The British government ought to be embarrassed. I find myself increasingly agitated at the position this government readily adopts in the global rankings of regimes worthy of our contempt. This position is one between the Zanu –PFs of our world, and the somewhat cuddlier Scandinavian social democrats. Though by no means the most egregious, when it comes to issues of corruption, basic morality, and overarching incompetence this country remains staunchly equivocal. The continued acceptance and lack of regulation of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in international war zones is the most illuminating, and most troubling manifestation of this.
PMSCs are better known as corporate mercenaries. Like all the best corporations whose trade is murder, their titles wrap them in a cushion of ambiguity. Yet they thrive off conflict and the profligate misery of those affected. Our government continues to use them. They are employed in war zones now to such an extent that military analysts suggest we could no longer wage conventional warfare without them. In Iraq, the number of PMSC personnel amount to the second largest force, after the US military; as many as 48,000 in the country. The economic value of their contracts is vast, and ever increasing. The total industry’s income in 2004 was as much as US$100bn, 75 per cent of which was due to contracts in Iraq.
Many have argued that because their brief of ‘Combat support’ contains training,
intelligence, operations, planning, technical assistance, and post-conflict reconstruction, they play a vital role. Unfortunately it is with the utmost naivety that we consider there to be no inherent problems in this. In as volatile a location as Iraq, the distinction between combat support, and combat itself becomes blurred. It is a fact on the ground that PMSC employees are heavily armed and engaging the enemy regularly as a necessity to fulfil their contracts. DynCorp engaged in at least 7 high-risk fire fights in Columbia between 1996 and 2001, the number in present day Iraq being much higher. With this fact comes the issue of accountability. There is none. In Iraq, all non-military personnel and PMSC employees are immune from prosecution under CPA order 17, with regards to their contracted purpose. As such, Iraqi animosity grows; not a single employee of a PMSC has been charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Yet the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib implicated at least two such mercenaries, and other evidence of rape, torture, false statements, and failure to report detainee abuse are all well catalogued. As increasing pressure grows on the UK and US governments to withdraw troops from Iraq, it will increasingly fall to such mercenaries to fill the void, and thus engage in more combat situations, the consequences of which they are not accountable for.
The recent UN report stating that only 25 percent of its legal arms embargos have been succesful further implicates the PMSCs. The Sierra Leone arms embargo was broken by Aegis, the largest –and British- PMSC in 1998. Not only do they help undermine the UN in this sense, but the massive salaries in comparison with peacekeepers and regular infantry mean more and more high ranking officers and soldiers are going to the private sector. Salaries here are up to $1,000 a day, in comparison with the $70 per day a US soldier may be earning. The massive profits they make mean intrinsically they have an economic interest in promoting and fuelling warfare.
I suggest that rather than regulation, which was suggested in a stalled 2002 green paper, we follow the example of South Africa, who, in 2006 voted in the name of promoting global peace and stability to ban any citizen from engaging in mercenary activity. That Africa especially has been so ravaged by these mercenaries is a fact we seem quick to forget. Perhaps the issue of mercenaries is just one of the hydra’s heads, and by hydra, I mean capitalism. Nonetheless, their removal as non-state actors in the global arena would have positive effects in UN effectiveness, the limitation of the arms trade, and the increased prevention of resource exploitation in reconstruction. It may be a symptomatic attack, but it is one that we are morally obliged to undertake.