Mercenaries or Peacekeepers?
Posted by Michael Cohen
I've been meaning for a few days to respond to Michael Walzer's recent article in the New Republic about Blackwater and private military contractors, but Matt Yglesias has beaten me to the punch . . . sort of. Walzer's piece is not perfect but he is right in arguing that sending private security contractors is an option worth considering - for somewhat obvious reasons:
Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur. If the Comintern could field an army and stop the killing, that would be all right with me, too.
Yglesias though is not impressed:
I highly doubt that introducing a bunch of heavily armed unaccountable mercenaries into the situation would actually make things better.
I do think it's worth asking if we can come up with mechanisms of control and accountability that would make dispatching mercenaries into situations where troops are needed but nation-states are unwilling to send their national militaries into an attractive option. It's clear, however, that we do not in fact have any such mechanisms in place. Under the circumstances, you don't just unleash a plague of mercenaries somewhere in order to demonstrate your good intentions.
This is simply incorrect. Ignoring for a moment the pejorative use of the word mercenaries, which doesn't even come close to describing modern private contractors, there are in fact such mechanisms in place. Private military contractors already work with the UN in battle-scarred regions around the world - including Darfur.
In Kenya, ArmorGroup guards protect UNHCR refugee camps; PAE and AYR Aviation are working with the UN and African Union in Sudan; in Liberia, Dyncorp is training that country's new military. Moreover, no one, including the contractors themselves, are advocating that Blackwater or any other private group should go into Darfur with guns blazing. I have yet to come across any serious player in the industry who is advocating a combat role for private contractors. In fact, quite the opposite.
Indeed, in last week's WSJ, Peter Charles Choharis, a former UNICEF relief worker called for the use of private contractors in Darfur, operating under the following criteria:
The Security Council should consider employing contract armed forces to protect civilians and relief workers. These forces would have a very limited mandate to create safe havens for civilians, and would operate only until traditional U.N. peacekeepers can takeover. Because they would be authorized by the Security Council, would not directly take part in hostilities, and would use force only when necessary to protect innocent civilians and relief workers, they would not be mercenaries, which are prohibited by international law.
Private forces could also act as a humanitarian force-multiplier. Protected by these forces, NGOs will be able to provide food, water, medical treatment and shelter much more quickly, thereby saving countless more lives. Beyond supplies, providing security to vulnerable civilians can help avert traumas like rape and mutilation that can scar entire societies and make national reconciliation more difficult.
Granted this isn't as sexy as force protection or combat, but it's a mission that many private contractors are well prepared to provide - and most would leap at the opportunity, if only to erase the terrible pall that Blackwater has cast over the the entire industry. Surely it would be better if national armies could be recruited for this effort, but as we've seen for years now the international community seems to have little interest in expending even the slightest political will to end the suffering in Darfur.
Yet, the reality of the situation in Darfur almost seems an abstraction to those who criticize even the thought of using contractors to stop the killing there. Here is Crooked Timber's response to the idea that contractors should not be sent to Darfur:
One of Walzer’s commenters sums up the view of those paragraphs eminently well, saying:'doing something is better than doing nothing' here’s an idea to engage with; no it’s not.
Really? As many as 400,000 Darfuris have been killed, often in a brutal manner; more than 2.5 million have been displaced; the UN peacekeeping effort there is badly underfunded and undermanned. Yet, apparently, the idea of sending private contractors to assist the peacekeepers is so abhorrent it's not even an idea worth engaging with. That's a level of moral obtuseness that I find difficult to fathom. Private contractors are not a panacea, but if they are able to work constructively to stop the killing in Darfur shouldn’t the notion at least be entertained? Our ultimate focus should be saving lives and ending the genocidal slaughter in Darfur. If contractors are capable of doing the job then it’s an idea that the United Nations must consider.