Thursday

6th Aug 2020

Investigation

G4S: the EU's preferred security contractor

  • The European Parliament cut ties with the private security giant G4S in 2011 over alleged abuses in Israel. Today, they guard the parliament's main entrance (Photo: EUobserver)

Almost a decade has gone by since the European Parliament cut ties with the world's largest security provider, the British multinational security services company G4S.

MEPs at the time were upset G4S had run prisons and interrogation centres in Israel, where Palestinians were reportedly being tortured.

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A few years later, the MEPs in a letter demanded the European Commission and the EU's foreign affairs branch, the European External Action Service (EEAS), follow the parliament's lead and end all contracts with G4S.

It was "unacceptable", they said, that EU institutions maintain contractual relations with the firm "that is engaged in providing support for activities that constitute war crimes."

G4S had always denied the abuse - and eventually sold its entire Israeli subsidiary in December 2016.

But today, masked G4S sentries can be found standing guard at the front entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels.

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP and co-chair of the Greens party, had signed that letter in 2015.

Asked why G4S is now guarding the parliament's front entrance given the previous political backlash, Lamberts' office said they had no information on present contracts or ties with the parliament.

G4S had secured a four-year contract in 2019 to provide fire safety and external surveillance at the European parliament.

That same year, Norway's state wealth fund blacklisted the company because of the "unacceptable risk" when it comes to human rights violations in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Such risks and violations had also been uncovered by a BBC investigation that secretly filmed a G4S guard choking a detainee at the Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick in the UK.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, lawyers in 2016 had accused the EU's asylum support agency Easo of using G4S security to restrict their access to asylum seekers.

Contract spans 70 Brussels' buildings

For the European Commission, G4S is the 'go to' provider for security.

In 2014, the commission published a public call for tender. Bidding offers were kept secret.

G4S won it a year later and has since become the largest provider of security services for the EU and its institutions.

Headquartered in London, the company employs over 500,000 people worldwide, is the world's third-biggest private employer, and pulled in some €4bn in revenues for the first half of 2019 alone.

In Belgium, where most of the European Commission buildings are located, they were awarded around €37m for six contracts in 2018.

Its Swedish-based competitor Securitas, by comparison, took in just over €2m of EU contracts in Belgium over the same period.

The €38m covers guards services, surveillance, access control and other services and spans some 70 buildings in Brussels.

They also handle the administrative end of press accreditations from a European Commission building on Rue Montoyer in Brussels.

They take photos, verify identities, and fill in personal details of journalists into a database. They then print the badges and hand them out.

Such badges allow reporters to enter both the European commission and European parliament buildings in Belgium, Luxembourg and in France.

Because the contract is with the Belgian branch, the UK's Brexit departure and ensuing complications with EU affairs won't be affected.

The commission maintains G4S is qualified and trained.

They say a new security guard, working at the commission, follows a 15-day induction program established by G4S.

Each guard is also subjected to screening by the Belgian authorities, it says.

"The commission carries out random checks of guards' presence at their posts and of their working hours," an EU commission spokesperson told EUobserver.

Overseas EU missions

But G4S's role in the EU is not limited to the commission HQ in Brussels. It also provides security services in over two dozen EU oversea delegations.

The bulk of those are found in Africa in places like Gabon, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.

It also has an EU contract in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Taiwan.

Last year, it was awarded over €1m for a six-month contract at the European Union Advisory Mission Ukraine in Kiev.

The award is significant because it was the only contract G4S had in an EU mission that falls under the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy umbrella.

The policy outlines the EU's role when it comes to international security in places often gripped in war or conflict.

International rules have been put in place to entice private security firms to respect human rights in such places.

But those rules are voluntary and lack transparency when it comes to repercussions, if any.

G4S not signed up

Among them is the Swiss-based International Code of Conduct Association.

It is supposed to make sure private security firms operating in conflict countries comply with international human rights and humanitarian law standards.

G4S Ukraine has not signed up. Nor have any of the other national G4S branches where the EU contracted it to protect their delegations.

The whole poses questions on the lack of accountability and oversight should things go wrong.

The European commission is itself not formally a signature or a member of the association.

It has also not subscribed to another agreement, known as Montreux, when it comes to the conduct of private military and security companies in war zones.

Asked why, the commission says it expressed official EU support for the document back in 2012.

But even if it did, consequences for breaching the code are almost non-existent. Compliance to rules in general throughout the sector are also difficult to ascertain.

"When it comes to compliance, there is almost no data. There is no central collective of the data, it is a bit of a black box," said Dr Ulrich Petersohn, a senior lecturer and associate professor at the University of Liverpool.

As for the Swiss-based code?

"The only thing that they could potentially do is 'blame and shame'," he warned.

This article is part of the Private Security Network composed of journalists from around the world investigating private security. Please visit www.privatesecurity.network for more information.

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