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Private security firms look to Africa for recruits

A Baghdad police station bombed on 9 May 2007. Violence in Iraq has reached intolerable levels

Namibia’s independence war ended nearly 20 years ago, but the experience gained by many soldiers during the conflict has made the country a fertile hunting ground for private security companies seeking recruits for the world's 21st century wars.

Alex Kamwi, 55, a former battalion commander and the current executive director of Namibia Ex-Freedom Fighters and War Veterans Association said most former soldiers "were just educated at the battlefield, with an AK-47." As a result, he said, many veterans were unemployed, had few marketable skills and were "very, very poor."

So when an American private security company put 'help wanted' ads in local papers in September 2007, hundreds of Namibians lined up to apply for the non-combat security guards positions on offer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They were really rushing, in large numbers, to get a job – because they are suffering!" said Kamwi. About 35 percent of Namibia's about 2 million people are unemployed.

The private military and security companies in support of US-led efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are increasingly looking to Africa for so-called "third-country nationals (TCNs)", who are playing a growing role in the military-backed operations there.

But recruiting civilians in the developing world for jobs that used to be the purview of US soldiers raises serious questions about the new face of war.

Changing nature of global conflict

An estimated 155,000 contract personnel are currently in Iraq in support of the US occupation. About 30 percent of them are TCNs, according to the US Department of Defence. These contractors are used for a range of jobs such as non-combat security contractors hired to guard personnel and convoys, as well as static installations, including bridges and pipelines. TCNs with more advanced skills are sometimes employed to train military personnel, participate in de-mining operations, or interrogate detainees.

Controversy has surrounded the US-led operation’s increasing dependence on private security firms to fill jobs previously performed by US soldiers.

Civilian contractors were involved in the interrogation of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, which received widespread notoriety after revelations in 2004 of the torture of prisoners by US soldiers. While in 2007 employees of the US-based private security company Blackwater Worldwide were implicated in a shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and 20 injured.

The growth of the private security industry is increasingly targetting developing countries where many TCNs have valuable conflict experience, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a Washington DC-based trading group for private security companies.

''Should the US government only hire Americans to do these jobs, the costs would just be insane''

"They have some knowledge about risk mitigation, and about what is risky in a war zone. Most people in the world don’t know what this is. People in Africa do. I mean a lot of people have been in these areas and they have this amazing amount of experience they bring to their jobs," Brooks said.

Hiring personnel from Africa also has another attraction. "They tend to be much cheaper than Americans or Westerners – maybe by a factor of 5 or 6," Brooks told IRIN. "Should the US government only hire Americans to do these jobs, the costs would be just insane."

What is inexpensive by Western standards can be a pay bonanza in Africa and other developing countries. In Namibia, word of mouth spread that the security jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan would pay about US$550 per month, or about 10 times the monthly wage of a local security guard.

Brooks said these jobs can economically bolster entire communities in the TCNs home countries. "[TCNs] are willing to take a certain degree of risk to earn that money," Brooks said. "For them it can mean the survival of their families. So as long as they have a choice, if they’re allowed to do this kind of work, you’ll get a lot of people willing to do it."

Poverty trap

But critics of the private security companies recruitment drives in developing countries baulk at the notion of choice.

"When somebody is poor and trapped in this poverty, what choice do they have?," said Phil ya Nangoloh, executive director of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) in the capital Windhoek.

Ya Nangoloh said profit-driven recruiting companies were looking only for the cheapest labour, which means they can exploit the desperately poor and uneducated.

''Some of these people looking for jobs may not even know where Iraq is. They may think that it is a country next door''

"Some of them do not have even have access to newspapers or television to know what is going on there with the suicide bombers," Ya Nangoloh said. "Some of these people looking for jobs may not even know where Iraq is. They may think that it is a country next door."

International human rights groups said suicide bombers were not the only potential hazard for TCNs, who were also being recruited in southeast Asia and Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Chile. Private security contractors that work for the US government have strict labour rules, although it is claimed these rules are open to abuse.

"We’ve seen a lot of third country nationals where their passports are taken, or where they were delivered to a place to work which was different to what they were promised," said Erica Razook, legal fellow at Amnesty International USA’s Business and Human Rights Unit.

Rights groups told IRIN that some TCNs effectively work in conditions of "indentured servitude," in which they sign employment contracts that last for three to five years, "but spend their first year just paying off travel expenses," Razook said.

Rights groups also say the use of TCNs also raises other risks of human and other rights abuses.

"Sufficient oversight mechanisms haven’t been developed – at least within the US perspective – to oversee these contractors, and make sure their employees or subcontractors have been vetted and trained properly," Razook said.

She said private contractors’ recruitment of international staff include former guerilla, paramilitary, or counter insurgency military forces.

"You bring in people who have a history of a certain type of fighting, where they may or may not be trained in the laws of war and human rights standards," she said. "That’s the kind of experience you’re now bringing in and putting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."

Need for an international response

Although international bodies have agreed on broad definitions of the term mercenary, including a 2001 United Nations resolution known as the UN Mercenary Convention, observers say such definitions do not account for the growing privatisation of the military and security industry.

''Mercenary regulation is outdated and not in touch with the reality of the massive growth of private security''

"Mercenary regulation is outdated and not in touch with the reality of the massive growth of private security," said Len Le Roux, head of the defence programme at the Institute of Security Studies, a South African-based think-tank.

"What that really stresses is the need for the United Nations and individual governments to look at this privatisation and come up with more precise definitions of what is legal and illegal, what is legitimate and illegitimate."

While the industry bristles at the term mercenary, Africa’s history of soldier-for-hire conflicts has prompted the South African government to take action. In November 2007, South African President Thabo Mbeki signed legislation regulating the recruitment of South Africans to work in areas of armed conflict, which applies to private security contractors in Iraq. South Africa is among the first countries in the world to effectively block all such recruitment.

Namibian recruitment standards

In Namibia, concerns about abuse by private security and military companies boiled over in September 2007, when a firm called Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group (SOC-SMG) announced a recruitment drive through the adverts in local newspapers.

The Nevada-based private security company clients include the US Army and the US Marine Corps.

The NSHR and other groups filed legal briefs, saying such recruitment broke local laws against mercenary activity. And when news spread about the risks recruits would face in Iraq, there was public outcry. On 12 October 2007, the Namibian government deported two US citizens heading SOC-SMG’s operations there, declaring them "prohibited immigrants."

SOC-SMG claimed in an email correspondence to IRIN that it had been operating in Namibia with the approval of both the country's government and the US embassy in Windhoek.

"It was made clear during the various discussions that Namibians recruited by SOC-SMG would not be combatants, nor used in any combat situations," SOC-SMG spokesman Anthony Casas told IRIN.

In terms of Article 4 (8) (b) of the Constitution, Namibians are not allowed to get involved in the military or security forces of other countries without the written permission of the Namibian government.

The Defence Act of 2002 criminalises the involvement of Namibians in the military, reserve or any auxiliary force of any country without the written permission of the defence minister as an offence punishable with a fine, prison service or both.

The Government's Security Commission found the involvement of Namibian nationals in such armed conflicts has serious short and long-term national security implications on the interests of Namibia at home and abroad, Information Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah reportedly said. 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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