New Internationalist

Making a Killing

Issue 367

Private military firms say they are the future of humanitarian intervention in Africa. The mercenary behaviour of some suggests otherwise. André Verlöy investigates.

Sven Torfinn / Panos /
Are privatized military companies the future of UN peacekeeping? Sven Torfinn / Panos /

In November 1998, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front were conducting an orgy of looting, murder and decapitation in ‘Operation No Living Thing’. Sierra Leone’s demoralized and under-equipped army was bolstered by Nigerian troops flying the colours of the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, and a handful of South African mercenaries in helicopter gunships who made regular forays into the battle zones to attack the RUF. In the capital Freetown two large transport helicopters circled in the air, backing up the Nigerian troops. Painted on their fuselage were US flags.

This small US contribution to defending Sierra Leone was conducted by International Charter Incorporated of Oregon (ICI), one of several companies contracted by the US State Department to go into danger zones deemed too risky or unsavoury to commit conventional US forces. For ICI the mission to Freetown was business, but it also advanced US foreign policy – in particular fears that the conflict and the RUF sponsored by Liberian President Charles Taylor would destabilize oil-rich Nigeria. ICI has also aided extremely risky peacekeeping operations in Liberia and Haiti and supported a US military training program in Nigeria.

The changing nature of war

ICI’s deployment is part of a global trend of military outsourcing and foreign policy by proxy that has become far more common since the end of the Cold War, when defence budgets were reduced and unemployed military personnel began to sell their talents to the private sector. An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified at least 90 private military companies that have operated in 110 countries worldwide. Indicative perhaps of the changing nature of war, they provide services normally carried out by a national military force, including training, intelligence, logistics, combat and security in conflict zones. Most are headquartered in the US, Britain and South Africa, though the vast bulk of their services are performed in conflict-ridden areas of Africa.

Private military companies (PMCs) allow governments to pursue policies in tough corners of the world with the distance and comfort of ‘plausible deniability’.

The activities of Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, respectively South African and British companies, have sparked debate about PMCs after their controversial interventions in resource-rich Angola, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea during the mid-1990s. ‘Those that fight for financial gain are an anathema to much of what we strive for,’ said Lord Judd, then head of the aid organization International Alert, in October 1999. He claimed that the presence of external actors was one of the main stumbling blocks in Sierra Leone’s peace process.

Executive Outcomes’ involvement in Sierra Leone forced the RUF to the negotiation table and led to democratic elections. However, just six months after the hired guns left and a peace agreement was signed, a military coup ousted the democratically elected government.

The growth of the privatized military industry raises several issues. As PW Singer in a 2003 article entitled ‘Peacekeepers, Inc.’ in Policy Review notes: ‘For privatized peacekeeping, the ensuing dangers include all the problems one has in standard contracting and business outsourcing. The hired firms have incentives to overcharge, pad their personnel lists, hide failures, not perform to their peak capacity? these are all now transferred into the security realm, where people’s lives are at stake.’

An advocate of PMCs, Singer nonetheless raises serious concerns about the loss of accountability. ‘Military provider firms,’ he points out, ‘are not always looking for the most congenial workforce, but instead, understandably enough, recruit those known for their effectiveness. For example, many former members of the most notorious and ruthless units of the Soviet and apartheid regimes have found employment in the industry. These individuals acted without concern for human rights in the past and certainly could do so again. In either case, the industry cannot be described as imbued with a culture of peacekeeping.’

DynCorp, another recipient of sizeable contracts, was caught in a scandal in 2000 when two employees deployed in the company’s $15 million annual contract for logistical support in Bosnia and Kosovo alleged that several of their colleagues had colluded in the trafficking of women and children. DynCorp later said the company did not tolerate such behaviour and fired those accused of the offences.

Soldiers for hire

Mercenaries’ are officially outlawed under Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, which defines them as persons recruited for armed conflict by or in a country other than their own and motivated solely by personal gain. However, few modern PMCs fit that definition. They insist that they rarely engage in combat and provide military skills only to legitimate, internationally recognized governments.

When we had need of skilled soldiers to separate fighters from refugees in the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma, I even considered the possibility of engaging a private firm,’ United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in June 1998. In the end, Annan decided against it, saying: ‘The world may not be ready to privatize peace.’ Though the UN appears to have accepted that PMCs are here to stay, it is reluctant to see much involvement beyond basic logistics. But one senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admits, ‘The UN can’t do without private contractors.’

‘The world may not be ready to privatize peace’

Others feel that part of the explanation for the rapid growth of PMCs is the international community’s lack of willingness to intervene in conflict zones across Africa. Peter Gantz, Peacekeeping Associate of Refugees International, said the promise of protection for victims of ‘systematic, large-scale violence’ sooner rather than later is appealing, but raises several concerns about the accountability of PMCs: ‘Whether private companies are ever used for combat in a peace operation or not, they are active globally, and should therefore be regulated.’

André Verlöy works for The Centre for Public Integrity in the US.

A more in-depth article on PMCs appeared in The Centre for Public Integrity’s Making a Killing: The Business of War, 2002.

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This article was originally published in issue 367

New Internationalist Magazine issue 367
Issue 367

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