A Genuine Humanitarian: But, David Shearer’s back-story has a back-story of its own: an unusual and counter-intuitive fascination with armed force that raises many more questions than it answers.
IT’S SURPRISING how little we know about David Shearer. For
most of us, his sudden appearance among the contenders for Helen Clark’s
vacated seat of Mt Albert was the first appearance he’d made upon the New
Zealand political stage. For Mr Shearer, however, the 2009 Mt Albert
By-Election was a case of third-time-lucky. He had already stood for the Labour
Party twice before: the first time, in 1999, as a lowly ranked candidate on the
Party List; and the second, in 2002, in the safe National seat of Whangarei.
Our ignorance of those earlier attempts is forgivable,
however, because Mr Shearer has always been a political paratrooper. In
contrast to the party foot soldiers who slog their way through the Big Muddy of
branch meetings, canvassing exercises, billboard construction and pamphlet deliveries,
rising through the ranks to fight the good fight on policy committees or the NZ
Council, Mr Shearer’s preference has been to jump into parliamentary
candidacies from a great height and out of a clear sky.
The reason for this top-down method of delivery is Mr
Shearer’s remarkable back-story. It’s not many thirty-five year-olds who are
named New Zealander of the Year, and even fewer are awarded an MBE by the
British Government. Mr Shearer’s experiences delivering aid on behalf of the
Save the Children Fund in war-torn Somalia were genuinely heroic. Here, as far
as the rest of the world was concerned, was a genuine humanitarian. But, Mr
Shearer’s back-story has a back-story of its own: an unusual and counter-intuitive
fascination with armed force that raises many more questions than it answers.
Some political observers have drawn comparisons between Mr
Shearer and his chief antagonist, Prime Minister John Key. The young Labour
activist, Connor Roberts, summed up the pair’s similarities and differences with
his now famous quip: “John Key went overseas and made fifty million dollars;
David Shearer went overseas and saved fifty million lives.”
This focus on Mr Shearer’s and Mr Key’s “overseas”
experiences has led many to assume that both men were out of the country during
the pivotal years 1984-1993. In Mr Shearer’s case, however, this is untrue. For
nearly the whole period of the Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990) he was
here, in New Zealand, studying, teaching and consulting. If he was a Labour Party
member at any time during those tumultuous years, then he was a very quiet one.
He certainly wasn’t among the ranks of those who fought against Rogernomics. He
has, however, often spoken to journalists about his admiration for David
This inability to get worked up about the core elements of
neoliberal “reform”: labour market flexibility; privatisation; deregulation;
monetary and fiscal discipline; explains his rather odd belief (for a Labour
leader) that the contest between Left and Right is “a phony debate”. Such
ideological agnosticism – explained away as good old Kiwi pragmatism – does,
however, offer us a way into the most unusual and contradictory aspect of Mr
Shearer’s entire career: his support for mercenary armies, or, as they prefer
to be known these days: private military and security companies (PMSCs).
It is possible to trace this thread all the way back to
Somalia in 1992 where Mr Shearer headed up the relief effort of the Save the
Children Fund. It is more than likely he enjoyed a close working relationship
with the United Nations Mission in Somalia and would, therefore, have been
aware of their appeal to the PMSC, Defence Systems Ltd (DSL) for 7,000 Ghurkha
mercenaries to protect their relief convoys. In the end DSL turned them down,
but it is clear that the notion of PMSC involvement in UN protection work (as
opposed to soldiers provided by UN member states) made a deep impression on Mr
That impression was intensified by Mr Shearer’s experiences
three years later as the UN’s Senior Humanitarian Advisor in the West African
nation of Liberia. Just across Liberia’s northern border, in the ravaged state
of Sierra Leone, the PMSC known as Executive Outcomes had been employed under
contract to the Sierra Leone Government. Shearer was deeply impressed by this
mercenary army’s lightning-fast defeat of the Liberian-backed forces assailing
the ruling regime.
Fast and Furious: In 1995 the PMSC, Executive Outcomes, proved spectacularly successful in restoring order to war-ravaged Sierra Leone.
A year later, in 1996, Mr Shearer was advising the UN in
Rwanda. It was here, just two years earlier, that a brutal genocide had taken
place while the United Nations watched – and did nothing. Trying to stitch the
rudiments of civil society back together after a disaster on that scale cannot
have been easy.
This was followed by what might be called the John Le Carré
phase of Mr Shearer’s career; his two-year stint (1996-1998) as a research associate at the
International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. Like its sister
institute – The Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham
House – the IISS has always laboured under strong suspicions of being a sort of
“front organisation” for Britain’s foreign affairs, defence and intelligence
“community”. This was most clearly illustrated in 2003 when the IISS released a
report strongly favouring the UK’s participation in a US-led invasion of Iraq.
Like the infamous “sexed-up” report released by the Security Intelligence
Service (MI6) just two weeks later, the IISS also warned against Saddam Hussein’s
(non-existent) “weapons of mass destruction”. Since 2003 the IISS’s Director of
Transnational Threats and Political Risk has been Nigel Inkster – formerly the
Deputy Director of MI6.
It was into this looking-glass world of spooks and former-spooks
that Mr Shearer settled himself. His research bore spectacular fruit in 1998
when his article “Outsourcing War” was chosen as the cover-story for the Fall
Edition of the prestigious American journal Foreign
Affairs. Extremely well-written, the article is a paean of praise for
outfits like Executive Outcomes and DSL. A very similar article, “Private
Armies & Military Intervention”, was published that same years as Vol. 316
of the IISS’s Adelphi Papers.
