OTTAWA - Canada has no overall policy or legislation to govern the use of hired guns in war zones, much to the alarm of human-rights groups and opposition parties who say the country has been left dangerously exposed.
The lack of a clear protocol has forced some federal departments, notably National Defence, to improvise as they attempt to manage security in unpredictable and volatile regions such as Afghanistan.
"In the absence of an overarching policy on the use of private military contractors, (assistant deputy minister-policy) staff have taken the position that the (Canadian Forces) should at this stage strive for consistency," a Defence Department briefing note warned last year as officials debated whether to arm independent security guards hired by the army.
The Canadian Press obtained the note under the Access to Information Act.
The Canadian military employs four private security contractors in Afghanistan to guard bases and road construction projects. Foreign Affairs has also signed a host of hired guns to oversee embassies and diplomats in many of the world's trouble spots.
"There definitely needs to be a human-rights policy in place to govern military security companies," said Fiona Koza, who manages Amnesty International Canada's business and human rights section.
"Canada has a responsibility to ensure that humans rights are not being violated."
A Canadian soldier - Master Cpl. Josh Roberts - was shot and killed in a confused firefight in Zhari district, west of Kandahar, an incident initially blamed on private security guards. A military police investigation concluded he died as a result of a Taliban bullet, a finding his family questions.
Private security contractors have become a common features in war zones over the last decade, taking over routine garrison jobs from stretched professional armies, which are in turn freed to take up offensive operations.
A series of shootings, particularly the murders of 14 Iraqis in Baghdad by Blackwater guards in 2007, forced the United States to introduce strict legislation to regulate the use of hired guns.
Among other things, the U.S. law passed in January 2008 requires private guards to report whenever they've fired their weapons, in much the same way police officers are held accountable.
U.S. Rep. David Price introduced a bill in Congress last spring calling for even tougher measures, demanding among other things that Washington establish minimum training standards for guards and create a database to track shootings and human-rights violations.
Both Canada and the U.S. administration are among nearly 30 signatories to the Montreaux Document, a non-binding international deal that asks nations to take responsibility for the actions of security contractors they hire and to ensure the guards adhere to international human rights law.
The congressional legislation proposed by Price, which has not been approved, would require the U.S. Secretary of State to open talks with other countries to turn the accord into a full-fledged treaty.
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Laura Markle, said Ottawa "is not contemplating legislation" of its own.
New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said that's a mistake.
"If we're at the point where the Canadian government doesn't have a policy that says when it's OK and not OK to use them, then it's time for a legislated framework," he said.
The Conservative government has repeatedly ducked questions about the issue, preferring tightly scripted email responses to queries, where officials repeatedly emphasize Canada "respects its obligations under applicable international law."
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said criticism of military contractors should be tempered with the knowledge that guards work in an extremely dangerous environment.
But he said he's also in favour of looking at legislation.
Instead of laws, Ottawa prefers to control its hired guns through individual service contracts, copies of which were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Most of the agreements, running about 11 pages, that were signed up to January 2008 contain scant reference to international human-rights law. They demand private contractors agree to "obey, comply with and enforce all applicable Afghan laws and regulations" as well standing orders of the Canadian military.
The onus is placed squarely on the company for its actions.
The contract for protection around Kandahar's provincial reconstruction base, signed in mid-2007, required the security company to ensure its employees read the International Red Cross's code of conduct for combatants.
Many of the Afghan employees of security contractors can't read.