The International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA) recent submission to the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries examines the role of private security companies (PSCs) in humanitarian action.

PSCs provide a wide range of services to humanitarian agencies. The most common services contracted are static security, which involves armed and/or unarmed guards protecting humanitarian agency staff and property. Protected properties can include, for example, office buildings, staff residences, hotels, compounds, and warehouses. PSCs are also hired to manage security at migration centers, medical facilities, and civilian sites, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees.

The submission identifies several key problems with the procurement and management of private security contracts by humanitarian agencies. These issues, unless addressed, can create serious human rights risks for the communities in which those agencies operate, and by extension the operations and staff of humanitarian agencies. ICoCA provides several recommendations to humanitarian agencies on ways to adapt their processes to ensure respect for human rights.


Main issues identified regarding procurement processes and practices, and why are these a problem?

Regarding procurement processes themselves, several key problems are identified. In many reported instances, procurement practices appear to fall short of international standards and good practices. These deficiencies, unless addressed, can create serious human rights risks for the communities in which those agencies operate, and by extension the operations and staff of the humanitarian agency.


Contracting Decisions Determined Solely On Cost

The most recurring, and most concerning problem regarding humanitarian agencies’ procurement practices is the prioritization of cost above all else. Selecting a PSC solely based on cost presents several issues. First, when humanitarian agencies apportion limited and insufficient budgets to security providers, the PSCs they select will have reduced resources to fulfill the security contract. This, in turn, leads to lower wages and longer hours for guards, and those guards are more likely to be poorly equipped and undertrained. Second, when cost is the only factor, important considerations such as human rights risk being made obsolete or of secondary importance at best. PSCs may as a result not feel required to train or monitor their guards on human rights compliance if their clients, the humanitarian agencies, are only concerned with the bottom line.

Lack of Human Rights Due Diligence

A second area of concern in the procurement of security services relates to the rigor of local procurement processes by humanitarian agencies, many of whom conduct little to no human rights due diligence on the PSCs they contract. Cases were cited of agencies requiring PSCs to fill out long questionnaires that provide the appearance of due diligence, only for a company to be selected that fails to meet tender criteria.


Allegations of bribes being sought and paid during tender processes were made. In some instances, PSCs without the legal right to operate within a country are nevertheless awarded major security contracts.

Lack of Transparency

A third area of concern relates to transparency both during and after a PSC is contracted. Humanitarian agencies may publicly present one set of criteria on how they select PSCs, but appear to use a different and less rigorous criteria in making their ultimate decision. This lack of transparency provides a strong incentive among corrupt security companies to lie or bribe their way into the lucrative humanitarian agency contracts. Post-tender, humanitarian agencies provide misleading, little, or no information on the specific reasons for selecting one company over another. This lack of transparency further encourages corrupt behavior by PSCs and weakens their respect for human rights.


Key Recommendations


Greater transparency

Humanitarian agencies should commit to greater transparency before, during, and after the tender process, making clear the specific criteria they are using to select a private security provider. Staff at HQ should also demand greater transparency from local procurement officers on why they recommend and/or select one specific security provider over another.

Robust procurement guidelines and procedures

Humanitarian agencies should develop robust procurement guidelines and procedures which integrate and reference human rights and humanitarian law standards. On this recommendation, agencies can be guided by ‘Security to go’, the procurement tool developed jointly by ICoCA and the Global Interagency Security Forum.

Human Rights Due Diligence

Humanitarian agencies should conduct human rights due diligence on who they hire. Mandatory human rights due diligence regulation is being introduced for large multinationals in the EU and various European states, humanitarian agencies who have a clear duty of care to various stakeholder groups they engage should take note and play a leadership role in introducing similar practices across their sector.

Greater budget flexibility

For the agencies and their donors, ICoCA recommends that greater budget flexibility is given for security procurement in order to allow the agency to select reputable and human-rights compliant security provider. This will often mean selecting a provider that doesn’t come in with the lowest bid.


The full report, including more detailed factual information and the full set of recommendations can be found here.