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S1E7 – Podcast host Chris Galvin is joined by Dr. Christopher Kinsey, Reader at Kings College London, who has spent the last twenty years researching and writing on the subject of private security. Dr. Kinsey describes how the private security sector has changed since he started his research, and how accountability mechanisms have developed during this period. So what are the different regulatory models at play, and where does international law fit in?


This podcast was originally published September 30, 2020

Today we are joined by Dr. Christopher Kinsey, who is a reader at King’s College London and spent the last 20 years researching and writing on the subject of private security. I’ll be talking to Dr. Kinsey on the subject of accountability in the private security sector, past, present, and future. So, Dr. Kinsey, could you tell us about how the private security industry has changed over the last couple of decades, particularly the companies operating in complex environments?

I suppose the biggest change over the last 20 years is that the industry has grown in size, significant size, I would argue, particularly since the end of the Cold War. The industry has also diversified. So, it’s not just about providing security to individuals. They also provide, for instance, anti-piracy activity, and security, which is something new that has only happened in the last ten, to twelve years. The industry has also professionalized itself. This was not so much in the 1990s, but certainly, I would say since the second Gulf War. The industry has recognized the need to be much more professional in how it approaches security. So, for instance, there are courses now that you can take before you actually go into the industry to ensure that you’re of a suitable competency. This was never the case back in the 70s and 80s when the industry was dominated by the circuit. Back then it was really experience and special forces operations that counted more than professionalization and standards. And the client base is also expanded. So, it’s not just about commercial security today, providing security to industry, and working in complex environments. It’s also about providing security to NGOs and government departments. So, I would argue that in all those areas, not only have we seen change, we’ve seen significant growth as well.

So, can you tell us what’s driving the growth of armed security?

Basically, it’s increased international instability. Sean McFate refers to this as a durable disorder, and it’s leading to more fragile, failing, and failed states. And when you have a fragile, failed state, you still require these states that are still functioning and many of the actors working within these states require security and armed security. You talk about complex environments. The complex environments that private security is concerned with are often found within these types of states. And of course, again, with increased instability, political instability, you have increased often criminality. And again, that drives it. So political instability leads to warlordism, it leads to increased criminality. And as a consequence of that, actors, multinational corporations, governments, and NGOs require security, often armed security, the type that private security provides.

Now, those environments that you describe can be complex indeed, especially when it comes to the issue of accountability. So can you tell us how has corporate accountability in the private security sector changed over the last few decades? And how does the accountability of clients, as the consumers of private security fit into this?

Well, first of all, there’s a far better understanding about accountability and particularly corporate social responsibility and what this means in the context of the industry. So, what are the industry’s concerns when operating in a fragile state? The issues of human rights, for instance, and how to go about ensuring that you don’t undermine not only people’s human rights but political rights and so forth. So, there’s a better understanding from the industry about their requirements. What they’re required to do in terms of accountability, in terms of corporate social responsibility. Companies realize they need to act socially and ethically in a responsible way towards local communities, for example. Not to do so, of course, may affect their operation, but they have they have a moral responsibility, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their staff conduct themselves properly. Companies now produce, for instance, policy documents and have done over the last few years that detail what they can and cannot do or what their staff can and cannot do. And their performance can now be measured against these policy documents. But the international community and organizations like the International Code of Conduct Association also produce documents that that industry can draw on and in fact, have to sign up to ensure that they behave in a socially responsible way and are accountable for their behavior, for their actions.

Clients also have a responsibility here. And their responsibility is to ensure that the private security companies they employ abide by the regulations that are out there. And I can think of your own set of regulations, but there’s also the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. So, there is a whole plethora of regulations that companies are now aware of, much more so, and are adhering to those. A cynic may say that this is all window shopping, it’s all about business. It’s all about winning contracts and then of course, once companies have a contract, then much of this goes out of the window. I would argue otherwise. Once these policies are embedded in an institution or a corporation, it actually becomes quite hard for them to ignore them. And remember, as I’ve just said, they can be measured against their own policy documents. It’s also important that clients employ the right companies. Those are companies that have signed up to such regulations that they have in place robust processes to make sure that their private security providers adhere to international standards set out by these organizations, that they hold their security providers to account if they break such codes and that they are transparent in their employment of private security auditing.

