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Private Military Firm Pitches Its Services in Darfur

The international community hasn't lived up to the promise of "never again." In Bosnia, Rwanda and now Darfur, hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered while the world largely watched. The United States calls the killing in Darfur "genocide."

Enter Blackwater, a private military company that says it can help keep peace in Darfur. Doug Brooks runs an association of private military firms, which includes Blackwater. He says his members can help where governments have failed.

"What we've seen is the West has largely abrogated any responsibility to put their own people on the ground in places they don't care about," says Brooks. "It's willing to authorize these missions, but it's not willing to put boots on the ground. The private sector can step in. It can fill that gap."

The United Nations, which hopes to deploy in Darfur this fall, opposes the outsourcing of force.

The peacekeeping pitch sounds great, but has all kinds of problems, says Peter Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors.

For one thing, he says, there's little accountability. If contractors misbehave -- as they did at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison -- they rarely face charges. Singer says private military firms are focusing on peacekeeping, in part, to improve their image.

"It's a wonderful way to put a very nice face onto an industry that faces a pretty big question of legitimacy," says Singer. "Because, at the end of the day, it's the corporate evolution of the mercenary trade."

At Blackwater's headquarters in North Carolina, the airy, glass atrium seems more Fortune Magazine than Soldier of Fortune. The company's training center covers an area about half the size of Manhattan. Facilities include a mock-up of a motel for assault training and several miles of track where trainees are taught how to drive in dangerous conditions.

Chris Taylor, head of strategy for Blackwater, says his company has a database of thousands of former police and military officers for security assignments. He says Blackwater personnel could set up perimeters and guard Darfurian villages and refugee camp in support of the U.N. Blackwater officials say it would not take many men to fend off the Janjaweed, a militia that is supported by the Sudanese government and attacks villages on camelback.

"Any sort of intervention would have to be done by nation-state militaries," Taylor says. "What we seek to do first is be the best deterrent we could possibly be."

But Taylor acknowledges that the political hurdles to such a contract are huge. Nations are often reluctant to allow in U.N. peacekeepers, let alone private soldiers. Many African nations would be especially resistant, given the continent's bad history with white mercenaries.

Jean-Marie Guehenno, under-secretary general for peacekeeping at the U.N., says the international community shouldn't be allowed to dump its responsibilities on the private sector.

"If you want to have peace, it's not just a technical issue, it's a political issue," he says. "So, I don't think states can get off the hook by committing to tragic situations by just handing over the job to private companies."

In fact, private military firms already provide services to peacekeepers. They've flown African soldiers around Darfur. In Congo and Liberia, they've protected U.N. food convoys, warehouses and personnel.

The private military industry took off at the end of the Cold War as armies downsized, but conflicts flared in regions like the Balkans. The industry now makes billions of dollars each year. Firms provide everything from fighter jets to bodyguards in more than 50 countries.

Singer, the military analyst, says the security companies are looking to peacekeeping because they expect work in Iraq will begin to dry up when the United States pulls back.

"There are a lot of crises in the world," says Singer, "so if they can get their foot in the door, it potentially opens up an entire new business sector."

Deborah Avant, a professor at George Washington University and author of The Market for Force, says she thinks that someday, somewhere, private firms will be hired to defend civilians.

"I think that's probably something that will unfold in the next five years," she says. "Ultimately, it's a political failure of states and yet an increasing sense among the rather diffuse, international community that something must be done."

For now, private bids to do peacekeeping are going nowhere. And in Darfur, a fragile peace agreement is fraying. In an interview with NPR, Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s chief aid coordinator, said U.N. trucks are attacked every week. He said some humanitarian organizations have already left Darfur and others are debating whether to go.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.