The use of private security providers and services in humanitarian operations

The use of private security providers and services in humanitarian operations

Is humanitarianism under threat from private security providers?

Humanitarian action and security have an uneasy relationship. Some agencies, notably the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres, pointedly do not employ security escorts in order to ensure the ‘integrity’ of their operations. However many humanitarian organisations feel it necessary to protect their staff in conflict-affected field operations by employing such personnel. The latter course of action, though understandable, is potentially problematic, specifically in relation to the ethics and principles of humanitarian action, yet very little research on the nature of private security providers (PSPs) interaction with the humanitarian community exists. This paper therefore aims to:

  • map the actual practice taking place
  • examine the trends in contracting and related policies
  • study the approach of the private security industry towards humanitarian interests
  • consider the potential implications of interaction between these two sectors.

The authors findings/recommendations include: 

  • local PSPs are used much more often and in many more environments than international PSPs.The most frequent concern was the poor quality, low pay and weak management of these actors

  • for humanitarian organisations, much of the concern lies in the fact that very few PSPs appear to have developed an understanding of the unique operating principles that guide humanitarian operations in conflict contexts

  • protocols or guidance on whether, when and how to contract and manage private security companies, as a special category of vendor requiring special criteria and oversight, are almost completely absent among humanitarian organisations

  • if the decision is made to contract a PSP, the organisation must be guided by policies establishing the PSP’s role, and both parties should have a clear understanding from the outset of the entity’s scope of work, its ‘rules of engagement’, accountabilities and procedures for reporting incidents

  • consensus-building on good practice and common guidelines for contracting and management of PSPs are important areas for humanitarian organisations to explore. To do so, they must break the silence and overcome the unproductive secrecy and sensitivities regarding the use of PSPs.
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