Humanitarian action and private security companies
by Koenraad Van Brabant April 2002

Governments, commercial corporations, aid agencies and private citizens in many countries are using ‘private security companies’. The growth of the private security sector has been rapid, but it has also by and large escaped public scrutiny and debate. Yet there are problematic aspects. Some governments, under pressure from armed insurgencies, have used private armies to bolster their own weak national security and defence functions. Other governments have used (or allowed) private security companies to provide proxy services to beleaguered regimes, where direct official assistance is deemed politically undesirable. The growing interest in war economies, and the links between some types of private security company and resources like diamonds, oil and hardwoods, have drawn renewed attention to the dubious motives of some private security firms. Legal frameworks and oversight mechanisms tend to be inadequate, even in functioning states like the UK, while international arrangements are widely seen as toothless.

Aid agencies and private security companies

These problems aside, aid agencies are using national and international private security companies, most commonly for risk analysis, staff training and professional advice on managing a particular crisis, such as a kidnap. Such companies have also been called upon to do ‘security audits’, and to provide guards for site protection. (Whereas in the past aid agencies have directly hired personnel from a private security company to serve as a security officer, this is nowadays rare.) Security firms are active in the field of demining, but have also offered their services in other areas, including advising on the protection of displaced populations. In doing so, they become contractors for the humanitarian departments of governmental donors, thereby benefiting from official humanitarian aid money.

Agency policies

Agencies tend not to have policies governing their use of private security firms, nor is consolidated information and experience available to guide agencies in formulating such a policy. Yet fundamental ethical, political and management issues are at stake. Is it unacceptable for humanitarian agencies to use security companies under any circumstances? Are there situations when this should be considered, for instance if doing so is the only available option for the protection of vulnerable and threatened populations? If an agency does engage a private security company, for instance to advise on site security or train staff, how can it ensure that the firm is reputable? Confidentiality means that companies will refuse to disclose the identities of their other clients, or the full range of their activities. Even if they do reveal this information, it is very difficult to ascertain whether the firm in question is linked to other, more dubious concerns; corporate relationships in this industry are notoriously and deliberately complex and obscure. More widely, by using private companies rather than relying on government forces, are agencies contributing to the ‘privatisation of security’, whereby security becomes, not a public good, but a privilege available only to those who can afford it? In organisational terms, is it really preferable to rely on outside expertise, rather than building up capacity internally?

Agency attitudes

Agencies are unlikely to stop using private security firms in the near future, and these ethical, legal and organisational questions will not disappear. Yet there is a widespread refusal to square up to the subject. Some agency staff simply deny that their organisation has ever used a private security firm, even when it patently has done so. They may argue that this is a false discussion, and that the focus should be on the failure of politicians to provide secure conditions in which aid agencies can do their work. Some agency staff state that it is donors who are putting pressure on them to use private security companies, to get the aid through irrespective of principles.

Ways forward

The questions that concern us here are not simple, and require action from the aid agencies, the regulatory authorities and the private security firms themselves.

The aid organisations

First and foremost, aid organisations operating in conflict situations need to work on their political analysis, notably with regard to the wider political and humanitarian environment. This includes the changing nature of conflict; the changing role and capacity of the state; and the increasing privatisation of traditional domains of the state and new roles for non-state actors. Agencies also need a more sophisticated understanding of the variety of organisations currently lumped together under the heading ‘private security company’. Such firms encompass a wide range, from companies that engage in active combat to ones offering pure risk analysis and advice.

Agencies also need to look at their organisational response. Are principles and ethical positions well-defined? Are they adequate to guide the agency in its dealings with the private security sector? How does the use of private security companies fit with agencies’ responsible management of the safety and security of their staff and assets, and the need to develop in-house competence in this regard? Within the humanitarian community as a whole, there is a real need to properly discuss the use of private security companies. This should not be done in theoretical terms, but on the basis of case material and experiences from aid agencies that have used private firms. This is not possible in the current climate of official ‘denial’, because acknowledging the facts may taint an agency’s reputation.

The regulatory authorities

The legal and regulatory vacuum surrounding the private security sector has already been noted. Progress on this front will be difficult, not least because international legislation, and hence international consensus, is required. Nonetheless, there is scope for governments to develop or enhance national legislation covering the creation, registration and activities of private security companies within their purview. Now may be the time to revisit existing instruments, such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, which is more than two decades old. It may also be possible for states to share information on the nature and activities of private security companies registered in their jurisdiction, making international efforts to monitor the sector more effective.

The private security companies

If private security companies want to be perceived as legitimate and respectable enterprises, they must prove their integrity and credentials. They will therefore have to develop a code of ethics that is convincing both in principle and in its application, and demonstrate sufficient transparency and accountability to convince sceptical observers and potential clients that they are not hiding ‘compromising’ facts that would contradict the image that they portray.


Koenraad Van Brabant is Co-Director of the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP), Geneva, Switzerland. He is the author of Mainstreaming the Organisational Management of Safety and Security: A Review of Aid Agency Practices and a Guide for Management, HPG Report 9 (London: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2001); and the HPN Good Practice Review Operational Security Management in Violent Environments, published in June 2000.

References and further reading

Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation (London: The Stationery Office, February 2002).

Leonard Gaultiet et al., The Mercenary Issue at the UN Commission on Human Rights: The Need for a New Approach (London: International Alert, 2001).

Abdel-Fatau Musah and J. Kayode Fayemi (eds), Mercenaries: An African Security Dilemma (London: Pluto Press, 2000).

David Shearer, Private Armies and Military Intervention, Adelphi Paper 316 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998).

B. Wood and J. Perelman, The Arms Fixers: Controlling the Brokers and Shipping Agents (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 1999).

International Alert, The Politicisation of Humanitarian Action and Staff Security: The Use of Private Security Companies by Humanitarian Agencies, report of a seminar in April 2001.

A. Vranckx, Private Security Services in the Colombian Context (Antwerp: International Peace Information Service, 2001), users.skynet.be/ipis