By Joe Dyke, Tarek Abboud, Al Akhbar
June 25, 2012
You may not know much about G4S, but they almost certainly know something about you. The world’s largest security firm, operating in over 125 countries and employing over 650,000 staff worldwide, are believed to be the second largest private employer worldwide, behind only Walmart. Globally they are responsible for security at over 150 airports, countless private companies, they do police work in the UK and are the main security firm for the 2012 London Olympics – so they make it their business to know who you are.
Known for their ruthless competitiveness, the British-Danish firm have recently been seeking to expand outside of their traditional base in Europe and the US. The Middle East is one of their main targets, with operations in the region worth $410 million and with just shy of 50,000 employees.
The contracts the secretive company have officially declared include private security for airports in Iraq, the UAE, and Qatar, while they are also known to guard US and European Embassies in countries across the Arab world, as well as in Afghanistan.
But G4S has a far darker side than the official brochures would have you believe. First there were the accusations that they were involved in the abuse of British detainees. More recently there has been damning evidence of their role in the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Their role in Israeli prisons both in the West Bank and Israel – has attracted criticism. A report from the WhoProfits? group, which aims to draw attention to the private companies making money from the ongoing occupation of historic Palestine, identifies four key roles that G4S carries out in the West Bank.
“First, the company has provided security equipment and services to incarceration facilities holding Palestinian political prisoners inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank. Second, the company offers security services to businesses in settlements. Third, the company has provided equipment and maintenance services to Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank. Finally, the company has also provided security systems for the Israeli police headquarters in the West Bank.”
Of these the first – their role in Israeli prisons both in the West Bank and Israel – has attracted the most criticism. Sahar Francis, head of the Palestinian prisoners’ charity Addameer, points out that the prisons in Israel and support for such institutions, are illegal under international law.
“According to the fourth Geneva Convention the occupying state cannot move occupied people – which means here the Palestinians – from the Occupied Territories to inside the occupying country,” she says.
Francis describes the conditions that Palestinian prisoners are often subjected to inside these prisons. “They face strip searches, isolation, attacks, and bans on buying stuff from the canteen,” she said. “Since last year they totally cancelled all the education systems – they are not allowed to study now and they can’t get books easily – and they are often banned from family visits, especially those from Gaza,” she added.
Europe Fights While Arabs Stay Silent
It is perhaps surprising that it is European politicians, rather than Arab ones, the majority of whom officially boycott Israel, who have led the campaign against G4S’ involvement in the occupation.
The company’s annual review boasts about its role in Iraq, saying it is proud to have won a huge government contract to provide aviation security for the airport in Baghdad. Until earlier this year G4S were responsible for the security of the buildings of the European Parliament but following a campaign led by Danish MEP Margrete Auken the contract was given to a rival firm. Officially the deal was not renewed, but Auken thinks the movement raised the profile high enough that the decision was inevitable.
“I think it was clever of parliament officials to use this argument (that it was not renewed), otherwise they could have run into lots of court cases. I think that they would have hated to renew the contract with G4S after the campaign,” she tells Al-Akhbar.
While the company’s 2011 annual report acknowledges “criticism” of their role in the West Bank, Auken says she was amazed by the lack of interest from senior figures at G4S in their role in aiding an illegal occupation.
“We had meetings with G4S and they could not see the problem. It was as if they were not really aware that the settlements were illegal,” she says.
“When we told them ‘you are working for an occupying power in an occupied territory’ it was as though they thought it was open to political debate. But according to international law and EU law they (the settlements) are illegal. The EU considers the occupation illegal, the settlements illegal, the wall is illegal and having Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is illegal,” she says.
The EU campaign stands in stark contrast to the silence of Arab states, even those that supposedly boycott Israel. The company’s annual review boasts about its role in Iraq, saying it is proud to have won a huge government contract to provide aviation security for the airport in Baghdad. In fact the Middle East is identified by the group as one of its key areas of growth in coming years.
“In the Middle East there was double-digit organic growth (excluding Iraq) – an excellent performance across the region. Qatar and Egypt performed particularly strongly, with Qatar helped by the new airport contract…In UAE, the business is being challenged by a shortage of labor supply and the general business environment in Dubai which has impacted our security systems business, but was successful at winning contracts such as Dubai Airport and in event security,” it says.
While Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and others have normalized relations with Israel to a greater or lesser degree, Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that supposedly maintains the Arab League boycott of Israel with any severity. The terms of the boycott declare that businesses in non-Arab countries that operate in Israel should be prevented from doing so inside Lebanese borders.
While this rule is often largely ignored for Western conglomerates, Haitham Bawab, from the Lebanese Ministry of Economy’s Boycott department, thinks the nature of G4S’ involvement in Israeli jails means they should not be allowed to operate in the country.
“Allowing G4S to operate in Lebanon goes against Lebanon’s boycott rules. Following our investigations, we sent the main office a letter, asking for the banning of the company to be discussed during the upcoming Boycott Conference.”
Asked what sanctions were under consideration, Bawab said they “would include banning G4S from working on Lebanese territories and prohibiting Lebanese public and private companies and the government from working with G4S. In addition, no G4S products would be allowed to enter Lebanon.”
If a unity agreement were reached then it would be seriously damaging to G4S’ business across the Middle East, with countries such as Iraq being forced to change their policies.
Allowing G4S to operate in Lebanon goes against Lebanon’s boycott rules. But here’s the rub. The boycott conference is usually held in Damascus every six months. The ongoing political turmoil in the country has forced all such events aside, with the conference due to take place in April being canceled. There are further complications as if it were to be hosted elsewhere several countries would be likely to prevent Syrian delegates from attending for political reasons, sparking a crisis with Damascus. As yet there is no set date for the next conference.
It seems that Lebanon is the only country which has pushed for G4S to be considered abusers of the anti-boycott laws, and a proposal sent last year to the Central Boycott Committee has only recently been considered, with no other countries adding their input.
“We have enough information about G4S and the boycott rules apply to it. So there would be no need to postpone making a decision which will, most probably, be made during the upcoming Boycott Conference,” Bawab says optimistically.
Yet Bawab may even find opposition inside Lebanon against cutting back on the lucrative business. The scale of the work G4S do in Lebanon is unclear, with even Bawab saying he didn’t know exactly what they did in the country. But the head of a rival private security firm says they have “a couple of hundred guys” in the country, and it is not uncommon to see men in clothes with the company’s logo guarding private companies in Beirut’s Hamra.
Al-Akhbar discovered that the firm carried out a security review for the country’s pre-eminent university, the American University of Beirut. The 60-page confidential document details potential improvements that could be made to security and recommends that G4S operatives take over the running of the university’s security. It calls for much tighter security on the open-plan campus, with visitors to the site facing more strict regulations. The proposed changes, it says, will “significantly improve the interaction between AUB and G4S.”
In fact the company is backed by major political figures including the former Youth and Sports Minister Sebouh Hovnanian. Speaking to Al-Akhbar Hovnanian confirmed that his son had shares in the company but said he was not directly involved in the running of the company. He declined to comment on the company’s role in the West Bank.