Mercenary companies


Strictly defined, mercenary companies are companies offering soldiers to any country or organization paying them in order to make them fight for them, no matter the reasons[1].



1. Definitions : From a judicial point of view, the status of mercenaries is established by Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Convention, the Convention of the African Unity Organization against mercenaries (1972), and the International Convention against the recruitment, use, financing, and training of mercenaries (1989). But the definitions, as the ban on ‘mercenaries’ activities (the case of individuals being only considered), remained voluntarily limited. The status of “mercenary” companies, from a judicial perspective, is thus rather vague. 

In a modern perspective, this sector has been redefined : “mercenary companies” tend to be called, in a neutral way, “private military companies”, PMCs, with a formal distinction being made between companies intervening actively in conflicts such as EO[2] or Sandline International[3] (now renamed cf.annex), and those only proposing logistic help, training and other non-fighting services, as MPRI, Vinnel, KBR. In this sector operate also private security companies, PSCs, as DSL[4], which, officially, only propose a protection to other companies or organizations. However distinctions are for a large part not accurate, as many companies combine, on the ground, a security role, technological and training supports and involvement in fighting operations, deserving the term of “mercenary”.


2. Recruitment characteristics : Former militaries mainly, who have left the regular army either because the salaries were higher in the private sector, or because of troubled political situations. A huge number of retired military officials are also hired by those kind of firms. Hence, can be found former militaries specialized in commando operations (special forces, rangers, SEALs from the American navy, British SAS…), South African militaries, military executives from the former UDSSR, Chilean militaries from the Pinochet army and all the soldiers who left troubled areas such as former Yugoslavia, Congo…


3. Causes of the renewal of the mercenary sector in the 1990es :

-        end of mandatory conscription and move towards professional armies in many countries;

-        drastic diminution of defense budget and military forces after the end of the Cold War _ 87 - 94 : the global volume of military forces dropped from 28,3 to 25,3 millions of men;

-        “zero death” theory, developed because public opinions refuse to have too many of their soldiers killed in operations on foreign soils; 

-        multiplication of regional conflicts of middle and low intensity, and parallel rise in the number of interventions needed in foreign  countries to restore peace.


Mercenary companies upraised following the need for substitution army to fulfill those tasks previously given to national armies. They opened a new economic sector and influence the political elements in several situations. Their first customer is the United States[5] and they intervene in all the strategic points on the globe[6].


4. Debate over the companies’ legitimacy : the phenomenon of “war privatization” questioned.  All those companies refuse the term “mercenary company”, badly connoted, and a real debate exists on the accuracy to name as such the non-fighting PMCs and the PSCs. To a larger extent, the debate is nurtured by opponents and proponents of a legitimization of private companies : first, the private companies, shouldered by neoliberals and researchers such as David Shearer[7] or Christopher Coker, consider that they are normal, specialized and private firms, created by a classical phenomenon of outsourcing, and responding to a need of modern societies, with the specificity of intervening in the military field ; second, the opponents denounce the damaging consequences, the accountability and control gap and the growing instability introduced by those  private military or security companies, motivated primarily by profits and strongly linked with financial interests.  


II – A NEW WAY OF LEGITIMIZATION  : Missions responding to a phenomenon of outsourcing


1. “Mercenary companies” tend to be presented as normal private companies, respecting rules.


a) Attention is drawn on honorable activities, aiming only at supporting effective fighting operations. Such companies generally offer two kinds of services :


- Logistic and High skilled missions : it refers to activities such as management of computer and communication technology, discrete building of specific infrastructures, production of specific analyses, intelligence missions, high quality training.


- Security missions : It ranges from the protection of official buildings, embassies, high personalities, to the protection of  economic sites of production.


b) An official discourse which highlights their respect of rules, international rules, market rules and companies ethic rules. Head of companies, and proponents, claim that PMCs’ activities obey to legal and financial rules applying to any firms. They strongly put forward the fact that they would only work for legal governments recognized by the international community, would always be legally registered as company in recognized states, and follow the rules of the military code. They also develop a discourse aiming at making the difference between basic mercenaries, being only interested in money, ready to change allegiances, and their own practices, inspired by a real respect for war issues, carefully choosing their contracts, generally under the monitoring of an  ethic and quality comity.


