S2E3 – In this episode, we welcome Amol Mehra, director of industry programs at Laudes, a philanthropic foundation working to accelerate the transition to a climate-positive and inclusive economy. He was one of the founding board members of ICoCA. Amol will tell us more about the process of creation of ICoCA, and specifically, about the role that the civil society plays in the process of ensuring the accountability of private security companies.
Hello, my name is Chris Galvin. Welcome to ICoCA’s podcast series “Future Security Trends Implications for Human Rights”. This season, we’re marking ICoCA’s ten year anniversary by looking back to the founding and early years of the Association, meeting some of the leading figures who were instrumental in both shaping the vision of the organisation and getting the initiative up and running. Today, I’m delighted to be talking to Amol Mehra, who is now director of industry programs at Laudes Foundation. He was one of the founding board members of ICoCA, where he represented the civil society pillar, having founded the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, ICAR. ICoCA is a multi-stakeholder initiative with civil society being one of the key three membership and governance pillars. Back in those early days of the association, what was the vision for the civil society pillar and what were the challenges in making that vision a reality?
Thank you so much for having me. Incredibly, it has been ten years since the initiative was launched which really marks an important milestone in the development of business and human rights standards that are applicable to the private security sector.
When the civil society pillar was put together, we really thought we would build constituencies that reflected the diversity of civil society perspectives on the issue. We had a member who was very much connected with communities that were at the forefront of engaging with private security in their own backyards. We had groups like ICAR where I was myself, participating more from the principles and business and human rights legal standards approach. What we really wanted to do was bring these perspectives together: the lived reality of communities that are interacting and engaging with private security in their backyard and the evolving expectations on private security from standards like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and how could they all be merged to bring a common perspective from civil society into the discussions.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the dynamic within the pillar itself? There are different profiles: organisations from the Global North, global organisations, community-based organisations etc. How did you figure that out?
The reality is that civil society is diverse and that’s its strength. In processes like multi-stakeholder initiatives, because they tend towards the technocratic, they involve legal standards, and application of legal principles that frequently they divorce themselves from the lived experience of those who are directly on the ground. We thought that what was critical was to have a partner from the beginning. The work of Tricia Feeney from RAID UK was to create a channel for some of those perspectives and to lift the perspectives of those who were directly impacted by private security operations into the negotiations of the Code development and implementation. It was really a critical piece of what we wanted to build as part of the civil society pillar. It led to robust discussions and outcomes because we could really bring forward how this industry engages with communities on the ground in ways we wouldn’t have been able to have, had we focused more on the legal civil society angle.
Was there any kind of reticence on the part of any of the civil society members? Was there any kind of pushback against the idea of getting around the same table as these large corporations and private security companies?
The diversity of civil society means that they deploy a range of different tactics, from engagement to advocacy to activism. We had partners that were part of the civil society pillar that were both engaging in legal tactics and advocacy and who also were at the table wanting to move the industry forward by lifting the standards so that the laggards would follow. I don’t know if there was necessarily reticence to play at the table as much as there was an understanding that ICoCA existed within a broader ecosystem of accountability and that the standards development and its implementation through ICoCA was critical. There needed to be alternatives and other tactics used to address some of the pernicious problems in the industry that weren’t going to be solved through a multi-stakeholder initiative like the behaviour of non-members of ICoCA or domestic, private security contractors in conflict-affected areas where it was too hard to get any lens into how companies are operating.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the kind of dynamic around that table? You’ve got civil society organisations, you’ve got governments, you’ve got businesses trying to work towards this common goal. Was that easy to achieve?
No, I don’t think it was particularly easy. Part of the difficulty of ICoCA’s journey was that it was one of the first major multi-stakeholder initiatives to get off the ground, obviously the first in this sector. The sector itself is relatively nascent, so it hasn’t been under scrutiny in the past 100 years. It has developed more recently. That means that you had people around a table to address a sector that was quickly emerging and increasing in its power and scope, both in terms of the types of services that were provided and of the range of clients of these companies. You also had to do something new: bring a collaboration, a multi-stakeholder collaboration with security sector companies, governments, and civil society together to try to set a framework around it. I think that these two aspects made it kind of a challenge. But I think credit goes to the Swiss government, which had patience, commitment, invested resources, and will into getting the initiative off the ground. Supporting civil society participation, and continuing to call for the participation of other governments to be at the table. I don’t know if it would have yielded the same result without the Swiss support.
Would you say there’s a kind of a secret sauce to getting consensus, if that’s the right word with multi-stakeholder initiatives? There has to be a conducive environment, of course, and that support from the Swiss government, as you say.
I’ve done a bunch of multi-stakeholder initiatives and I believe in their power. I think they work best when you have individuals who have clear accountability within their roles, participating in the negotiations or the discussion. Senior leaders can move their businesses or make commitments on behalf of their business, government, or entity if it is civil society. You also need trust and the ability to have difficult conversations where you might say the wrong thing or inadvertently offend, but you’re there for a bigger purpose and mission, and there’s trust that everyone’s at that table for the same objective or outcome. The third thing is trying to align those objectives or outcomes. Part of that is building that collaboration and that trust. It’s also mapping where the win-win space is from governments, companies, and civil society.