Again, this was something that had just come in in the last few years. If you go back to the 1980s, back to further 1970s, no one, I don’t think ever audited a private security company regarding its conduct. But today, of course, that’s all part and parcel of the industry. And also employing clients should only employ those that are committed, those private security companies that are committed to high standards and performance. So, it’s not just about getting the best price. It’s making sure you get the best price with a company that has a proven track record of maintaining high standards. But I suppose the most important is to ensure the welfare of the local communities affected by private security. So, making sure that there are in place processes by which local community not only has a say about necessarily private security and its conduct within its area but has a process where if something does happen, then they can call on external bodies to hold private security and their clients to account in this respect.

Now, what are some of the different regulatory models in complex environments where these companies are operating? For example, in many African countries, I understand there can be a blurred line between private and public security operations. So, what are the challenges in ensuring accountability across a global industry where different regulatory models exist and where, for example, concepts of public and private might be different?

There is a plethora of local regulations that govern companies in different parts of the world. However, what I would say here is that the leading documents should be the ICoC’s own code of conduct, also, of course, principles and international humanitarian law, and that local documents should actually be embedded within those documents. That’s where they should take their lead from these, what one would say the universal principles in those documents. So, the challenge, I suppose, is ensuring that local regulation has embedded within it the principles that are enshrined in the documents. I’ve just mentioned there are different, as you said, there are different local regulatory mechanisms out there and what one is looking at within the local regulatory systems is that they take account of they take account of local norms, they take account of local traditions. But again, may also be very important in terms of the local environment. So we shouldn’t ignore the local environment. But I would say what is extremely important here is that the local regulatory regime needs to make sure that within it those universal principles I’ve just mentioned.

How would you count those? Is that international law? If not, what role does international law have to play and what role do you think an international convention might have to play in the future?

International law has a significant role to play here. I was actually going to say that one of the one of the approaches to regulation or the approach at the moment has been the top-down approach to regulation. That is that it’s we have a set of laws that companies must abide by. And of course, if they don’t, then of course the legal mechanisms kick in and they’re held to account through the courts. And of course, enforcement enforcement agency is the police. Now, the other way of looking at it is from the bottom up. And this is where the community itself helps to monitor and ensure the proper conduct of private security. And the way this can be achieved is through local charities, using local charities or NGOs, I should say, to help transmit information up the ladder. So you have a local environment, a local community that’s affected by the behaviour of the private security company, and that if that behaviour doesn’t meet the high standards expected, then there’s a reporting mechanism that the local people can use to ensure that that information gets passed up to, for instance, the police, but ultimately to an organization like yours that can then take the necessary action against the company. And certainly, if that company is a member of the International Code of Conduct Association.

Coming back to your other question about international law, I think international law has a very important part to play. International law is often criticized because it cannot, let’s say, prosecute private security companies. And I agree, international law is often soft law. And certainly, in this area, it is soft law. It’s very difficult to enforce, but it still has a very important role to play with private security. First of all, it should set limits on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of the type of force the market should be able to sell and buy. And what I mean by that is that in the case of the International Code of Conduct Association membership, their level of force is often no more than sidearms or rifles. But there are, of course, companies that are prepared to offer much more than that. And that’s combat capabilities. And international law should be able to set limits on what is permissible and what is not permissible. And if international law or if the international community decides that companies can engage in combat capabilities, then again, international law needs to play a role in making sure. All companies are monitored and they are held to account for their actions.

So, it’s not necessarily about banning companies engaging in combat or what I refer to as direct combat support, but it is certainly about making sure that those actions are properly monitored and that individuals and companies are held to account. And the two companies I think of here are Wagner and Blackwater both. And certainly, Wagner is engaged in combat operations and Blackwater [00:15:00] is certainly engaged in, I would say, activities beyond what your members would deem as acceptable in this way. If that’s going to continue, then I think I think these companies in particular need to be closely monitored. And again, international law has a role to play here. Again, international law helps to establish international norms of what is and is not acceptable behavior. So, it may be acceptable to provide certain combat capabilities, but it may not be acceptable in other areas or other types of combat capabilities. So, might be acceptable to do what he did, which was to directly help an army that simply didn’t have the ability to defeat a terrorist organization. But, it may not be acceptable for a private security company or a private military company to take over the complete outsourcing of military force.

Now, ICoCA’s focus is on the latter, on private security companies. But I want to focus a little more on this issue of private military companies. Now, you wrote a book published in 2006 titled Corporate Soldier and International Security The Rise of Private Military Companies. And 14 years on, we’re seeing increasing use, as you say, especially from the likes of the Wagner group in different parts of the world that we describe as complex environments. So how is this similar or different from the growth of the private security sector? And are these two distinct industries in your mind?

