Al-Nisoor Square Blackwater

The Privatization of War: A New Challenge for the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda                      

Al-Nisoor Square in Baghdad, the site of a deadly shootout by Blackwater private security contractors in 2007. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

With the approach of the twentieth anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security (WPS), emerging global peace and security challenges are increasingly being recognized as part of this agenda. Among these challenges is the exponential growth of private military and security companies (PMSCs) and, with this, the growing privatization of war.

Since the end of the Cold War, the outsourcing of military and security by armed forces activities has shifted from the exception to the rule. Moreover, this growth goes hand in hand with a regulatory gap around PMSCs and their activities which makes it challenging to hold private contractors accountable to human rights standards. As PMSCs take on more significant roles and are being deployed in greater numbers in conflict contexts, those working for the implementation of the WPS agenda should include this reality in their work, recognizing it as an emerging challenge to international peace and security.

Violations of human rights are often widespread in conflict contexts, and civilians suffer the most, including from gendered crimes such as sexual abuse, sexual trafficking, and rape. Private contractors, as non-state actors that can and do partake in armed conflict, have perpetrated gendered violence with similar if not the same patterns as national armed forces. Data on private contractors committing gender-based violence is available, though limited, stemming from two phenomena.

First, PMSCs generally shield themselves and thus their proprietary information by keeping agreements between them and their clients private. This complicates any effort to pursue PMSCs who commit human rights violations or gendered violence, especially in conflict-affected and high-risk contexts, where rule of law is often weak or strong judicial institutions lacking. Second, collecting data on the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is challenging. As a sensitive issue, CRSV remains underreported due to both social (taboos, stigma) and structural barriers.

Despite these challenges, we know of a handful of cases of contractors that committed gendered human rights violations, many of them uncovered by whistleblowers. Some of these cases include sex-trafficking and sex-slavery of women committed by some UN peacekeepers and contractors in Bosnia, the use of brothels with trafficked girls and women by a group of contractors at the United States embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, or the allegations that, in Iraq, a US Army subcontractor held a group of women against their will and sexually assaulted them.

While it has been difficult to obtain robust data on the issue at hand, there are reasons to believe that the gendered human rights violations committed by some contractors are not isolated phenomena. Military masculinities, which are violent forms of masculinity, are prevalent in male-dominated institutions like the armed forces. PMSCs both hire many former military personnel and are also a male-dominated industry, and though more research and data is needed, it is not unreasonable to infer that militarized masculinities are prevalent in PMSCs and can contribute to human rights violations and gender-based violence.

As the role of PMSCs in armed conflicts becomes increasingly important, there is insufficient, unharmonized regulation of their activities. Though there is no international framework that specifically applies to PMSCs, there are international, regional, and national normative frameworks that contribute to the regulation of PMSCs, as well as self-regulation initiatives by individual firms. Nonetheless, existing regulations have been insufficient and calls for better regulations have been made by various actors, including the UN. For example, the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, believes that the most effective way to regulate PMSCs is by developing an internationally legally-binding framework to “fully protect human rights,” which would address a major concern around the regulatory gap: the difficulty in holding the perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

Research efforts to understand the operation of PMSCs, and to monitor their activities and impact, have expanded as the use of PMSCs has grown exponentially. Some civil society organizations have published reports on the gendered impact on PMSCs and created advocacy campaigns to raise awareness and to demand accountability as well as justice for victims of contractors. In April 2019, the Working Group on the use of mercenaries held an expert consultation to discuss the gender dimensions of the private military and security industry, resulting in a report that sheds light on the gendered impacts of the industry and intends to be the starting point of a longer conversation at the UN level.

The above are only a few examples of attempts to address the phenomenon of the privatization of war. Coordinated efforts to demand stronger regulations for PMSCs, with a specific focus on gender-based violence in conflict are necessary. Given the need of more data, scholars and practitioners should coordinate with grassroots organizations to conduct joint field-research to further study the impact of PMSCs in their communities. WPS activists, practitioners, and allies at the UN (i.e., UN Women) should strategize on joint advocacy to have stronger and more efficient legal frameworks that further regulate and harmonize the current regulation of PMSCs. The WPS community, especially those focused on prevention, protection, and accountability, can contribute by systematically including PMSCs in their analyses of challenges to international peace, security, and human rights.

The privatization of war phenomenon is likely to keep growing over the next decades as dependency on private contractors increases. The WPS community can do better to address the challenges that this emerging phenomenon brings to international peace and security by coordinating efforts. This includes through conducting further research and increasing the available data, and advocating for the development and implementation of regulation measures that both strengthen and harmonize existing PMSCs legal frameworks and mainstream gender.

Marta Bautista Forcada is currently working in the Women, Peace and Security Program at the International Peace Institute (IPI). She is a former Research Fellow at Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain).