Businesses can contribute to armed conflict—or be part of peacebuilding, concludes ImpACT roundtable

LondonThe private sector has contributed to armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, concluded a roundtable discussion organised in London by ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies.

"Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the private military sector has grown explosively," Nicolai Due-Gundersen, political analyst at Kingston University and author of author of "The Privatization of Warfare,” told an audience of human rights activists, academics and researchers. “The United States employed private corporations in its military operations to an unprecedented degree. The highest-profile result were the abuses of detainees held in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, but they were just the tip of the iceberg.”

While states, international organisations and non-governmental organisations have traditionally taken the lead in initiatives to achieve peace and development, it is increasingly recognised that companies offer useful capital, skills, logistical standards and experience with innovation

- Mary Martin, director of the U.N.’s Business and Human Security Initiative and a senior research fellow at LSE IDEAS

Due-Gunderson added that “outsourcing security” has become so routine that the general public accepts the practice—although they are largely unaware of its true extent and the troubling consequences.

"Before 2003, private military companies—especially American ones—were generally assigned protective roles, and weren’t engaged in direct conflict,” he explained. “Now, however, that has changed." 

In Syria, for example, the civil war has created a plethora of business opportunities for private military companies

"One problem with this is the lack of accountability. International law, which is designed to govern relations between states, does not generally apply to these entities. We do not have an established way of holding non-state actors or international businesses accountable," he cautioned.

Mary Martin, director of the U.N.’s Business and Human Security Initiative and a senior research fellow at LSE IDEAS, added that business has a unique role to play in societies still development or attempting to transition away from conflict or crisis.

“While states, international organisations and non-governmental organisations have traditionally taken the lead in initiatives to achieve peace and development, it is increasingly recognised that companies offer useful capital, skills, logistical standards and experience with innovation,” Martin added. “There is a big potential for positive impact on economic opportunities, social equality, quality of governance and protection of the natural environment.”

Martin cited as a useful model the U.N. Business and Human Security Initiative at LSE IDEAS, which uses a human-security lens to encourage public-private engagement in conflict resolution.

As for the private sector’s role in Yemen, another “hot spot,” Lara Hamidi, an ImpACT researcher, said that despite the obstacles created by the ongoing war, the private sector has still been able to provide a substantial number of local jobs.

"The sector has demonstrated its resilience through its processing of the largest influx of humanitarian aid Yemen has ever received," Hamidi explained.

After four years of a civil war complicated by the interference of proxy powers, the Yemeni economy has been severely damaged, with many commercial activities suspended and activity now largely dependent on foreign aid. Most private and public enterprises have suffered some degree of damage. Even before the conflict in Yemen began, the private sector faced challenges that slowed its growth. These include bureaucratic obstructions, weak infrastructure, a largely unskilled workforce, a poor investment climate, lack of financing, an economy overly dependent on oil, corruption, a weak state and a rent-seeking elite class with vested interests in stifling reforms.

The same benefit can be seen in Syria. Since the start of the conflict in 2010, the Syrian economy has imploded, leading to a large budget deficit and major losses in the private sector. However, as in Yemen, businesses have created a sort of crisis economy.

"The governments in both Yemen and Syria should not identify the private sector as separate entities; instead, they should be seen and recruited as potential partners in rebuilding the public economy," Hamidi concluded.

 

ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies is a London-based think tank concerned with policies at the intersection of government and businesses.