They are distinct in my mind. I spent the last 2025 years studying them. So, to me, that distinction is crystal clear. However, I think many people struggle to understand the nuances between these two groups and therefore they often refer to them as simply mercenaries. The similarity is that they both operate in complex environments for me. So, they both operate often in states that have failed or are failing. And of course, they carry weapons. So that to me is a similarity. However, they are also very different. What drives the Wagner group, you could argue, is political intrigue. And what I mean by that is that mercenaries have tended to engage in political intrigue. And we saw this in the early part of the 19th century when, of course, mercenaries engaged in political intrigue in South America. This is where they actively engaged with the local forces to overthrow the Spanish empire. So, it’s about political change or maintaining the status quo. If we go to we fast forward and we go to the Cold War, the 1960s, and the Congo, we see mercenaries again engaged in political intrigue. That is this time they don’t want to change the political system as they did in South America or help to do in South America.

They want to maintain a political system. And that political system, of course, was colonialism. So that’s what mercenaries do. What private security does is provide armed security, of course, often providing armed security in the same conflict zone where you might find mercenaries. But their function is literally to provide armed protection, often to diplomats nowadays or businessmen. And I don’t see anything anything wrong with that. The issue now, of course, is that diplomats, businessmen, and NGOs are now targeted by warring sides simply for the money that they can bring in, of course, because, once a hostage is worth money to them, not to protect yourself seems silly to me. However, there are ways of protecting yourself in a hostile environment without using armed security. But our focus is armed security. So, they’re involved in security. They’re not involved in political intrigue. However, there’s a gray area. When does providing security actually move across into political intrigue? Your security is now aiding a political group in its quest to either change or maintain the status quo. And when does mercenarism actually encroach on the security sector? Mercenaries start to protect assets. That is a classic security function within a fragile state.

And of course, the other challenge is distinguishing between the two in terms of the people themselves, both these groups. Mercenaries, private security that work in complex environments employ former soldiers. And that’s easy to understand. Obviously, they have the skill sets needed, obviously, to engage in warfighting. But security in a war zone is a dangerous activity and you need to be able to use weapons, sidearms, rifles, for instance. So, both new soldiers and therefore often from an outside perspective, looking in, yes, it looks as if the two groups are the same. But there are, as I said, subtle differences. One of the challenges, I suppose, for the industry is trying to convince the media that actually private security aren’t mercenaries. Often the often the media make matters much harder by referring to both groups under the simple label as mercenary. And this to me is all about selling papers. But as I’ve mentioned, there are there are differences. One activity is legal and legitimate, and the other activity is illegal. But making the general public aware of these nuances is extremely difficult. And quite frankly, I’m not even sure if they’re that interested. And I’m not even sure the media are that interested in those nuances.

And when it comes to the issue of accountability, what are the challenges in holding mercenaries to account? And if that is difficult, what’s the danger that an unchecked mercenary sector tarnishes the private security sector industry in the future, especially if the media and the general public are conflating the two?

Well, you’re right. If anonymous, if the mercenary sector goes unchecked, it will certainly tarnish the private security sector. How do you hold mercenaries to account? Well, as I’ve just mentioned, I think there is a role here for international law to set the norms of what is permissible, mercenary activity, and what is not. And as I said, an example would be the type of activity that may be engaged in northern Nigeria where it gave combat support, combat training, and support to the Nigerian military activity that that wouldn’t be acceptable might be taking on the whole role of a state military and privatizing your armed forces. How do you hold mercenaries to account? Well, invariably in the past, of course, what you’ve you haven’t it’s a very dangerous game. And if you get caught, you tend to get shot. And certainly, that’s been the case throughout history. Mercenaries have been caught as shown. No, no mercy simply executed. Now, mercenaries have been held to account and they were held to account in Angola after the Angola debacle in 1976. But actually, trying to catch them and put them on trial is extremely difficult. And I think probably the only way of doing it is through national legislation. And I’m thinking back now to Simon Mann’s operation in Africa. Well, it would have been about 2010. Now, if you do catch them, then you put them on trial nationally and deal with it at that level. I’m not sure international law is actually capable of dealing with mercenaries in this sense, and that is what would normally happen, as I said, they would be tried in local courts, but yes, there needs to be a distinction made here to differentiate between the two types of activity.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).