Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Battling human rights windmills

Published on 17 November 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

« At its 15th session, on 1 October 2010, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 15/26 E F S A C R by which it decided “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to consider the possibility of elaborating an international regulatory framework, including, inter alia, the option of elaborating a legally binding instrument on the regulation, monitoring and oversight of the activities of private military and security companies, including their accountability, taking into consideration the principles, main elements and draft text as proposed by the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.” At the conclusion of two sessions, in May 2011 and August 2012 respectively, the open-ended intergovernmental working group submitted a report[1] with recommendations to the Human Rights Council at its 22nd session.


Federico Fellini: E la nave va…

Looking through the report one is struck by the lack of clear perspective on Private Military and Security Companies (PMRC). This is highlighted by the following intervention: “5. Ms. Kran pointed to human rights challenges brought about by the increase in the outsourcing of security-related State functions to private companies, particularly given that such companies frequently operate transnationally.” In other words, Ms Kran is stuck in the “Blackwater” model going back to 2003. Does it make sense?

The broad context is one of providing security and subsidiary military effort in a failed state, i.e. in a situation of in situ lawlessness. Under the circumstances, one cannot expect the national authorities to provide the needed security. The overarching need of any effective PMRC bent on providing “security” is for intelligence, for only if one knows the danger, is one able to act preventively. Intelligence, however, is essentially sourced locally. It would stand to reason that local PMRC have a distinct competitive advantage over transnational firms, who may have the combat organization, but not the eyes and ears on the ground.

By focusing on trans-national PMRCs, and going for an “international regulatory framework” one is missing much of the reality of the problem – whether the security threat (requiring PMRCs) is real, or contrived by PMRC trying to build up business or battling with other PMRC for market share of the “security budget” of the entity it is expected to protect. In other words, it fails to even imagine that it could all be a scam, a Potemkin village for the clueless invader. There is a name for this kind of scam in Naples: the game of the three boxes, by which clueless tourists are happily milked.[2]

A recent book[3] argues convincingly that after the US invasion of Afghanistan, The Talibs and al-Queda had decamped. Most of the population was welcoming the Americans in hope of a better life. The US, however, made “war on terror” their priority – not the reconstruction of the country. Smart locals with an ear to the Americans obliged, by fabricating terrorists.[4] They drew up lists of their own enemies, or people they were hoping to dispossess. They used their monopolistic position as provider of “intelligence” to pursue their political aims through US forces. The US forces unwittingly became enforcers of mafia-style gang wars. The book tells incidences of US forces wiping out their own known supporters, who happened not to see eye to eye with the local providers of intelligence to the US forces. The blindness of American “anti-terrorist violence” of course strengthened the local power camarillas.

The scam went deeper, according to the book. US military had to supply its scattered bases. After a few well-placed IED, the US bases worried about the safe supply of assets. This created a self-reinforcing spiral of perceived threat and demand for locally sourced security: who better than local PMRC could provide it? Inevitably, a scam developed, where the PMRC would create and combat the threat at the same time. The stake was a payment of $ 1000 per successful trip by a single lorry – for a phantom service shared among all parties (including any bona-fide insurgents). The infinite declinations of this basic game would have made a ndragheta boss from Naples proud. Needless to say, transnational PMRC would have been two-bit players in this game, or “turned” to suit the aims of local intelligence providers.

In both instances, the US was the hapless and unknowing victim of its own fears as well as its hubris of achieving total intelligence. In such a setting, a “top-of-the-line” local PMRC will be even fully respectful of human rights, just as Mafiosi provide for their brand of law and order and obtain local “respect.” Human rights violations will be ascribed to unkonwn “terrorists,” though locals will quickly read them for the silent work of the local power structure. Such scams may have cost the US tax-payer severa dozen billion dollars…

More generally, many of the human rights violations arise from flawed or faulty intelligence, which targets the innocent and bypasses due process. The source of raw intelligence is always local, though it may be elaborated elsewhere, (with an inevitable loss of information following elaboration[5]). Crowd-sourcing is the best way of avoiding monopolistic positions by any actor, who will inevitably turn the situation to his own advantage.[6] In a situation of civil war, intelligence becomes scarce: we have a “sourcing failure” and “moral hazard.” The Human Rights Council would do better in studying moral hazard in the context of conflict, rather than building international regulatory frameworks in a sandbox.


[1] https://bit.ly/1H8cwmL One may note, in chortling, that the report takes the oh! so very bureaucratic approach of reporting first on itself, rather than substance.

[2] https://bit.ly/1t2blKV in italian.

[3] Anand GOPAL (2014): No good men among the living. America, the Taliban, and the war through Afghan eyes. Holt, New York

[4] “For several hours a day in a small Kandahar office, special forces and CIA officers poured over intelligence reports from the field, almost all of them originating from Sherzai’s network. (…) According to former special forces soldiers, the two sides had an informal pact: “He’d give us intel and then we’d let him do whatever he wanted.” Gulalai’s men: “could get into places and exact payback for something that had nothing to do with their mission.” (pg. 110)

[5] Oskar MORGENSTERN (1965): On accuracy of economic observations. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[6] The distortion created by “asymmetries of information” have been widely studied https://bit.ly/1zvuKtj

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