2. A discourse highlighting their efficiency in peace enforcement operations.


a) Their main argument is that their operations are much more cost effective than those of the UN or of the governments. It is true, based on the evidence of their success in the short term, that they have real skills in security and military operations, even for very specific services such as air transport, training to guerilla tactics, fight against drug operations (EO, Dyncorp, Sandline Int.). Some can also mobilize military equipment such as planes and armour. Finally their capacity to intervene quickly is higher as the decision process is lighter than within international organizations or states. Can thus be found in private companies’ speeches or articles ideas defending for example that PMCs could help solving Africa’s problems by securing the situation, and the investments on that continent.


b) They benefit from an image of “private peace defenders”, developed thanks to missions carried out for NGOs and the UN; it reinforces the legitimacy of their existence. Officials from the UN and from NGOs hired private soldiers to protect themselves (E.Bonino from ECHO[8] & in Somalia, 1997); the UN also used the services of some companies, as DSL, to protect its infrastructures in Angola and Congo-Kinshasa, and many reports advice to further associate private security companies to the UN activities, in order to protect humanitarian actors first and perhaps help in peace enforcement operations.



II – POTENTIAL DAMAGING CONSEQUENCES : their activities often cover discrete involvement in fighting operations, creating illegal or troubling situations


1. Recurrent shifts from infrastructure protection and logistic support to active involvement in fighting operations :


The employees recruited on the ground of security or logistic missions are in fact a “pool” of skilled people in the sector of military operations, which can easily be mobilized for missions other than the primary ones, if needed. The shift from security and logistic operations to fighting missions is favored by the gathering of two factors : the need of multinational groups to ensure the security of their activities in troubled areas and the collapse of many states, unable to maintain a regular army. When they need to lead military operations, such governments turn to the military forces acting in the region, the PMCs.


            Executive Outcomes, hired in 1993 to protect the oil infrastructures in Angola, finally lead struggles against the UNITA forces, and was victorious. It got then several other contracts, in Sierra Leone for example, to fight against RUF forces.


Another factor favoring this shift is that PMCs’ contracts are not as transparent as those of “normal” private company. Because of the link between security and confidentiality, and in the name of the secret promised to the customer on “sensible information”, the clauses of the contracts signed with PMCs, and the details of the operations carried out by the PMCs, are rarely revealed.


          MPRI was training the Croatian army in the 90es, but the role of the PMC on the murdering attack launched by this army in Krajina in 1995 remains unclear. Officials from MPRI would have met Croatian generals involved in the massacre several times before the events; weapons would have been furnished by a company close to MPRI and employees from MPRI would even have participated to the attack[9] .


To a larger extend it reveals the whole ambiguity of considering “military training”, strategic advice  and other “side services” in the military sector as very different in nature from direct fighting operations. The frontier is easily blurred as such services influence a lot on-the-ground war operations, raising the question of the degree of responsibility of private companies and the accuracy of letting them operate without much control.

The distinction made between “mercenary company” and “private military company” is rather artificial.


2. Worrying issues in terms of democratic control and justice :


a) Using PMCs’ services is a way, for governments, to escape the democratic means of control, parliaments, media ans international law, all the more as the legislation about military outsourcing remains unclear. It is a way to hide or mitigate the military presence of another state in a given country, and keep the possibility to deny any involvement (« plausible deniability »).


- To counter the Congress’ decision to limit the number of American militaries sent to Bosnia, the White House hired 2 000 men through the private sector of “mercenaries companies” ; during the 1rst Gulf war, one military out of 50 was from one of those private companies; in Iraq, it was 1out of 10, around 20 000 people.

Moreover the Congress can only monitor the contracts engaging sums superior to 50 millions $.


b) Fewer requirements, in terms of discipline or professional ethic, exist for PMCs than for regular militaries. If employees of such companies commit crimes or illegal actions, the sanction will be less important and less visible than that which would be experienced by regular militaries in similar occasions. The accountability is all the more difficult to determine as the details of the contracts are rarely revealed and the nature of the operations required not monitored.


                      “Employees” from Dyncorp were involved in Bosnia in a traffic of young girls, for prostitution networks; they were only fired and sent back to their home country, whereas a regular soldier would have been judged by a martial court.


                      The John Van Nostrand Associates Ltd would have been hired by a South African firm in Ghana to relocate 20 000 people, and used force to do so, which implied the destruction of houses and schools[10].


c) A sector still working according to the logic of informal networks.


