8-14 July 2016 #816

Nobodies who are somebody

What would be the compensation if Canadian nationals were killed instead of guards from Nepal in Kabul
Sangita Thebe-Limbu
Bikram Rai

A Taliban suicide attack in Kabul on 20 June killed 13 Nepalis and two Indian citizens working as private security guards at the Canadian Embassy. Since then there has been an outpouring of serious concern about the treatment of migrant workers in conflict zones.

The debate must be seen in the context of military and security operations, previously a domain of national armed forces, being privatised. The Kabul carnage also revealed Nepal’s dire remittance-dependent economy, and dismal governance.

In the last 10 years, Department of Foreign Employment in Nepal has issued some 9,000 permits for nationals to work in Afghanistan. However, the actual number is said to be much higher since recruitment is through informal channels and there is no official mechanism to record the number of returnees.

In 2006, War on Want produced an influential report that analysed the threats associated with proliferation of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs). Following the declaration of the US-led ‘war on terror’ and subsequent military invasions private security companies operate throughout the world selling security services to governments, international institutions such as the UN and private firms.

PMSCs provide direct combat, intelligence, training and security in conflict zones, post-conflict reconstruction and so on. In Iraq and Afghanistan, with a declining presence of the US and allied troops, security services are increasingly outsourced to PMSCs whose clients include Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and others.

As an industry that profits from war and political conflicts, PMSCs have come under scrutiny and faced allegations of human rights abuses and absence of accountability, illegal weapons trade, and catalysing or exacerbating political conflicts. Even so, contractors are gradually becoming the accepted form of security.

After the killing of Nepali security guards, there was some debate about out-sourcing security and whether the responsibility was with the Canadian government, the British PMSC Sabre International that employed the guards, or the Nepal government for failing to protect its citizens. Or all three.

If we are to argue that the PMSC should take the responsibility as they are the direct employers and are also in charge of upholding safety protocols the question is what mechanism is in place to hold such companies accountable?

An International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC) was prepared in 2010 in consultation with PMSCs, governments and civil society. However, ICoC is voluntary and based on self-regulation rather than legally binding.

Recruiting vulnerable and desperate employees from poor countries puts PMSCs in a powerful and profitable bargaining position. For instance, there was a case in which Sabre International was getting $1700 for every Ugandan security guard recruited for the US government, but the actual pay of the security guard was $700 and below.

Private security guards from developing countries no doubt receive higher salaries than what they would earn at home, but the risks involved are high. The Canadian government contracting out security at its embassy meant it protected itself from any financial liability towards the murdered guards. It leads us to the question: what would be the compensation if Canadian nationals were killed instead of guards from Nepal?

Since the public outcry at the loss of national soldiers and subsequent political cost governments could face are high, guards from poor countries become easy alternatives, risk minimisers and politically dispensable bodies safeguarding the interests of the rich and powerful.

The Nepal government has now imposed a ban on Nepali workers going to Afghanistan. It is doubtful if a blanket ban would work, considering many migrants in Afghanistan use informal channels to get there and remain largely undocumented. Sabre International, for its part, has committed US$ 30,000 in compensation to each of the families of the victims of the Kabul attack.

The Government of Canada condemned the killings and recently held a memorial servicefor the deceased guards in the Canadian Embassy in Kabul in the presence of the Indian ambassador. No sign of any representative from Nepal, however. The Canadian government also has been tight-lipped about compensation for the victims’ families. This is hypocritical because Canada has exhaustive travel advisories when it comes to the protection of its own public service staff working in places like Afghanistan. They have $500,000 travel accident insurance, medical evacuation, dependent care and so on.

The lesson from the Kabul tragedy could be regulation of the PMSC industry through a legally binding framework with inter-governmental negotiations between countries that are either clients or countries supplying security personnel. The UN Human Rights Council has been developing a binding convention for the regulation of PMSCs, which is a positive step. But PMSCs are economically and politically powerful and a strong backlash against regulation should be expected.

As for Nepal, the incident is one of the many wake up calls that relying on remittance without a long-term economic vision is not sustainable.

Sangita Thebe Limbu is studying Gender, Development and Globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science ( LSE)

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