In a sector that had been largely unaccountable, the win was building a framework that allowed for some measure of accountability and performance and meeting of standards for the sector from a civil society perspective. That same win was relevant to members of the private security sector who participated because they were finding themselves competing with scofflaws or poor industry performers who were able to benefit from lower costs but weren’t meeting the standard. That same objective was aligned with governments who did not want to be employing or contracting companies that were violating rights. Once we found that space of alignment, of lifting a standard that supported leadership behaviour from companies and built accountability over the actions of companies in the sector, then it became about operationalisation.
I’m interested to hear what role you think the civil society pillar should be playing in really ensuring accountability of private security companies? And how did you operationalise that?
The reality is that ICoCA exists within a broader accountability ecosystem. No multi-stakeholder initiative will solve for an industry on its own. What a multi-stakeholder initiative can do best is aggregate actors and build consensus around a common applicable standard and framework and consequently the systems of accountability around that. Within ICoCA, the role of civil society was to ensure that the standard was high, that it was consistent with international legal standards and human rights law, and that it was being implemented and enforced through ICoCA membership or procurement of linkages with governments. Outside of ICoCA, civil society has a much more active role to play, which is to monitor the sector at large. To ensure ICoCA’s accountability as a multi-stakeholder initiative within the larger business and human rights ecosystem, various tools such as media campaigns, engagement, advocacy, etc., can be utilised to enhance companies’ participation in the initiative and promote increased accountability. ICoCA is positioned within this broader ecosystem, functioning as an integral part of it.
What can ICoCA be doing to get more people interested in the issues at stake here, and to maybe move it from being seen as a very technical marginal issue to one that is really more central to some of the key issues of our day? I’m thinking particularly about just transition, (i.e. greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind) what should we be doing to help connect the dots?
One of the tricky parts with the way the private security sector has been developed is that almost overnight, the state license on security and use of force, etc, was quickly privatized. I think part of it is awareness raising. I don’t know if people understand the full scope of private security contractor operations: where they are deployed, what they’re deployed to protect or oversee. I think the other part of it is bridge building. Understanding where these companies are operating geographically, and providing transparency on that so that civil society can engage with those companies and know who is in their backyard. This is something we found vital in the apparel sector, where once you empower workers with insight about which companies are sourcing from their factories, it helps them build their own engagement with those companies. Something very similar can happen in private security. Transparency is critical there. I think ICoCA as a secretariat can play a key role in providing that data and those bridge-building engagement potentials.
It’s challenging. One of the reasons for that, of course, is that nobody wants to admit to using security companies, because of the kind of reputational issues that have gone along with that, because of the legacy and the history, etc. But, you know, we are doing our bit to try and get more data points. For example, one of the things we have been doing is looking at the working conditions in the sector and particularly, the plight of private security personnel themselves: Unfortunately, the many hundreds of thousands of people involved in the sector are really treated poorly, paid very poorly, working very long hours, receiving very little benefits, etc. It is something we are working on, but it is challenging because people don’t want to admit to using security.
I think you are right. I also think the link you just made to just transition is so interesting. This is something that we are actively looking at, at Laudes. How do we support just transitions that are taking place around the world? You are right, the link to critical minerals and the ways that security is used around mining is one of these opportunities to show how ICoCA could be relevant to the context of the just transitions that are taking place around the world. That’s an interesting opportunity for deeper engagement.
In terms of diversifying the funding base, what should we be doing to make this issue something that will really resonate with philanthropists?
At Laudes we work across industry transitions and we focus on sectors that have a high contribution to the climate crisis. Primarily that’s the built environment and apparel. We also work in emerging sectors. We’re looking at food as a potential sector we could work on. With the focus of our work increasingly on just transitions, there are huge opportunities for us to win for climate and people outcomes. Philanthropy generally has approached these issues from either a rights perspective or a geographic perspective, and not so much from a sectoral perspective. Laudes is kind of unique as our lens is focused on specific industries and their transition. I do think philanthropy generally has a blind spot right now about the critical minerals and the transition minerals discussion. I know some donors are actively working on that and building some collaborations to do so. But I think the knock-ons of the increased use of those minerals are underestimated, in particular the ways subsidiary or secondary sectors to energy like security have to reorganize. We are just late to spotting those opportunities. I think it’s good for ICoCA, the Swiss, and the other governments involved to continue to raise their awareness that it’s not just an energy transition that needs to take place, but it’s the secondary reorganisations of sectors that are linked to or dependent on or serve that energy transition. That is the piece that Laudes is spotting. I think ICoCA could benefit from others spotting that too.
We are coming up to the end of our current five-year strategic plan, and there’s some work going on right now about the next 5 or 10 years. And I think one thing that we should be thinking is exactly what you are talking about there, and where we position ourselves in terms of just transition and energy transition and the role of security.
I think this will open you up to very different civil society participants and engagement, including those that might be more at the nexus of the climate agenda. I think this is a huge growth opportunity for ICoCA and its significance. I also wonder, which are the types of companies that exist under ICoCA membership now? Are they also companies that will be benefiting or involved in the renewable contracts, the mining for critical minerals, etc? Or are we talking about a different set of actors? I guess the question is around scope, both for the companies and for the governments involved because I do think that the next phase of work is looking at transition in and where those minerals are coming from, what the sectors that are being set up are and how those security provision around those work.
I think the short answer to that is yes, the companies are involved in those kinds of contracts. We are trying to deepen engagement with some host governments where these extractive sectors are operating, and increasingly that’s going to be in higher and higher risk environments as the demand for these minerals increases.
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).