A recruitment still largely based on the belonging to military networks. Despite the claimed selection on strict criteria (no criminal record, psychological tests, honorable military carrier), informal military connections are still sufficient to integrate a PMC.


Non reliable ethic and neutrality towards economic and political interests. The PMCs‘ sector functions as a network between head of states, regular militaries, PMCs’, and private companies working in the exploitation of natural resources or the military sector.


Military companies’ interests are interrelated with those of the companies which hired them for protection : as many PMCs seem to benefit from the conflicts, their ethic and self restraints in war operations cannot be relied on as such.


                      Example of diamond connection the head of EO, Eben Barlow, became shareholder of DiamondWorks, which got mining concessions in Sierra Leone precisely while EO operated there; Sandline International shares also its office with DiamondWorks in Freetown ,Sierra Leone.


                      Example of oil connection : the Israeli company of security, Lev’Dan, got, in the frame of a joint venture with 2 other Israeli firms Ismramco & Israel Petroleum, half of the share of an exploitation authorization (Marine III) in Congo Brazzaville, because President Lissouba could not  pay the company for the services hired in 1994.


Important financial interest are at stake : the contracts are very well paid.


- Kellog Brown & Root :           Logistic mission in the Balkans                     : 2 billions US$

                                                     Logistic mission in Afghanistan -Iraq            : 4 billions US$

- Earnings of the 40 private companies working with the Defense ministry in the USA in 2004

: 100 billions US$


PMCs often belong to, or have strong links with, powerful groups & companies _ cf. board 2 in annex.


e) Creators of growing instability.


PMCs traditionally have close links with companies working in the business of weapons. Functioning along the logic of benefits, they have no interests in limiting their selling in that area, increasing the “conflict capacities” of existing actors.


                      The capacity of PMCs to sell arms had been revealed by the Arms-to-Africa Affair, where it has been proved that Sandline Int had been selling arms to the collapsed regime of Kabbah in Sierra Leone in 1997.

                      The PMC Gurka Security Guards worked closely with the arm firm J&S Franklin; DSL works with Heckler & Koch, MPRI with Cypress Int., Vinnel is part of BDM International for which the business of weapon is an important part of its activities.


The competition between PMCs can also nurture conflicts


                      Sandline Int failed its mission in Papouasy New Guinea because of the opposition of the local army. The investigations revealed that another PMC, Gurkha Security Group, had been financing this opposition through the company J&S Franklin to which Gurkha is closely related.


PMCs tend to deal with the security issue only in a technical way whereas it is first and foremost a political problem, in which issues of legitimization and de-legitimization intervene; PMCs thus fail to solve the security problems in the long run.


They tend to encourage the feeling of insecurity by identifying threats, to justify and increase their activity. “Security” is not a good objectively defined; it is created by the perceptions of the actors involved. Being in the position of training authorities and strategic advisors, they can create the demand for security they are able to satisfy, increasing the need for security operations.


Their interventions have disturbing effects because PMCs have no legitimacy in the eye of the local people to impose solutions through the use of violence.


                      Operation of EO in Angola and Sierra Leone, presented as successes because they favored the signature of agreements, destabilized in the long run the governments. UNITA forces did not respect the agreement because it considered it as not legitimate, as it was imposed by foreign forces; in Sierra Leone, the regular militaries were unhappy of the intervention of the foreign company, and it favored an alliance between them and the rebels from the RUF to put down the Kabbah government.


They introduce a dangerous confusion between interior security (missions of police) and military operations.



Putting a ban on “mercenary activities” appears as difficult, as proved by the limited effects of the international agreements, the difficulty to draw the line between necessary outsourcing and illegitimate military operations and because of the interests legal governments and private companies find in the existence of PMCs. Regarding the detrimental effects created, this sector should however be more regulated. The final question is would the international level be strong enough to impose a clarification of the status and  activities of PMCs. The whole question of the extent to which war operations can be privatized is to be raised.



Bibliography :

- CHAPLEAU, MISSNER, « Le retour des mercenaires », in Politique Internationale, n°94, hiver 2001-2002.

- OLSSON (sous la direction de), « Les entreprises para-privées de coercition, de  nouveaux mercenaires ? », in Cultures et Conflits, L’Harmattan, n°52, 2003.

- KLEIN, M, « La privatisation de la guerre » in Etudes, septembre 2004, p.181-191

- KRITSIOTIS, D, “Mercenaries and the privatization of warfare”, in Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer/Fall 1998, vol.22, n°2.