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Mon. January 30, 2023
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Labels Matter
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By Shaun Randol Since they shape our perceptions toward the object, and help to define the debate on a given topic, labels (terms, appellations, etc) matter. Take for example the prolific use of the term “war on terror.” The use of “war” automatically connotes a militaristic approach toward “terror,” an abstract emotion. It then follows that force rather than, for example, judiciary efforts will be a primary means in the mitigation of that terrorist threat. Imagine then, what the discourse and its pursuant actions on this topic would have sounded and looked like had former President George Bush termed his blanketing foreign policy scheme a “mission for human security,” or any other myriad of phraseologies. The use of privatized military, logistics, and security companies to implement foreign policy initiatives is an area that lacks clear definition. It does so, in part, because the sector also lacks distinctive, commonly recognized nomenclature. If states insist on the use of private actors to implement foreign policy, especially in conflict zones, it is imperative these private enterprises and their parameters be clearly defined; it is essential such delineations must be made at the international level. If these non-state actors cannot be categorically understood, they cannot be regulated. Unregulated private military firms acting in often dangerous environments, especially those with allowances to use deadly force is a tragedy in waiting. Based on my own primary research and interactions between personnel in the military, State Department, international institutions, academia, non-profit groups and other sectors it is clear that in the conversation on the use and regulation of private military firms, discussants speak past each other. While many labels are bandied about, there is no agreed on classification (on any side of the argument) for what the Pentagon now calls “contingency contractors.” This oversight must be remedied if we are all to “speak the same language.” Depending on who one speaks with, there are more than a dozen names the privatized military industry is given. In popular discourse (as noted by the Wikipedia entry on the topic) “private military company” (PMC) is the preferred term for industry companies. Critics of the industry like Jeremy Scahill prefer “mercenaries” (especially in reference to Xe, formerly Blackwater). And while watchdog group CorpWatch refers to logistics firm KBR as a “defense contractor,” KBR avoids that label, preferring “engineering, construction and services company.” In Congress in 2007, Representative Henry Waxman called this sector “private military contractors” while his colleague Representative Jo Ann Davis called them simply “security contractors.” But from the perspective of many, “security contractor” refers specifically to armed companies providing security of persons or things. Today Senators Jim Webb’s and Claire McCaskill’s Commission on Wartime Contracting looks at the role of, well, “wartime contractors” in American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while singling out “private security contractors” like Blackwater. Academics too, use a variety of labels, including “private security company” (PSC) (Deborah Avant) and corporate mercenary groups (David Isenberg). Brookings Institution Fellow and author of Corporate Warriors, Peter Singer, prefers the all encompassing “private military firms” (PMF), a term that I too, have used for two years in writing on this topic, one whose validity I am no longer sure. Institutions also disagree on a preferred terminology. Drafted under the guidance of the ICRC and the Swiss government and signed by 17 states in September 2008, including the U.S., Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Montreux Doctrine outlines 27 obligations for states employing the services of “private military and security companies” (PMSC). Yet in a paper for the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), Ulrich Schneckener lumps private security companies into the larger category of “armed non-state actors.” The UN, of course, has no treaty on this issue, although the 2001 UN Mercenary Convention deems “mercenarism” illegal. (We must assume then, that when the UN hires “private contractors” to carry out logistics work for peacekeeping missions around the world it is not violating its own treaty by hiring despised mercenaries). Meanwhile, for their part, private contractors use a variety of titles to describe the sector. In their literature, British security firm Aegis deems itself a “security and risk management company.” Meanwhile, U.S.-based ArmorGroup is a “provider of defensive and protective security services.” Agility is a “logistics provider,” while L-3 Communications is plainly a “defense company” in a variety of sectors. In a recent interview with Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), an advocacy organization whose membership consists solely of private enterprises involved in peacekeeping and other foreign operations, I broached the subject of “private military firms.” Brooks quickly cut me off, telling me that IPOA members are called many things, but “military” references are not welcome. Moreover, Brooks deems “mercenary” to be derogatory and incorrect, instead preferring the Pentagon’s nomenclature of “contingency contractors.” Further, Brooks divides contractors into three categories: Logistics and Support Companies (LSC) (which he says represents 90% of private military contracting), Private Security Companies (PSC), and Security Sector Reform & Development Companies (SSR&D). Yet even Brooks’ demarcations are incomplete. Under which category, for example, would IDS International fall? IDS specializes in training U.S. military, State Department and USAID officials “on the civil-military aspects of counterinsurgency,” including courses in cultural awareness, community engagement, and information operations and communication (among others). Shall we deem IDS a “private military education” company? And what of MineWolf, a leading de-mining service provider (i.e., eliminates dangerous weapons rather than wields them)? A “private security enhancement contractor” perhaps? Or of one leading military contractor, Triple Canopy, that in one operation provides armed security for military field teams in Iraq, in another delivers food aid to earthquake victims in Pakistan, and in yet another negotiates peaceful resolutions with Somali pirates in control of commercial vessels? What’s in a name? It is a loaded question, but the implications of that name run even deeper. The bottom line is: if the international community chooses not to abolish the practice of hiring non-state military firms, then states, private enterprise, academia, civil society, and international institutions must agree on a proper nomenclature for the burgeoning and influential sector. Only then, when there is a clear paradigm for a phenomenon that is gaining salience in international affairs, can it be regulated and held accountable. Lumping these often disparate firms into a singular category, “private security company” or “mercenary,” for example, is misleading and problematic. Must we wait for another Nisour Square Massacre before action is taken? Shaun Randol is Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute

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