U.N. hiring of armed contractors raises concern about rights abuses

The United Nations has hired more than 30 armed private security contractors for its operations in volatile security regions but the arrangement has irked some member countries who voiced concern about possible human rights abuses and illegal actions in a recent General Assembly meeting.

The assembly consequently passed a resolution at its April 12 plenary session stressing that private armed security services be used only as an "exceptional measure."

In a report provided to the General Assembly by the United Nations' Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the private contractors were listed as working as part of U.N. political missions in countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions in locations from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond.

Against the backdrop of apprehension is a history of incidents involving private contractors. In 2007, employees of Blackwater USA, hired by the U.S. military, shot at Iraqi citizens, killing 17 of them, when clearing traffic for a U.S. diplomatic convoy.

Among the U.N. contractors, G4S, a British security service, has a history of three guards implicated in the 2010 death of an Angolan refugee they were escorting on a flight from London to Angola, though no formal charges were filed against them, according to a media report.

The United Nations has long used private security companies, mostly involving unarmed local contractors to secure locations for the protection of U.N. personnel and its assets, according to the report.

However, as the international organization finds itself to be a target in violence-prone areas, it has relied increasingly on armed private security companies.

Diplomats said that in the course of discussions at the General Assembly's Fifth Committee on administration and budgetary matters, member states raised questions about issues such as whether there have been past incidents of rights abuses by contracted security personnel as well as criteria for selecting contractors.

The United Nations explained that they check criminal records of security personnel to be dispatched, according to the diplomat.

The resolution says those contractors should be used as a "last resort" in "high-risk environments" only when "other alternatives...are inadequate."