On November 9, at a signing ceremony hosted by the Swiss Government in Geneva, fifty-eight industry-leading private security companies ("PSCs") signed an International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (.pdf).

The publication and signature of the Code represents a milestone achievement for a multi-stakeholder initiative, launched in June 2009 and sponsored by the Swiss Government, aimed at creating a set of universally recognized standards for private companies engaged in providing security services. The signing ceremony was attended by representatives of industry, civil society, and participating and supporting governments including Swiss Secretary of State Peter Maurer, U.K. Ambassador John Duncan, and U.S. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh.

PSCs have received significant scrutiny recently, both in the United States and abroad, largely as a result of high-profile incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent report of the Senate Armed Services Committee (.pdf) sheds light on the political challenges faced by PSCs in the United States as a result of both real and perceived fallout from some of those incidents.

Given that backdrop, the Code has received a largely positive reception, not only from within the private security industry but from non-governmental organizations ("NGOs"), many of which participated in the Code's development. A representative of Human Rights First stated at the signing ceremony that the "Code is a strong document and an important step in building an effective scheme for improving this industry's human rights performance."

Participants and observers have applauded the inclusion of concrete requirements governing vetting, training and conduct of PSC personnel as well as commitments to implement accessible incident reporting and grievance procedures aimed at preventing and/or enhancing the investigation of alleged abuses.

Participants and observers have also recognized that while signature of the Code represents a major step forward, it is not the end of the process. Future challenges include the establishment of objective and measurable standards consistent with the Code and the development of a transparent and effective oversight and auditing mechanisms to which participants will be expected to submit. The Code calls for these objectives to be met within eighteen (18) months.

Human Rights First noted that the "true value" of the Code "will depend on how it's enforced. Companies signing the Code have committed to establishing a mechanism for robust oversight and governance. The Code's credibility will rest upon the ability of that mechanism to hold signatory companies to account."

Despite the challenges that remain, signature of the Code is a significant and positive step forward for an industry that, despite recent scrutiny, will continue to play a critical role in enabling operations in high-threat environments.