Mr Shearer’s time at the IISS certainly did not hinder his
career prospects in the United Nations. In 1999 he left London’s clubby world
of foreign affairs, defence and intelligence cogitation for the considerably less
congenial territory of the Balkans. With the Kosovo Crisis in full cry he
helped coordinate UN aid in Albania, ultimately winding up in Belgrade as Chief
of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
It’s probably as well to remind ourselves at this point of
the dark history of PMSCs in the former Yugoslavia. The relationship between
the UN and the private enterprises now responsible for everything from basic
logistical services to security personnel was plagued by scandal.
Whistle-blowers and journalists together exposed the links between the UN’s private
contractors and organised crime. Most progressives would have recoiled from the
revelations, but Mr Shearer’s support for the private sector’s increasing
participation in UN operations persisted – especially when it took the form of
By 2000 Mr Shearer was back in New Zealand and working in
the office of fellow Papatoetoe High School old-boy, Phil Goff – now Minister
of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the newly-elected Labour-Alliance Government.
It was presumably with the latter’s blessing that, in 2001, Mr Shearer penned
yet another article – this time for the Chatham House (remember them?)
newspaper The World Today entitled
Though the reluctance of sovereign states to sanction the
entry of foreign mercenaries into their territory had not changed, Mr Shearer’s
article described a world in which private armies were an increasingly common
Future troops being offered to peacekeeping
forces might well come from private companies rather than states. The US firm
Dyncorp, for example, provided the US share of the Organization for Security
and Co-operation in Europe monitors in Kosovo. Dyncorp is now training
Colombian soldiers in its drug war. Another company, MPRI, also recently in Colombia, continues to train the Bosnia army
in sophisticated US weaponry.
Protection”, The World Today,
2003 Mr Shearer was back with the UN, this time in the Middle East. As the Head
of OCHA in Jerusalem and then as the UN’s Humanitarian Relief Coordinator
during the Israeli assault on Southern Lebanon and Beirut, he
distinguished himself as a fiercely independent upholder of the UN’s mission. Few
were surprised, therefore, when, in 2007, after four years of negotiating his
way through the labyrinth of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the UN
Secretary-General, Ban Ky Moon, named David Shearer as his Deputy-Special
Representative in Iraq. He was also appointed Head of the UN Development
Project Iraq. Holding these two very senior roles in the United Nations Mission
in Iraq (UNAMI) Mr Shearer was almost certainly “in the room” when decisions
about the use of PMSCs were being made.
Pingeot, author of the New York-based Global Policy Forum’s June 2012
publication Dangerous Partnership:
Private Military and Security Companies and the UN, has compiled some
useful statistics on the amount of money spent on PMSCs by the UN. “Using the highest available numbers,” he writes, “there is
a 250 percent increase in the use of security services from 2006 to 2011.”
The numbers for UNAMI are particularly interesting. In 2007
UNAMI spent zero dollars on PMSCs. In 2009, when its former 2IC was back in New
Zealand campaigning for Helen Clark’s old seat of Mt Albert, UNAMI also spent
zero dollars. In 2008, however, the amount spent by UNAMI on PMSC’s was US$1,139,745.
It is important to place this expenditure in context. It
was in September of 2007 that the US-based PMSC, Blackwater Worldwide, found
itself at the centre of war-crimes accusations following the unlawful killing
of 17 Iraqi citizens in Baghdad’s Nasour Square by one of the company’s notorious
“Personal Security Details”. The outraged Iraqi government had responded by
revoking Blackwater’s licence to operate within its borders. It is fair to say
that foreign mercenaries were not popular in Iraq in 2008.
Private Solutions? The US-based PMSC, Blackwater Worldwide, earned a fearsome reputation during the Occupation of Iraq.
And so we return to Mr Shearer’s preference for private military
solutions to low intensity conflicts and his conviction that
the United Nations is better able to carry out its humanitarian functions in
something resembling safety with private sector support.
I raised the matter with Mr Shearer’s parliamentary
colleague, Trevor Mallard, at the recent Labour Party Conference and he
suggested that it was all about getting help to people quickly. That is
certainly an important aspect of Mr Shearer’s own writing on the subject:
There is a serious question here: if a
private force, operating with international authority and within international
law, can protect civilians, how moral is it to deny people protection just because
states can’t or won’t find the forces to do it? Or put another way, is the means
of response more important than the end for which it is used – particularly where
a failure to respond results in the death and abuse of
Protection”, The World Today,
Shearer’s position has been explained away as just another case of a good Kiwi
bloke, impatient to get the job done, and not being particularly fussed about how things
are made to happen – or by whom. And if the universal experience of mercenary
involvement in “peace-making” was as positive as Executive Outcome’s foray into
Sierra Leone, the argument might have some force. In reality, however,
Executive Outcome’s success in Sierra Leone stands out as a very lonely
exception to a much darker rule.
actual, on-the-ground, operational conduct of PMSCs over the past decade has demonstrated
to the world just how dangerous it is to entrust the delivery of deadly force
to individuals and corporations whose primary motivation is profit. Yet even in
the face of the PMSCs’ appalling conduct in the Balkans and Iraq, Mr Shearer
remains sympathetic towards private armies and mercenaries.
Labour Leader’s on-going support for these private-sector problem-solvers speaks
volumes – and very little is to his credit.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley