Guest post by Stefano Ruzza*
The concept of security commercialisation immediately brings to mind images of armed contractors: something easy to relate to military activities conducted by the United States, but not as easy to link with Italy and her own military efforts. And while it is definitely true that Italy does not make an extensive use of armed private military and security companies (PMSCs), this does not mean that these are completely out of the picture. Even more importantly, security commercialisation is definitely a more nuanced notion, not limited to the role of armed contractors, but also including support functions and other forms of hybrid public-private assemblages in the defence sector: something not even Italy is immune from.
The scarce attention devoted in the public debate to defence and security matters in Italy implies an even lower degree of public awareness about practices of security commercialisation (for many an obscure topic per se). And as it is easy to imagine, the few cases that manage to break through the media are usually emotionally charged: notable examples are the kidnapping of four Italian civilian operatives in Iraq in 2004 (ended with the tragic murder of Fabrizio Quattrocchi), or the imprisonment in India in 2012 of two Italian Marines tasked with anti-piracy functions in protection of civilian ships. Conventional wisdom, however, fails to recognize that the second of these events is even more central to the issue at hand here than the first: while the former may speak about limits imposed on armed PMSCs in Italy – pushing Italian citizens to work (or attempt to) in the private security sector abroad – the latter is properly telling about an intermingling of public and private interests and agency in terms of national practices.
But for now let’s just focus on the more blatant – and less nuanced – aspects connected to security commercialisation, to briefly examine background and rationale behind the limited use of armed PMSCs by the Italian government and other public institutions. Broadly speaking, governments in Europe tend to rely less on armed contractors that the United States does (albeit there is obviously a degree of variance from case to case). Italy is no exception to this, and given the post-WWII history of the country – scarred by organized crime and political terrorism – general distrust about privatized resources of violence does not come as much of a surprise. This naturally extends to what is labelled “mercenary” activity. Something that has been traditionally illegal in Italy, and about which the country manifested her standing with the early signing of the 1989 UN Mercenary Convention (in February 1990) and the full inclusion of its prescription in the national legal system (with Law 210/1995).
Military reforms started in the ‘90s seemed to provide further proof of Italian resistance to the charms of the market. Increased involvement in deployed operations along with the opening of military careers to women required a larger skillset on the side of the Armed Forces. Conscription ceased to be a channel through which acquire expertise at a cheap price (even before the formal suspension of the institution, as more educated young Italians tended to avoid military service) while budgets and personnel numbers were progressively shrinking. In this context, Italian public institution decided not to resort to the market for the temporary acquisition of peculiar skills the Armed Forces could not afford to train internally. It was instead refurbished in 1997 a law dating back in the ’30s, creating the Riserva Selezionata (“Selected Reserve”, RS), basically a pool of part-time officers with specific qualifications. Enlisting is voluntary and citizens accepted in the RS are granted a proper military status, guaranteeing them to entirely falls inside the boundaries of military laws and regulations. This make possible to avoid normative grey areas often attached to the use of civilian contractors, especially when employed abroad.
But does all of this mean that Italy is really impregnable to the market in the security sector as it looks? Actually no. A first proof of the contrary was provided in late 2006: back then Italian Armed Forces were deployed in Iraq, fighting an unpopular war. 2006 was also a year of general elections and both candidates to premiership (Berlusconi and Prodi) promised Italian military withdrawal from Iraq: something that indeed happened the following year, when Prodi was prime minister. However, given the still ongoing deployment of Italian civilians in the Dhi Qar Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), the British PMSC Aegis Defence Services was hired by the government in order to grant the protection of this personnel (a contract worth € 3.5 millions). The event was barely covered in the national media and raised a few parliamentary interrogation, but not much outcry. In a situation were keeping militaries deployed was considered politically disadvantageous, the commercial option became an attractive one for decision-makers, especially given the low degree of awareness of the media and of the public opinion.
At a glance, the Aegis case is telling of the national attitudes toward armed PMSCs. Public institutions are unwilling to employ them extensively, given Italian historic background and the political sensitivity perceived to be attached to them. However, when political contingencies present PMSCs as an advantageous expedient, some room of manoeuvre could be granted to private armed actors. In cases as such, the preference to rely on foreign firms is quite telling, since it avoids generating a “pull” in favour of the market in Italy, thus keeping armed PMSCs outside of national borders. Something that is also assured by the legal blurriness surrounding PMCSs (lack of ad hoc laws and regulations on one side and “anti-mercenary” norms in force on the other).
Armed security providers employed by public customers in Italy are quite the exception, not the norm. But as stated previously, the concept of security commercialisation is way wider than that, and relates to Italy in several other ways: from anti-piracy activities to the creation of a commercial venture fully owned by the Ministry of Defense. A topic worth of discussion by itself…
*Stefano Ruzza is Assistant Professor at the University of Turin, where he teaches “Conflict, Security and State-building”, and is Head of Research at the Torino World Affairs Institute (T.wai). On issues of security commercialization he published Guerre conto terzi (Il Mulino 2011) and authored the chapter focused on the Italian case included in Commercialising Security in Europe (edited by Anna Leander, Routledge 2013).