Deborah AvantAmidst news of U.S. troop shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, little has been said about the fate of the large number of private security contractors still in country. The lack of news appears to be par for the course, says Deborah Avant, UCI international studies and political science professor, who in a recent study found that for every one New York Times article that mentions private security forces, there are 47 that mention U.S. soldiers or troops.  
"Just because we don't hear about them doesn't mean they aren't there," she says, adding that the number of contractors performing duties once provided by the U.S. military is greater than the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq. "Private contractors from a global security industry play a significant role in Afghanistan and Iraq carrying out U.S. policy. Most are not U.S. citizens and some carry guns."  
In a feature article appearing in this month's American Interest, she argues that the lack of information on the private security industry is a significant problem that limits the democratic nature of U.S. foreign policy. The use of contractors, she says, also limits the influence of Congress while the lack of transparency inhibits effective public consent.  
Though she does not believe the turn toward contractors is likely to ebb, there are ways in which the U.S. government, working with other governments, industry groups and NGOs can enhance the democratic nature of the contracting process.  
"Democracy means more than elections," she says. "We need to keep in mind the processes that make democracy work. Standards and transparency are part of a framework for making a global process involving many different actors more democratic."  
The development of standards for individuals that carry arms in conflict zones, she explains, would help in creating controls in the industry and allow watchdog organizations and journalists the tools to better monitor and report on private security behavior. It would also make it harder for governments to use private security companies to do what government forces cannot.  
She offers as a possible model for engaging the multiple stakeholders in these complicated settings the nearly decade old Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. A set of U.S. government supported guidelines for oil and mining companies which outline how to balance safety, security and human rights when operating in developing countries, the principles, she says, suggest a process that could also be useful for the private security industry.  
Avant's study is available online at (full view requires subscription). Funding for the studies on which her findings are based was provided by the Pacific Council on International Policy and the National Science Foundation.

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