GENEVA Nearly 60 private security firms deployed in war zones, including the former Blackwater, pledged on Tuesday to curb their use of force, vet and train personnel, and report any breaches, officials said.
An international code of conduct setting down the first set of standards was sparked by concerns over alleged abuses committed by the Pentagon's private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan amid virtual impunity from criminal prosecution.
Neutral Switzerland initiated the landmark code, drawn up over the past year with the help of Britain and the United States, home to most private security companies.
"We strongly encourage all private security companies to sign it and to adhere to it. We believe it could be a new era of enhanced accountability for the industry," British diplomat Guy Pollard told the signing ceremony in Geneva.
The industry has grown exponentially, often providing essential security services for governments, private companies and aid workers in difficult and dangerous settings, he said.
Now renamed Xe Services, Blackwater Worldwide saw its reputation suffer over several incidents, especially one in 2007 when its guards were involved in a shooting in traffic in Baghdad in which 14 Iraqi civilians were killed.
One Blackwater guard pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges. A U.S. court dismissed charges against five others, saying their rights were violated during the U.S. government's investigation of the incident. The Iraqi government, which calls the shootings a "massacre," has vowed to appeal the ruling.
Ten American companies were among those to sign the code, including industry leaders DynCorp, owned by Cerberus Capital Management, Triple Canopy and Xe Services.
"While governments and clients play an important role in regulating the sector, the industry itself must be willing to take a stand and set standards," said Ignacio Balderas, CEO of Triple Canopy, a firm based in Virginia, founded by U.S. special forces veterans.
Its guards man security checkpoints for the embassy and U.S. military facilities in Iraq. Three of its staff were killed in a rocket attack in Baghdad's Green Zone in July.
Harold Hongju Koh, State Department legal adviser, attended the ceremony. Later he addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council which has been examining the U.S. record at home and abroad.
The code aims to overcome "legal and theoretical ambiguities" and make clear that there is "no legal vacuum" for the activities of private security companies, the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.
It underlines prohibitions such as those to kill, torture, discriminate or be involved in human trafficking, it said.
Afghanistan has imposed a ban on private security companies except under limited circumstances. Last month it said it had begun disbanding them and confiscating their weapons, starting with a group of eight Afghan and foreign firms, including Xe.
The Kabul government describes the move as part of its plan to take over all security responsibility from 2014.
President Hamid Karzai has been critical of the firms, saying they have been responsible for horrific accidents. Many Afghans see them as operating with impunity and they have been accused of a series of crimes but have rarely been convicted.
A U.N. human rights body said last January that the Blackwater case in Iraq underscored the need for "credible oversight" of private security companies.
Pressure group Human Rights First welcomed the code as a "strong document."
"But its true value will depend on how it is enforced," said Devon Chaffee of the U.S.-based group.
(Editing by Peter Graff)