In recent decades, the private security industry has experienced exponential growth, underscoring a profound shift towards the privatization of security services in many countries. With governments often constrained by limited resources, expertise or manpower, private security firms have stepped in to fill the void, providing a flexible workforce and offering a wide array of security services, from traditional guarding to more high-tech offerings. Increasing levels of conflict and insecurity in many parts of the world, concerns about crime, terrorism, etc. are also fuelling growth. This trend towards security privatization raises important questions about accountability, transparency, and the potential for abuse. While private security companies do provide valuable expertise and resources, in many high-risk contexts with weak governance structures, profits and political connections can be the main driving factors, leading to concerns about conflicts of interest, corruption and the potential erosion of civil liberties. Through constant engagement with all actors in the security sector in the field, ICoCA has developed over its 10 years of existence a unique knowledge of the private security industry and of the practical solutions that can mitigate human rights risks for clients of security companies. Be they States, Organisations or Businesses, clients need assurance that robust due diligence is conducted on their service providers to mitigate any potential risks that may come along with contracting their services. Here are the top ten trends for them to follow carefully in 2024.
1. Continued use of rogue actors in conflict and complex settings
2023 saw an intense use of private military contractors in conflicts, most notably in the war between Ukraine and Russia, marking a resurgence of rogue private military actors in conflicts. In June, the rebellion of the Wagner group against the Russian Ministry of Defence, was a spectacular reminder of the risks they pose. These companies often find themselves operating in regions with weak governance, ongoing conflicts, and a lack of effective oversight, creating an environment where the potential for abuse and misconduct is high. The reputational risks for clients who contract private security companies in such contexts are substantial. Rogue actors among these firms may engage in actions that undermine peace and security, exacerbate existing tensions through propaganda, or even commit human rights abuses, war crimes and other breaches of international humanitarian law.
Any association with a security firm linked to wrongdoing can tarnish a client’s image, erode trust, and impact their ability to conduct business or development activities in the region. Public outrage, legal action, and negative media coverage can result in severe financial and legal consequences, and the damage to a client’s reputation may extend beyond the immediate situation. It is essential for clients to carefully vet and closely monitor the behaviour of the private security companies they employ in these fragile contexts to mitigate these risks and ensure their operations are conducted in an ethical and responsible manner.
2. Even in peaceful countries, private security causes risks for human rights
Private-security-related human rights abuses are also regularly witnessed in countries at peace. The last year was no exception with a number of major cases coming to public attention: At the end of 2022, the appalling working conditions of migrant security workers in Qatar were exposed on the occasion of the FIFA World Cup, the plight of those who remained after the tournament’s end has reportedly worsened. In June 2023, the Kenya human rights commission launched an investigation into alleged killings by private security guards on the Del Monte pineapple farm. In September, the Brook House Inquiry published its report on the mistreatment of people detained at this Immigration Removal Centre near London. These cases as well as some of the most emblematic incidents involving private security are listed in the new ICoCA Case Map.
Abuses committed by PSCs typically include excessive use of force, sexual exploitation and abuse or gender-based discrimination and violence as well as unfair working conditions for private security personnel themselves. Private security personnel can be both perpetrators and victims of human rights abuse as rightsholders. Beyond their direct harm for victims, such abuses have led to operational disruption, increased tensions with local communities, customer boycotts, loss of the social license to operate, as well as reputational damage and legal action against private security companies and their clients.
3. Private security is a key actor in the race for mineral resources
The path to a low-carbon economy will require massive investment in the extractive, commodities and infrastructure sectors, with many minerals sourced in fragile contexts. Giant mines in Africa often employ hundreds of security guards. In 2024 the extractive business will probably remain one of the most exposed in terms of human rights risks. Private security providers are already often caught in the middle between companies and the surrounding communities, in a race for resources that all too often ignites or exacerbates conflict. The private security industry, already a major employer in many countries and growing rapidly, is too often culpable for terrible working conditions and for undermining human rights as abused private security personnel become the abusers. Private security companies will play critical roles in ensuring responsible security that contributes to peace, security and the social license to operate, without which, a truly just transition will remain out of reach.
4. Corruption, bribery and collusion still plague the industry.
Private security companies, and their personnel, can be both victims and perpetrators of corruption and collusion. As victims, the risk of being involved in corruption can impact all levels. From the issuance of licences to the passage of vehicles and personnel through checkpoints, the power imbalances that security companies face can lead to demand for payments by state officials. This is particularly true in conflicts and other complex and fragile environments when the checks and balances of a functional state are weak and where private security personnel facing precarity are easily influenced by threats or reward. As perpetrators—similarly—corruption can take many forms. At the management level, security company executives may pay bribes to secure contracts. Security personnel themselves, often pushed into poverty, may abuse their position by limiting of a person’s rightful access to a location until a payment is received.
5. The poor working conditions prevalent in private security are a major risk for clients
The private security industry employs millions of guards around the world. In Tanzania, for example, from where we recently returned, there are over 2,000 security companies operating with over a million people employed in the sector. Lack of respect for international labour standards is a widespread phenomenon in some countries and constitutes a major issue in this highly labour-intensive industry. As the recent ICoCA research “When the abused becomes the abuser” shows, private security officers often face challenging working conditions, characterised by low pay, long working hours, and exposure to health risks. In many instances and in particular in complex environments, working conditions are below minimum standards. Security companies as well as clients often engage in exploitative practices, subjecting labour migrants to specific harm, including recruitment fees, debt bondage, and particularly poor working conditions. Women still face major obstacles and prejudices when working in this male-dominated industry. Lack of training and poor working conditions in general directly impact private security personnel’s respect for the law and human rights, thus deeply affecting the quality of private security provision.
