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Why the UN must sever ties with the world’s biggest private security company

G4SBy Simon Davies

The question of whether the controversial global security giant G4S is institutionally amoral or merely ambivalent about its societal responsibilities amounts to the same outcome: the company is starting to pollute the global human rights initiatives that it has hypocritically signed up to.

With over twelve thousand corporate participants, the most prominent of these initiatives is the United Nations Global Compact, a project launched by the UN in 2000 to promote social responsibility and human rights compliance by companies. G4S joined the Compact in 2011, pledging to the Secretary General that it would uphold and respect human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and anti-corruption. Since then, the company has been implicated in a litany of abuses in most of those domains.

Many of the company’s activities have generated controversy in recent months, particularly relating to complicity in human rights abuses in Israeli and Palestinian detention facilities and systematic torture in South African prisons staffed by G4S.

G4S; Great 4 Slogans, not so good for the protection of rights

G4S; Great 4 Slogans, not so good for the protection of rights

The scale of alleged criminality and dysfunction within the company is such that in recent weeks institutions such as the United Methodist Church and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have divested their G4S shares.

G4S is a “scattergun for hire” in the security realm. With a workforce of 620,000 across 120 countries it has a finger in numerous hot pies, including border security, private prisons, perimeter security, mobile security, video analytics, security technology, risk assessment, electronic tagging and prisoner transportation. It’s probably fair to say that G4S has become to security, what News Corp is to mass media and EDS was for IT outsourcing.

The Privacy Surgeon is preparing a complaint to the UN Global Compact General Counsel setting out grounds for the company’s expulsion from the Compact and arguing that G4S is misrepresenting both its relationship with the UN and its stated commitment to the principles of the Compact.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this situation is that the many allegations against G4S are not sporadic; they appear to be symptomatic of an institutional malaise that may permeate the entire company.

It’s probably fair to say that G4S has become to security, what News Corp is to mass media and EDS was for IT outsourcing.

The sheer breadth of the allegations gives weight to this view. In February 2011, for example, The Guardian newspaper reported that G4S guards in the United Kingdom had been repeatedly warned about the use of potentially lethal force on detainees and asylum seekers. Confidential informants and several employees released the information to reporters after G4S’s practices allegedly led to the death of Jimmy Mubenga. An internal document urged management to “meet this problem head on before the worst happens” and that G4S was “playing Russian roulette with detainees’ lives. The following autumn, the company once again faced allegations of abuse. G4S guards were accused of verbally harassing and intimidating detainees with offensive and racist language.

This level of reported abuse extends even to baseline public interaction in the company’s utilities services, in which G4S reads the gas and electric meters of more than twelve million British households supplied by British Gas.

Power firm Good Energy stopped using G4S meter men after an outcry from customers over abusive and threatening behavior by the company’s employees. One man complained that he caught one trying to break into his house (the author of this article, like others, has been threatened and intimidated by G4S employees at the doorstep). Such reports indicate that a dysfunctional culture may have been nurtured throughout much of the company. That precarious environment risks the creation of a suspended reality remote from mainstream values of good governance and responsible conduct.

Indications of institutional breakdown extend even to instances of fraud. In July 2013, British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling asked the Serious Fraud Office to investigate G4S for overcharging for tagging criminals in England and Wales, claiming that it and rival company Serco charged the government for tagging people who were not actually being monitored, including tags for people in prison, out of the country or dead – and that it had done so since 2005. In December G4S was ordered to repay £130 million to the government for the fraudulent billing.

Until the UN stops allowing its brand to be hijacked for cosmetic purposes, the cause of corporate reform will continue to be retarded.

In light of these events the reasonable response by G4S might have been to at least improve public perception of its attitude and actions. Instead, vocal shareholders at the company’s 2014 AGM were violently evicted while media were gagged from tweeting or blogging the proceedings.

The G4S situation is of critical importance to the United Nations if the organisation is to maintain the credibility of its outreach to the private sector.

The credibility, however, is failing. The London-based Global Exchange, an international human rights organisation, has published a list of the “top 10 corporate criminals”, accusing them of being complicit in violations of human rights and the environment. The charges include unlivable working conditions for factory workers, lack of worker’s rights, pollution, child labour, toxic dumping, unfair labour practices, discrimination and destruction of indigenous lands for mining and oil exploration.

The companies identified include Royal Dutch Shell, Nike, Blackwater International, Syngenta, Barrick Gold and Nestle – almost all of which are members of the UN Global Compact.

Pressing for the expulsion of such companies from the UN Global Compact is easier said than done. The initiative focuses on communications rather than progress and the organization has no independent investigation process. The involvement of members is procedural – largely a box ticking exercise.

Until the UN stops allowing its brand to be hijacked for cosmetic purposes, the cause of corporate reform will continue to be retarded. The UN as a whole needs to carefully consider how to define the concept of “commitment” to the protection of rights before it permits companies to proclaim such a process under its banner.