The following interview with Prof. Deborah Avant [1] was carried out in Denver, on January 24, 2014 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the reasons for hiring private security companies (PSC), existing regulations, the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan and risk assessments. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


. Reasons for Hiring PSC

Talking to private security contractors and experts working in the security divisions of U.S. oil companies, a big advantage of hiring PSC is that liability can partially be shifted from the company towards the PSC. Also including aid organizations, we were wondering if you see this as an additional driver to hire PSC?

I actually have not seen so much of that. Partly because a variety of protocols are in place, both for extractive industry companies and for NGOs that instruct them on proper behavior. InterAction for example has those Security Best Practices, [2] and the Voluntary Principles on Extractive Industry [3] suggest a variety of things that the company is responsible for. It therefore would be difficult to argue that the companies hired some PSC they knew nothing about because actually it is their duty to know something about it. It may be that this would have made sense at some point in time but I have not heard people talk about it in recent years. I doubt that it really made sense among the majority of the humanitarian actors from the very beginning. If you look at the actual debates among humanitarian organizations about how to handle the security situation in the 90s, they were quite concerned about what it would mean to try to address some of the violent situations they faced. There was a big debate about whether it even made sense to hire security companies because just doing that would violate certain humanitarian principles. To say they felt comfortable just hiring those companies to no longer be liable would surprise me.

In your article “Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq” [4] you argue that because of the US hiring PSC, the democratic peace theory argument has to be modified, especially regarding constitutionalism, transparency and public consent. Do you think that a modification also has to be made when assessing the rationale behind aid organizations hiring PSC? In case there are fewer fatalities among aid workers but more among the security staff, the perception of whether it is safe to be involved in a country might change.

There is a huge range of aid organizations and some don’t hire PSC at all. Does it change their processes? It probably does. It might not be in the same way because aid organizations are not set up to have certain kinds of democratic principles to begin with, that is another issue with those organizations. In some situations by virtue of having contracts with governments such as the U.S. government an aid organization would need to have a security plan that abided by a certain set of principles that the U.S. government is interested in. But would that change the way the humanitarian organization works? Maybe to some extent, but I think humanitarian organizations – many of them – have been quite cognizant of potential changes and resistant to necessarily making them. There is one case I have in mind where changes played out in a different way than you are suggesting. The degree to which conservation organizations felt like they had to have security in order to operate in such a situation made it much more costly and so they decided to actually use their resources in a more cost-efficient way and moved to somewhere else. Thereby, it actually led them to not engage.


. Regulations

There are different cases for the regulation in countries where PSC operate. Certain countries are very strict, not allowing PSC to be armed, they have to cooperate with the local military, and others are less strict. Do you see any reason behind those regulations in the respective countries?

There are many countries that have not thought about this at all. Sometimes there are laws in the books for other reasons that apply to these situations and are being used. There just was a meeting in Montreux looking at 5 years after the Montreux Document. [5] A lot of country representatives from non-signatory states were attending and they were curious as to what regulation they should have. I think it is rarely the case that people in the government are sitting down and discussing how to regulate PSC. Usually they are patching together regulation in response to something that has happened. They are deciding to regulate or to even address this issue because a problem has arisen and are responding in a variety of ways; making use of what laws are already existing and/or maybe consulting international best practices. The Montreux Document will have an impact for those countries that have not thought about these issues very much and don’t have a lot on the books. If there were something like model legislation, I imagine a lot of countries would simply adopt that.

In the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan where incidents happened, people in the government decided to react in one way or another. My understanding of both of those cases is that the reaction was quite political. In Iraq the Prime Minister was seizing on that issue at a difficult time for him domestically. This led him to make a decision that benefited him politically but probably didn’t have such a great impact. In Afghanistan it also was political, but in this situation the government created the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) [6] as a way of both paying off certain political heavy weights in the country and also providing a potential line of income for the country. In both of these cases countries responded to problems, not necessarily trying to find the best way to solve the problem focused on security and stability for the population. It was much more about politics. (Since our conversation the APPF was disbanded and folded into the Ministry of Interior)

If you have national regulations of PSC, given that PSC are especially needed in unstable areas, do you think that national regulations matter a lot? In some cases oversight and implementation seem to be rather dodgy.

There are different ways governments can engage with PSC. The regulations of home states generally have more heft if they are situated in a framework that other governments and industry are using. That is part of the appeal of the Montreux Document, as a coordinating mechanism. Then there are contracting states, which have generally more capacity, and everyone realizes that host states have the least capacity. It is however a good idea to have rules even if oversight and implementation is problematic. Sometimes just having rules can be a kind of informative and that can shape behavior, even if there is not a lot of enforcement. So in that sense it does matter. But everyone recognizes that host states are the least likely to enforce regulations because of the evident lack of capacity.


