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Struggle for Moral Legitimacy – Kogod Now
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Kogod Now / Faculty Research  / Struggle for Moral Legitimacy
man in Afghan desert street with gun

Struggle for Moral Legitimacy

Afghan President Hamid Karzai backed off from a desperate attempt to ban private security contractors from the country last fall – for now. His was an impractical demand at best, and Karzai faced significant pressure from Western allies to allow licensed firms to stay put.

The reality is that their removal would leave a significant void that the Afghan police force could not effectively fill.

There are currently more than 50 private security firms licensed to operate in Afghanistan, employing about 27,000 contractors – nearly all are Afghan nationals. Some contractors even aid the U.S. military with intelligence operations.

While the concept of contractor use in war zones has existed for hundreds of years, the modern conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have spelled big business for the industry. In mid-2008, the U.S. State Department had about 1,400 contracts with Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy for private security and protective services in Iraq alone.

There’s no question that the Afghan economy also reaps a benefit; simply put, military contracting, including private security, is driving the local economy.

And while the private security industry as a whole is estimated to be worth over $100 billion, Associate Professor Heather Elms knows the companies’ monetary value is not the only measure of their validity.

An international business professor, one of Elms’ specialties is the relationship between corporate and stakeholder responsibility. Much of her recent research examines private security companies’ (PSCs) operations around the world.

“To sustain themselves, PSCs need to develop moral legitimacy—the sense among stakeholders that they’re doing the right thing—in addition to pragmatic legitimacy, which is simply associated with value,” she explained.

Elms is keeping a close eye on the industry’s attempts at professionalization, including the first-ever International Code of Conduct signed by more than fifty private security companies in Geneva on November 9. It’s likely that code compliance and industry certification will eventually become a prerequisite for security contracts with the federal government.

The voluntary code highlights respect for human rights and the rule of law in conflict zones; offers guidelines for the use of force and weapons management; and explicitly bans mistreatment of detainees, including forced labor and sexual exploitation. It also focuses on vetting and training of personnel and establishing internal whistleblower and grievance procedures.

To analyze the code and explain certification standards in the industry, Elms recently chaired a series of three webinars that examined best practices for effective governance and oversight.

The expert-led discussion featured academics and professionals familiar with all aspects of certification, including process, management, environment, labor, and supply chain standards. Most agree that the new code of conduct is merely the first step.

The International Stability Operations Association, the trade association that counts more than 20 private security firms in its membership, would probably agree.

“We are already working with our partners on the critical next step – the development of an international accountability mechanism that will ensure credibility and transparency in the process,” stated ISOA President Doug Brooks at the signing.

And while the companies do profit from ongoing conflict, they also contribute to peacebuilding efforts, according to Brooks. In an August 2010 interview with PBS, Brooks pointed out that PSCs protect commercial spaces, too – including not-for-profits and industrial warehouses.

It’s also true that problems often come from smaller, lesser-known firms that lack experience but win work by coming in as the low bidder, reaping the benefits of a lack of oversight.

Elms acknowledged that the corporate entities aren’t the only parties responsible for their actions. The relationship between PSCs and their stakeholders is a two-way street, Elms said: you can’t have corporate responsibility without responsible employees – and consumers need to contract legitimate projects, just as the businesses need to focus on legitimacy as well.

The role of private security companies in conflict zones is a critical one, and a growing concern; as the U.S. military presence fades in Iraq, the presence of private security contractors there is expected to grow.

But private security’s presence doesn’t guarantee a decrease in conflict.

Classified military documents released by WikiLeaks illustrated one explosive incident in Iraq in December 2004. A convoy from the PSC Custer Battles fired shots near Iraqi police and civilians, including five shots into a crowded minibus, before a British military unit and the Iraqi officers caught up with the contractors. The convoy then paid off Iraqi civilians and beat a hasty retreat to escape disciplinary action.

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