The Consequences of Privatizing Security

Controversy over private security companies sparked late last month in Malaysia as the country experienced two armed robberies by security guards. This follows closely after public outcry earlier this year as the booming private security sector came under scrutiny for inappropriate screenings of their contractors. The scandal culminated as the Malay Mail reported that all seven people arrested in connection to the two robberies were of the Sabah region, and had been using fake Malaysian identification papers (MyKads). According to Queville To, the documents used by the robbers are likely the result of an elaborate political scheme of systematically issuing citizenship to foreigners in the Sabah region in order to alter the demographics for electoral voting in favour of the government.

Image courtesy of Mark Ekhert, © 2009. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Mark Ekhert, © 2009. Some rights reserved.

Malaysia has approximately 750 licensed private security firms, but larger companies sub-contract smaller (and often unqualified) companies for hiring security personnel. These companies cut costs by skipping procedures for vetting, security checks, and training of employees. This is part of a wider trend in the corporate world, where large corporations sub-contract services to companies that themselves often have sub-contractors. This practice is, sadly, often a convenient measure to ensure the firm is not accountable for any malpractice discovered on the low end of a chain of commands. In the world of private security and military services, this can have devastating effects.

Although states sometimes wish to give the impression that they are not accountable for the actions of their contracted Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), these companies are, for all intents and purposes, an extension of state authority. In fact, Private Military and Security Companies are less restricted and can operate more widely because they are not part of any official policy.

PMSCs that are perceivably independent or autonomous are occasionally hired for the dirty work of the state, and are thus used as the long arm of the state to complete those tasks states can no longer easily do for fear of bad press and illegitimacy claims. A recent example is the scandal about torture and human rights abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where it was revealed that contractors from Blackwater Security Consulting (which keeps changing its name. In 2011 from Xe to Academi) were responsible for some of the most heinous crimes. Despite this, these contractors were never persecuted. In 2008 the US Department of Justice informed the Senate they had chosen not to persecute 22 cases of alleged abuse by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those at Abu Ghraib. The reasoning behind this was that PMSCs are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice as they are not part of the American army (which would not like to take responsibility for contractors’ actions). The only other alternative in American law would be to try these contractors as civilians through the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a process made difficult by federal courts requirements of secure investigative methods, which Iraqi personnel are not trusted to provide. Blackwater itself has claimed immunity from litigation under civilian law, as they are part of the US Total Force. Alternatively, these individuals could be tried under Iraqi law, however as one of the most corrupt countries in the world this is far from an optional course of action (as illustrated by a 2010 Justice Department investigation on alleged Blackwater bribes of foreign officials after the 2009 Nisour Square shooting where contractors left 17 Iraqis dead).

In 2010, Private Contractors to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan numbered approximately 250 000, making up 54% of the US Department of State employees. Still, as Hannah Tonkin argues in State Control over Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict, “for every PMSC working in a conflict zone, three states retain a significant capacity to influence company behaviour and to promote accountability in cases contractor misconduct.” She identifies these states as the hiring, host and home states, under which jurisdiction these companies and persons can fall.

Privatization in military and security services is nothing new. Although the Peace of Westphalia established a system of sovereign states in Europe in 1648, privateering was not illegalised in international law until 1856, and the British East India Company reigned in India until 1858. In modern times, this was the dominant trend until a downsizing of militaries at the end of the cold war resulted in increased outsourcing of military and security services. This coincided with a boom of peace operations and humanitarian interventions following an easing of great power tensions, and has wrought challenges as the military forces are spread thin in low-intensity conflicts across the world.

In light of the US military plan announced in June of this year to cut 80 000 soldiers by 2017 because of the federal budget deficit, the security sector is likely to experience public to private sector migration. According to Chante Wolfe, an Iraq veteran, there isn’t much else to do: “When you’ve done one or two tours of duty and you come home, there aren’t going to be jobs for you, not for soldiers. Unemployment is high among vets, so these places [PMSCs] are the only people hiring soldiers with no transferrable skills.”

There is legitimate reason for concern when private military and security companies operate in decentralised (or failed) states. It is clear that Malaysia, with its 750 PMSCs do not have control of the situation. When these companies operate in decentralised states there are either few restrictions or little oversight. Weak enforcement measures further create a highly unregulated sector where malpractice goes unchecked. This is not a defence an advanced state such as the United States can make. Highly centralised states contract PMSCs and have the power to enforce their accountability. According to Wolfe, “A lot of these security corporations do not fall under any international laws or the Geneva Convention because they are not the military. So they have more free reign to do whatever they want, which is dangerous because it becomes a power thing where they can do whatever they want and get away with it.” The sad truth is that states often misuse private military and security companies in the same way that large multinational corporations sub-contract to draw the benefits without having to pay the costs (accountability and reputation). Privatisation of warfare is not an evil practice in itself, but rather the symptom of systematic exploitation of loopholes in international law.


Orville Taylor. 2013 (03.11). Security Workers: Thank You, Government. The Gleaner,

Queville To,. 2013 (02.11). Security Guards With Fake ICs and Guns? FMT News.

Hannah Tonkin,. 2011. State Control over Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chante Wolfe interview in Jo Erickson. 2013 (16.10). Exclusive: Private Security Contractors, Fanning the Flames in Afghanistan? (AUDIO). Mint Press News,

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