Code for security firms reins in violence, mercenaries
Officials said on Tuesday that a landmark US and British-backed code of conduct signed by major private security operators, including some operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, would stop the firms providing mercenaries.
Britain announced at the signing that it intended to make the voluntary code, which is aimed at preventing abuse and reining in excess violence in lawless conflict zones, compulsory for security providers it contracts.
About 58 companies, including US firms Triple Canopy, Xe Services -- formerly Blackwater -- and Britain's G4 Security signed up, while the code has the backing of 35 countries, said Swiss officials who brokered the deal.
"We are turning the page," Swiss state secretary for foreign affairs Peter Maurer told journalists.
"You have to choose whether you are going to be a private security contractor or engaging in warfare," he added.
The 15-page code, which took 14 months to negotiate, emerged amid concern about the "exponential growth" of security contractors in conflict areas and their role in guarding embassies, officials, company executives and aid agencies.
Diplomats and company executives said the pledge would "fill a gap" by setting a minimum standard in the security industry, and marked a step towards greater accountability.
"This code has the potential to be a monumental step forward," said Devon Chaffee of campaign group Human Rights First.
Maurer warned that it "will only be credible if it is followed by short, medium and long term change in behaviour."
Michael Clarke, director of public affairs for G4S, which generates 11 billion dollars a year, acknowledged that security providers "didn't always get it right" in highly insecure areas where staff worked under threat.
"Local institutions may not be strong enough to ensure that people operating there, including our people, are properly held to account. That is, as we see it, the rationale for this code," he explained.
Blackwater became notorious in 2007 when its guards protecting a convoy opened fire in a busy Baghdad square, killing as many as 17 civilians.
Two former security guards also went on trial in the United States in September accused of the murder of two Afghan citizens in a 2009 shooting.
Afghanistan's government has ordered private security firms to disband and leave the country amid anger among ordinary Afghans who regard them as private militias acting above the law.
"We also know that private security services, in particular armed services, carry significant risks," said Guy Pollard, a diplomat at the British mission in Geneva.
Pollard said the British government would incorporate the code "into each contract we have with a private security company."
"We will only give contracts to companies that can show they meet the minimum standard we have set for this industry," he added.
Under the code, the companies agreed to minimum standards in recruitment, vetting personnel, training, control mechanisms, compliance with local and international laws and protection of human rights.
It includes a pledge limiting the use of force and an assurance that staff cannot invoke contractual obligations or "superior orders" in a conflict zone to justify crimes, killings, torture, kidnappings, detentions or summary executions.
Companies also pledge that their staff will not use firearms except in self defence. Maurer and experts who helped draw up the code said this prevented security providers from being engaged in offensive operations.
"You are not allowed to be a mercenary and take part" in the code, said Andrew Clapham, director of the Geneva academy of international humanitarian law.
The security firms involved now have 18 months to agree on an additional oversight mechanism and independent monitoring.
© 2010 AFP