Private Military Companies: Legitimate Or Violator Of Human Rights?

The private area in warfare is far from a modern concept. Singer states that “hiring outsiders to fight your battle is as old as war itself’’. Herbst reiterates Singer’s argument by pointing out that before states were legitimized as the main unit for world politics non-state actors dominated the world in terms of wars. Trade and wars were closely linked together, explaining the privatization of warfare as a marketization of violence.

Image courtesy of U.S. Public Affairs, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of U.S. Public Affairs, ©2010, some rights reserved.

In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, private armies were based on economic status. Wealthy citizens would settle disputes outside the legal system by invading each other’s property and appropriating payment. Moreover, government leaders also valued the expertise of foreign armies and the lower political cost of using a mercenary army. This approach could backfire though; The Carthaginian Empire was for example based almost solely on mercenary troops, and after losing the First Punic Wars, the mercenaries revolted because Carthage failed to pay their debts!

With the political instability brought by the feudal system in the middle Ages, the privatization of warfare became more prominent. This privatization was associated with a specialization of hired soldiers, often with expertise relating to specific weapons. The heavily armored Swiss pike men, for example, were notoriously effective against expensive cavalry of feudal lords. Private non-state actors became less relevant after the affirmation of state sovereignty with the Peace of Westphalia. It was only during decolonization, usually in African countries, that they emerge once more in the forms of mercenaries.

In the current era of globalization, liberalism has become the prominent doctrine according to which states operate. As emphasized by Weber, non-states actor have risen in the past century to the extent of nowadays putting into question the realist assumptions of states as primary actors. For instance, one out ten people deployed by the United States in Iraq was a hired soldier from private military companies.

Private Military Companies have brought up the issue of control over the monopoly of violence, traditionally held by the state. Privatization of force means first and foremost that the control of violence proliferates into the corporate sphere. Therefore, states lack control in that shift of military power which undermines the exclusive military power of states.

Silverstein sees this transfer of power as a transfer of government responsibilities to corporate hands, thus with violence becoming private. For example, mercenaries in Africa often represent a threat to democracy according to Silverstein. On the other hand, other academics such as Cohen perceive private military companies as reliable informants and a strategic help to state actors. The legitimization of the private sector could for instance help with training. Moreover, the United Nations have on several occasion deployed hired forces in high risks areas as peacekeeping forces.

With the use of private military companies by the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid, the concept of security had been blurred by the privatization of armies. Indeed, it might be perceived as paradoxical to employ force to bring humanitarian-type assistance. The use of private military companies by the United Nations has increased over the past decade. I reported that this use of the private sectors relate to their immediate availability, their cost-effectiveness, but are still often used as a last resort strategy.

In countries such as Afghanistan, actors from these companies are portrayed as sources of insecurity. Gomez Del Prado states these firms responsible for the perpetuation of a ‘culture of war’, which according to him ‘raise concerns as to the lack of transparency blurring responsibility and accountability of PMSCs and their employees’. This violates article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:“ Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

The employment of private military companies in countries such as Afghanistan in periods of instability is also said to be an unnecessary use of funds which deprives the country of funds for infrastructure. Private Military companies are excluded of paying taxes and thus may divert funds needed for reconstruction.

Collateral damage is often the main issue brought up when it comes to the use of private military companies. Several incidents have involved employees of said firms to have fired on civilians. This is the case in September 2007 in the shootings in Nisour Square in Baghdad, which killed 17 people and wounded more than 20 people.

Those summary executions have brought up the issue of arms control, as well as the offensive-defensive debate. Some argue that private security contractors should only be used for self-defense. The problem lies in defining self-defense, as well as a better monitoring of those firms to avoid collateral damages and shootings of civilians.

One of the main problems related to private contractors is the definition of the former in order to categorize their involvement in current wars. The privatization of warfare and violence and the rise of non-state actors challenge Just War Theory. The formulation of Just War theory goes back to Plato who argues that Greek citizens should not be attacked in wars. This theory assumes a realistic conception of states perceiving war as two states going to war with each other. Just in Bello stipulates that combatants must distinguish between military targets and civilian populations, and non-combatants must be immune from attack. This principle of discrimination is however ambiguous when it comes to the participation of none-state actors such as private military companies. Although they have a license to carry a gun, they are not technically considered part of a military controlled by a state. The ambiguity in distinction makes it difficult to account them responsible for killings of citizens if they are themselves holding a similar status.

The word mercenary holds a negative connotation nowadays. Private security firms are also ambiguous in terms of their mandate and objective. Indeed, control over private security firms is the key issue at hand which incorporates a plethora of difficulties. Moreover, because these firms stand in a grey area where no state jurisdictions take place, violations are easy to commit through loopholes. Therefore, the task of the states and non-state actors will be first and foremost to implement more control over these non-state actors, as well as define their legitimacy.



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