Private Military Companies: an Untapped Source of Peace and Security

by Sean Webster

Private contracting is not new in conflict. Soldiers of fortune have attached themselves to armies with the promise of pay for as long as they have existed. Far removed from the plundering mercenary bands of Antiquity or the Condottieri of Renaissance Italy, which Machiavelli describes as ‘disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal’; today, individuals with the right training and experience (ex-military) can join a Private Military Company. Licensed and registered organisations which sell military services to clients domestically and overseas.

Companies offer a range of services including tactical combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence gathering and analysis, operational support, troop training, and military technical assistance. Some companies specialise in only one of these, while others offer clients a range of services. Most contractors provide services detached from direct combat. Some contractors are armed, usually only if they are performing services in an active warzone. If contractors are attacked while fulfilling their contract, then they are permitted to defend themselves.

So how can the addition of PMCs and an international market for private military service help to bring about peace? It all sounds very counterintuitive. The first thing to note is that it is rare that PMCs will be hired for direct involvement in combat operations, though there are some examples such as Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone in 1996.

Secondly, as these companies are licensed corporations registered with the relevant authorities, they are legal (as opposed to mercenaries which are illegal under International Law), and their services are legal, provided that they comply with International Humanitarian Law and the legislation of all states involved in their procurement, sale, and operation.

The majority of PMCs are based in the US and UK, and enjoy a close relationship with their respective governments, depending on them for their licenses and many of their contracts. This dependence ensures that PMCs do not engage in trade with more nefarious characters hoping to purchase their services. However, it also raises concerns regarding the extent to which these companies are simply a private extension to public foreign policy. The ex-head of the UK firm Sandline once said, PMCs “will only fight for the good guys”. The question is, who are the good guys?

African states are the industry’s main customer and, despite some shortcomings which will be discussed later, I argue that PMCs have the potential to significantly improve peace and security in the region. Numerous African States, such as Somalia and Congo, have been embroiled in conflict for decades and do not possess the manpower, or central authority to restore comprehensive state control over their territory. PMCs can bring peace to these states and show the international community that they are responsible in their roles and capable of delivering results.

Research into PMCs effectiveness suggests that they do increase conflict severity (leading to more combat-related deaths), but this brings a much  swifter conflict resolution by tipping the balance in favour of clients and ending stalemates. Logically, this shouldn’t be applied in all situations, and all diplomatic means should be exhausted before engaging, however, it is clear that in Africa there is no end in sight for many embroiled states. PMCs offer an opportunity to augment state forces, with the various services they offer, by restoring state control and end warlordism in Africa.

Yet, problems arise when PMCs neglect their obligations to remain on the side of the law, and engage in malpractice or outright criminality. There are countless examples of this, ranging from illegal arms sales by Sandline in 1998, to sex trafficking by Dyn Corp in Bosnia 1999. Contractors of the US firm Blackwater, perhaps the most famous PMC, were directly responsible for the deaths of 17 innocent civilians in Iraq in 2003. They claimed self-defence and were never brought to court. PMC personnel are not subject to military law.

Herein lies the issue: without proper oversight, accountability, and regulation by those that hire, license, and legislate these firms, crime and malpractice in the industry persists. The Montreux Document, which is not legally binding but is internationally recognised as a guide for states and PMCs to ensure they remain loyal to their obligations under international law, is a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, some commentators have suggested mainstreaming international non-governmental organisations to act as third party brokers to provide background checks and other services to ensure that PMCs have adhered to their obligations and are trusted service providers.

The trading of military services is a controversial issue, and there are many who would argue that putting the right to exercise military force in the hands of private interests, thus ending the states traditional monopoly of force, is a disastrous step towards large private owned armies which can act as they please with no higher authority to challenge them.

However, PMCs are here to stay, with little opposition in the international community calling for their abolition. They are lucrative businesses. African states can benefit greatly by using them to secure their territories. Even the UN hires them for Peacekeeping Operations – it is unlikely we will see any successful challenge to their continued existence. What is needed is a pragmatic approach seeking regulation, vetting, and accountability procedures to prevent this industry from falling into misuse and criminality.

There is great potential here for the private sector to contribute to global peace by working within the law, and helping to create an international framework for this industry to thrive in. PMCs can protect the world and the values which we hold dear.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

Image: Pixabay

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