by Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams
Many Canadians will know GardaWorld from airport security, the routine removal of shoes, belts, and “any gels or liquids.” Fewer will know that the Montreal-based company is also a global security provider with ambitions to expand in emerging markets in Africa and the Middle East. It already operates in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia. Passing through airport security at Pearson International, this might seem a story of Canadian entrepreneurship and success gone global. But not all GardaWorld operations look like Pearson, and not all its employees resemble those staffing the airport’s scanners. In Iraq, for example, they include former child soldiers from Sierra Leone.
The story of how young men from one of Africa’s poorest countries ended up working in security thousands of miles away first broke in the Danish documentary The Child Soldiers’ New Job. The film shows how many former child soldiers are among the 2,500 Sierra Leoneans who have been recruited to work as security guards in Iraq. “Since I was a child, my job has been with weapons,” one recruit says. Another recalls “Cutting off hands… innocent people’s feet” in a brutal civil war whose hallmark was dismemberment and amputations, often by abducted child soldiers. Now, after years of unsuccessful reintegration, many of these former child soldiers have become part of a global underclass of migrant private security labourers. “UK firm ‘employed former child soldiers’ as mercenaries in Iraq” a Guardian headline read after the screening of the documentary. Only the security company Aegis is no longer a British company. It is Canadian, owned by GardaWorld.
GardaWorld took over Aegis in July 2015 as part of its strategy to become a “global leader in providing comprehensive security, crisis response and risk management services in high-risk and complex environments.” Aegis itself has a controversial history and close links to the British establishment. It is chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson. It was founded in 2002 by Tim Spicer, a former Scots Guards officer whose earlier company Sandline International was involved in conflicts in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone. It was at the centre of the 1998 “Arms to Africa” scandal, when the company claimed tacit UK government support for importing 100 tons of weapons to Sierra Leone — in breach of the UN weapons embargo. A few years later, in 2004, Spicer’s new company, Aegis, was established as a US government security provider and promptly won a US$1.3 billion contract with the US Department of Defense in Iraq — still one of the largest security contracts ever awarded.
In 2011, Aegis began hiring guards and soldiers from Sierra Leone and other African countries for its Iraq contracts. In efforts to keep costs down, “third country nationals” — recruits from countries other than the company’s own or the country of operation — have become essential to the continued profitability of the global security industry. Many of these recruits come from poor war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Nepal, which have a surplus of weapons-savvy youth and a shortage of jobs and prospects. According to The Child Soldier’s New Job, the Sierra Leoneans were paid US$16 a day while in Iraq, considerably more than the average daily wage in their home country, but obviously much less than their British colleagues. Little or no evaluation of their psychological wellbeing was undertaken by Aegis, thus ignoring the possibility that participation in private military service might reignite and deepen their childhood traumas.
It is important to underline that Aegis and GardaWorld have not been accused of doing anything illegal. Both are highly respected security companies, involved in large government contracts and partnerships. GardaWorld was a founding signatory to the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC), the main international standard committing companies to respect for human rights and humanitarian law. The problem is not one of individual companies “breaking bad.” It is that the global security market is characterized — no witticism intended — by cutthroat competition.
Private security has become a vast international market, actively aided and abetted by governments across the world outsourcing security functions to private companies and entering into public–private partnerships. In Canada, GardaWorld’s large government contract to provide airport security has provided the company with vital resources for its global expansion. In Sierra Leone, the government has actively facilitated recruitment campaigns by international private security companies, thereby providing job opportunities in a country ravaged by unemployment while simultaneously exporting potentially restive youth. As the private security market has expanded, the nature of security and warfare has changed and the boundaries between the public and the private blurred. Reconstruction in Iraq, military intervention in Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance in Somalia — none of this is possible today without the services of private security companies operating alongside the public military and police. Public and humanitarian logics interact with market logic, and for private security companies the imperative is often to drive down operating costs to maintain and protect profits. Thus, the former Sierra Leonean child soldier becomes the first line of defence, simply because he is the cheapest.
Security may have become a commodity to be traded in the global marketplace, but selling security is not like selling ice cream. To remain competitive in a global market, private security companies must abide by international standards and human rights principles. They must be seen to be accountable, responsible, and effective, but they must also remain profitable, and that makes it difficult to recreate Pearson International in Baghdad. GardaWorld and the governments that employ private security must now ask themselves the tough questions: Does global success and competitiveness now rely on employing former child soldiers, and what is the real cost of doing so?