6. Technologies bring new human rights risks
The private security industry is currently going through a profound evolution: The deployment of new technologies allows for the provision of new security services and the emergence of new actors. PSCs are not only using technologies such as sensors, CCTV or drones in their traditional guarding missions but they are now assuming entirely new tasks, such as cybersecurity or digital intelligence. Beyond traditional security actors, tech companies also play a growing role in providing security services. The activities of these companies encompass intelligence, surveillance and espionage, information or mis-/dis-information. While they may not define themselves as PSCs, they are delivering private security services nonetheless.
With this evolution comes human rights risks. PSCs and technology companies’ collaborations with governments in electronic surveillance could violate the rights of individuals targeted. The way companies collect, store and transfer data in particular may directly infringe on the right to privacy and may lead to persecutions of individuals and political religious or ethnic groups. For instance, border security technologies and monitoring services could raise serious concerns surrounding the collection, processing and sharing of biometric data of asylum seekers. Regional and national regulation in this domain is fast evolving and both private security companies and their clients may face serious legal consequences in case of breach.
7. Clients as a major market driver
Consumers of private security services play a pivotal role in shaping the standards within the private security sector. The direction in which they drive these standards can vary significantly depending on their priorities. When consumers make their procurement decisions solely based on cost considerations, it drives standards down in the private security sector and exposes clients to risks. Security companies are compelled to cut corners to offer lower-cost services, which includes reducing the vetting and training of staff, paying them less and making them work longer hours using cheaper resources. This leads to a decline in overall service quality, potentially jeopardizing the effectiveness and reliability of private security services. In such cases, cost-driven decisions encourage a race to the bottom, where security companies compete primarily on price. Guards on the frontline, poorly trained and poorly treated represent a real risk to the organisations they are supposed to protect as well as the communities they interact with.
8. The growing role of investors
Human rights risks associated with contracting private security providers can impact a business’s operational continuity, sustainability, long term value creation and short-term share price thus threatening investment returns. As fiduciaries, institutional investors, including pension plan trustees and investment managers, are obligated to identify and mitigate these potential adverse impacts. Ensuring that portfolio companies conduct thorough human rights due diligence on their contracted private security providers is paramount for responsible investing in today’s global landscape. This commitment to scrutinising a critical and high-risk element of the “S” in ESG compliance not only safeguards against material risks that can affect financial performance but also upholds fundamental human rights. ICoCA recently published the Investor ESG Guide on Private Security and Human Rights to assist investors in their decisions. By actively probing portfolio companies on this issue, particularly those with operations in high-risk environments and sectors, investors increasingly play a crucial role in mitigating potential harm, fostering sustainable business practices, and contributing to a world where financial success and human rights protection are not mutually exclusive goals.
9. New regulatory frameworks are game changers
The evolution of mandatory human rights due diligence regulations in an increasing number of jurisdictions is exemplified by the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. (In December, the European Council and the European Parliament announced that they had reached a provisional agreement on the text of this new Directive). It represents a significant paradigm shift in the corporate world. Soft frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are now crystallising into hard law. This transformative legislation underscores the growing global recognition of the need to ensure that businesses operate responsibly and ethically throughout their value chains. Companies will be compelled to demonstrate that they are conducting rigorous human rights due diligence not only on their direct operations but also on every facet of their extensive value chains, which includes their private security providers. Companies will be obligated to actively identify, prevent, and mitigate any adverse human rights impacts associated with their operations, products, and services, with a particular emphasis on the often-overlooked private security sector. These new requirements will compel businesses to be more transparent, accountable, and proactive in addressing potential human rights abuses within their operations, fostering a culture of responsibility and ethics that transcends borders.
10. The risk for Civil and Criminal Litigation
The historic trial of two former executives of Lundin Petroleum charged with complicity in war crimes in Sudan began in September in Sweden. The significance of this lawsuit is far reaching: it demonstrates that companies and their senior executives are not immune to criminal prosecution for their failure to respect human rights. Civil and criminal litigation law are emerging as powerful tools for holding companies accountable when they employ private security providers accused of human rights abuses. In an era where transnational corporations often operate across borders, the potential for these entities to be complicit in human rights abuses has grown significantly. To address this, legal mechanisms have evolved to bridge the gap between corporate actions and their human rights implications. Litigation serves as a crucial means of redress for victims of human rights abuses, enabling them to seek compensation and justice through the legal system. Lawsuits can target not only the private security providers themselves but also the companies that employ them, asserting that they bear responsibility for the actions of their contractors.
ICoCA enters its second decade with a mission more relevant than ever. In a rapidly changing world with conflicts on the rise and increasing demand for private security services, the risk of human rights abuse and violations of humanitarian law by these actors is elevated. These risks can be addressed, and human rights due diligence, including heightened human rights due diligence in conflict settings, is the best place to start. Societal calls for increasing scrutiny of business actors will increasingly put private security contracting practices in the spotlight. While more and more organisations across all sectors turn to the private sector to provide security, too few take the time or have the resources or expertise to fully understand the risks associated with doing so. ICoCA will continue to identify and highlight these ever-evolving risks and ensure that the due diligence it conducts, adequately addresses them.
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).