. Cases of Afghanistan and Iraq

In the case of Afghanistan, do you see the APPF as really able to provide the services needed? Doug Brooks argued that it might lead to a reregistering of PSC instead of a ban. What do you think of that?

APPF has not been able to provide needed services. One of the big issues to think about as the International Code of Conduct Association [7] goes forward is to what degree does this code apply to state-owned companies, if that is what you want to call the APPF. I am not sure what will happen in Afghanistan but I think it is unlikely that you are going to have a relabeling. I think security will probably continue to be provided through the infrastructure of the APPF but this will probably make this force less effective and less accountable.

What do you see as the biggest benefit of PSC to the politicians of Afghanistan or Iraq?

The APPF is a mechanism for generating money because they are the ones that have to be contracted with for all security operations. Part of the issue and the lack of effectiveness is that there is a power struggle between different parts of the Afghan government over the APPF. For Maliki initially making a big issue of PSCs in Iraq was a mechanism for demonstrating that he was standing up to the US as an Iraqi, it was more a symbolic thing and not a matter of really changing very much how those companies worked in Iraq. I also think that getting licenses in Iraq is a pay-off to some extent but not nearly the kind of revenue stream that the APPF will provide.

Do you see any differences in the methods Western and non-Western PSCs are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, many of the companies are locally based and it is hard to make a comparison. There are probably different logics at work with more locally based and more globally based companies. It is unfortunate that we have not seen as much involvement of local companies in the processes like the ICOC and the Code of Conduct Association because bringing those companies in will be sort of a key to whether this association works effectively or not.

Do you see any reason for this?

Partly resources, partly networks. It is really easy to know who the big transnational players are, they all know each other, many are publicly held and they have websites. To get to the local companies you have to know a lot more about a particular area and those people are less likely to be involved in those kinds of processes looking at those global governance issues. That is something which is on the minds of people in the International Code of Conduct Association and particularly in the minds of those interested in seeing more involvement of local companies.


. Risk Assessments

If you have aid organizations or the extractive industry going into unstable places, they usually do a risk assessment first to assess what is needed and what isn’t. Do you see a lack of risk assessment with regard to local perceptions or tribal situations?

That probably varies widely with different companies. The practices regarding security for extractive industry organizations are all over the place. Some are very well integrated into the core of their operation and think about mitigation issues at every single level, for others it is separate and plugged on at the end. So there is quite a bit of difference. Often extractive industries need a certain license to operate, so often times they don’t really have the opportunity to choose. Basically, different government groups offer them security and this is their only choice. We had experts here from mining and oil companies and they say they only wish to have the choice of selecting their security operators. They live in a very confined world dependent on what it takes politically to be able to operate in a particular territory. It is therefore rare that they would be able to freely choose between government forces, G4S [8] or a local company. They have to make their decision under the government’s parameters and have to find out what best to do and devise a plan on that basis.

Are those arrangements also true for unstable and corrupt states or would you say that through corruption companies could manage to get the deal or arrangement they want?

Even in unstable really corrupt states, the corruption nonetheless can impact the ability of companies to get in. The degree of corruption impacts the degree to what the government does something, is responsive to any national public good and so on. I don’t think having a super corrupt government makes it easier for a company to be involved. They just have to pay off different people and are sensitive to different processes. I don’t think extractive industry companies are angels by any means but they do operate within particular constraints and many of them would actually prefer to have a stable well-functioning government to deal with, only because it is more predictable. When it is highly corrupt, they may pay-off one person and then, if that person loses his position they have to pay-off someone else on top of it. I don’t think companies particularly enjoy that.

Do you see that differently for the case of China, as they usually argue that they have to invest in unstable and more corrupt places due to their late arrival to the market? They really have many investments in more risky areas where the potential benefit might be outweighing the lack of predictability.

I just know less about what the calculations are in China. The interesting thing that I have heard is that even though you are talking about state-owned companies, there is competition among them. Therefore, I think that this is really interesting and a potential avenue for inquiry. The other thing is that it is the case that often when you see a Chinese company investing the initiative is much larger and you have a lot of manpower from China involved. They built the rail line in Angola with many Chinese workers that went to Angola. It is quite different when you see Chevron invest. There you would not see this army of people from the U.S., which makes an interesting difference.


Thank you very much for the interview.


[1] More about Prof. Avant at:
[2] More on InterActions’s work on NGO security at:
[3] The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights are available at:
[4] The article by Deborah Avant and Lee Sigelman: “Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq”, Security Studies, Vol. 19, Issues 2, 2012 is available at: – .UzIw5F4WmWF.
[5] The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies is accessible at:
[6] The website of the APPF is accessible at: For an overview over potential flaws in the transition process, the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction are a great source of additional information:
[7] The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is an initiative convened by the Swiss government, aiming at setting industry principles and standards for PSC:
[8] G4S is one of the world’s largest PSC:

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