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Tightening the leash on the 'dogs of war'

The debate on legal oversight of private military companies continues to rage in the United States, in the wake of allegations that Blackwater USA personnel killed 17 Iraqis and wounded 24 others in a Baghdad incident last month.

The private security and military industry is expected to grow from $55.6-billion (U.S.) in 1990 to more than $210-billion by 2010. However, there is no international consensus on how to deal with the industry. Some countries ban these companies, while others regulate them. The vast majority, including Canada, have simply ignored them.

Many of these companies welcome regulation as a way of gaining some legal certainty. Others want to operate below the radar and lobby for excluding their contactors from any form of scrutiny.

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Blackwater, along with 42 other companies, is a member of an industry association called the International Peace Operations Association. Members have agreed to a form of self-monitoring, in the absence of significant governmental oversight.

IPOA members are bound by a code of conduct that has been drafted by human-rights groups and members themselves. It is a concept that could quickly be dismissed by cynics. However, it has the potential to promote responsible conduct by these companies, if improved and implemented alongside clearer rules enforced by public authorities.

Last Friday, IPOA announced it was launching its "compliance process" investigating allegations against Blackwater under the code of conduct. This will be a difficult test for this infant self-monitoring process.

Fortunately, IPOA has responded to some of the criticism about the effectiveness of its enforcement mechanism. In a May, 2006, article in the International Review of the Red Cross, I recommended that IPOA expand available sanctions for violations of its code of conduct to include a graduated range of corrective measures. Several months later, IPOA substantially adopted such a recommendation. Previously, the only option was expulsion of a member - a strong step that IPOA was unlikely to take.

As a result of these changes, depending on the seriousness of the violation, IPOA can require additional training for employees and corporate directors; call for the dismissal of employees involved; require payment of compensation to victims or their families; direct a donation to a humanitarian organization; mandate monitoring of ongoing activities; temporarily suspend membership; or expel the member.

While these nongovernmental corrective measures are no substitute for criminal and civil penalties for serious offences, they nevertheless have the potential to enhance accountability and positively affect the future behaviour of these companies.

One major problem that remains unaddressed is the composition of IPOA's compliance and monitoring committee. It is made up entirely of insiders - representatives of other member private military and security companies. For the IPOA compliance mechanism to have credibility and work, its committee must include at least some independent individuals with experience in humanitarian law and complex security environments.

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At the same time, the United States is continuing to develop its legal framework for the regulation of U.S. private military companies. All of these companies must register with the State Department. A licence must be obtained for every contract, and contracts over $50-million require presidential approval. The U.S. has also barred its private military companies from working for certain clients, such as various armed groups in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and for Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe.

It will surprise many Canadians to learn that there are private military and security companies based in our country that operate in Iraq and other countries with little, if any, national regulations governing their activities. The most recent evidence of Canadian firms operating abroad involved the abduction in May of four British bodyguards in Iraq who were employed by Montreal-based Garda World Security Corp.

An untold number of private military and security contractors are working alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan. No doubt, they play vital roles in contributing to this important mission. But greater transparency is required for Canadians to be assured that these private contractors abide by the same high standards of our own soldiers, and are working only in appropriate roles.

Canada's antiquated Foreign Enlistment Act is an outdated and ill-suited statute to regulate our own private military and security companies: It shows its vintage by still referring to "hard labour" as a possible penalty, and does not reflect the realities of modern asymmetric warfare. It is not an exaggeration to say there are more extensive laws governing how to run a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Canada, than a Canadian firm running a private security operation overseas.

It is time for Canada to start looking at the activities of its own private security and military companies - as Britain and South Africa have done in recent years - rather than waiting for an incident, like the Blackwater allegations, to grab our attention.

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