer a clear ethical code for companies executing security contracts in complex environments to follow. G4S companies [and select others] already comply with industry association codes of conduct, such as the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) Code of Conduct. So, the ICoC complements the ethical standards to which we currently adhere.”

The Nitty Gritty

The ICoC was created out of a multi-stakeholder initiative convened by the Swiss government that is comprised of PSP industry companies, civil society/NGOs and other international organizations, and government representatives from multiple countries. The draft document produced by this multi-stakeholder initiative was revealed at a conference held in Switzerland in November 2010. At that time, a signing ceremony was held, and the ICoC was accepted by 58 private security companies from fifteen countries, all of whom publicly committed to operate in accordance with the Code and whom affirmed their responsibility to respect the human rights of, and fulfill humanitarian responsibilities towards, all those affected by their business activities.

By avowing their adherence to the ICoC, the signatory companies have also committed to work with relevant stakeholders to contribute to the development of the final version of the code and related standards. The 2010 version of the ICoC built a strong framework for the Code’s completed form, but in the past year and a half there has been a great effort to flesh out specific aspects of the Code, particularly the independent governance and oversight mechanism component. The additions and refinements have been driven by scores of contributors to the ICoC effort.

The temporary Steering Committee for the ICoC consists of representatives from three stakeholder groups; signatory companies, governments, and civil society. The Steering Committee has met regularly over the past year and a half to help with the continued development of the Code and advancement of its interests. The Steering Committee has been assisted by multilateral stakeholder input in three working groups. Those working groups include: 1) Assessment, Reporting, and Internal & External Oversight; 2) Resolution of Third Party Grievances; and 3) Independent Governance & Oversight Mechanism Structure, Governance, and Funding.

Calls for public participation have been made in the ICoC development process, and following the release of a draft charter for the oversight mechanism in January of 2012 there was a month-long call for comments that are now being considered during the revision of the second draft. All working groups’ meetings notes and activities are thoroughly documented on the initiative’s website.

The (Multi-Stakeholder) Way Forward

These commitments to responsible and ethical practices go beyond a signature on a piece of paper—they require resources and man-hours to maintain compliance with the Code of Conduct’s requirements. So why would private companies agree to sign up for such a code that undoubtedly taxes their resources and therefore challenges their competitiveness on the open market? As one company representative explained, “First, it’s the right thing to do… in Reagan’s words, trust but verify.”

At last count, 404 companies from 57 different countries have signed the ICoC. The signatories come from myriad specialties and functions, and over half focus on maritime security, reflecting recent trends in industry focus and ability to respond to evolving client needs. Such range across industry function and geographic affiliation demonstrates widespread industry subscription to the values of the Code and should be matched by comparable government and civil society input to the Code’s evolution.

A civil society representative observed about the drafting process, “What distinguishes this for civil society is that we get a voice. It’s an interesting difference in that our interests are aligned with [the PSP] industry.” Contrasting that statement is the simple issue of resource limitation that has left many civil society organizations unable to commit the resources necessary to maintain consistent presence and continuous input in the ICoC development process. Others who have been able to allocate resources feel that they have been deliberately shut out of the process. Finding the balance between the multitude of voices providing input is a difficult endeavor, but perhaps the most important factor in determining the way ahead is focusing on the consumer of the services in question.

Doug Brooks, President of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), has observed that, “Standards never change unless the client pays attention to the standards.” As articulated by Mark DeWitt, Deputy General Counsel at Triple Canopy and longtime member of the ICoC’s Steering Committee, “Everyone understands that the long-term success of the ICoC will be driven by clients…we must be willing to tell Congress and other national bodies that the ICoC is an industry standard that should be incorporated into their procurement policies.” While hundreds of companies eagerly anticipate the codification of the encapsulated best practices, there needs to be a public call for customer support of this effort.

The necessary support includes buy-in from major clients, including the U.S. government and major players in the extractive industry, and a long-term approach for clients to recognize and support the efforts of ICoC signatories, including the exclusive use of their services. As Col Rudder also observed, “The need for consultation and discussion among a broader group of stakeholders is required, and the conversation must include both government and non-state clients to be an effective effort.”

The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is a remarkable and unique effort for the American people and citizens worldwide to support a cross-sector initiative striving to set the bar high for ethical operations in conflict areas and complex environments. In a time when these companies and many others are so often criticized for a lack of transparency, the tax-paying public and invested stakeholders should take the opportunity to request, if not demand, that their governments and other PSP service consumers also endorse and explicitly support the aims of this initiative and the commitments of signatory companies.

Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in intelligence sector reform and capacity building.

This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.


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