Peacekeeping Privatized: Mercenaries and the future of humanitarian intervention

The fighting in Sierra Leone ended rather abruptly, considering three years of civil war had been resolved in little more than a month. In Freetown, the British Parachute Regiment had secured the international airport and was busy evacuating British nationals. Just offshore a powerful British naval task force, one of the largest assembled since the Falklands War, waited in support. While international media was riveted by British efforts to prop up the failing UN peacekeeping mission, British forces were not acting alone. On land, deep in the interior of the tiny West African nation, another army was busy mopping up the shattered remnants of Liberian President Charles Taylor’s proxy child militias. This army wore no patches revealing identity and belonging, and while it was fighting under the banner of Sierra Leone, it was beyond the reach of that government’s jurisdiction. This army was in fact Executive Outcomes of South Africa, one of the first private military companies (PMCs, better known as mercenaries) to offload responsibilities from militaries that were either too weak (such as Sierra Leone) or too expensive (such as the United States) to go it alone. It is likely that PMCs will see more business in civil wars and humanitarian operations. So the question is: if Executive Outcomes was so effective in ending the fighting in Sierra Leone, could another mercenary firm provide better security for Darfur?

Hundreds of mercenary firms are operating around the world today, most offering training and logistical support to their varied clientele (sometimes governments, sometimes rebel movements, sometimes crime lords). The largest firms, however, such as Executive Outcomes during the late 1990s and Blackwater Worldwide today (now Xe Services LLC), are capable of deploying their own self-sufficient combat units trained in VIP and convoy protection and offensive operations. With mercenary firms handling a rapidly expanding repertoire of military operations it was inevitable that peacekeeping would be suggested as well.

In the July/August 2009 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (“Quick Fixes”) James S. Gibney argued that mercenaries offer the most effective solution to civil conflicts around the world. Gibney points out that despite the deployment of more than 18,000 peacekeepers to the Congo the UN has failed to protect the lives of millions since first arriving in 1999. With echoes of Srebrenica, one contingent of UN soldiers “failed to stop a massacre of 150 people taking place less than a mile away.” Other troops have rearmed militias by trading their weapons for ivory, gold and drugs.

Gibney argues that mercenaries, “small, highly-trained” strike forces who are proven insurgency-killers, offer the most promising future for peacekeeping. Most importantly, mercenaries will “go where they’re paid to go” (Gibney), allowing governments to act regardless of public opinion or military constraints. Prominent military historian Max Boot worries that without the more formidable security capabilities of PMCs, the many “pieces of paper” produced by the recurring rounds of negotiations will never carry any significance. So should the United Nations start thinking about deploying mercenaries on peacekeeping missions? Or is the use of private military forces more dangerous than Gibney and Boot would have us believe? A review of the following considerations may help clarify the issue.

-Casualties have undermined Western war efforts since Vietnam, and the images of a dead American soldier being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu in 1994 effectively killed Operation Restore Hope. However, because mercenaries are not members of national militaries, their deaths are not included in the official casualty counts released to the public. If you want more sustained support for a combat mission use mercenaries to lessen the number of casualties that appear on the evening news. Few people can sympathize with shadowy organizations whose official presence is secreted by the government, and media will not be as interested in reporting their losses.

-Possibly the most professional soldiers in the world, many mercenaries are veterans of elite commando units such as the British Special Air Service. Their ranks are filled by adventurers, fortune seekers, unemployed soldiers and idealists. Whatever their individual backgrounds they make for a highly potent rank and file. However, few mercenaries have any familiarity with the more delicate demands of humanitarian intervention, operations that require significant restraint and flexibility (as we will see below, these are not skills common to PMCs).

In addition to employing soldiers with elite military training, security companies also arm their mercenaries with considerable firepower. While operating in Iraq, for example, employees of Blackwater Worldwide regularly hit the streets of Baghdad armed with M4 rifles, M240B machine guns and M203 40-millimeter grenade launchers, backed up by armoured cars and attack helicopters. The larger firms are also equipped with significant intelligence and logistics assets which can be used to support their own armies or those of national governments.

For small and medium military powers like Canada, mercenaries offer governments a readily available force multiplier, that is, they provide a trained and self-sufficient army ready for deployment upon payment. The Canadian government can hire a mercenary firm to provide such services as logistical support and intelligence in Darfur, even though most of the Army’s strength is already committed to Afghanistan.

-The occupation of Iraq has demonstrated that private military contractors operate in a legal grey zone, apparently immune from both civilian and military law. This is particularly worrisome given the amount of firepower they carry and their willingness to use it. In 2007, while escorting a VIP convoy, Blackwater operatives massacred 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square after receiving enemy fire. While it was quickly established that the convoy had not come under attack and the killings unjustified, Blackwater was not seriously punished and resumed operations after a short hiatus.

The legal vacuum that protects PMCs is partially a result of their sudden reappearance in conflict zones. Where state security forces are subject to a detailed legal code developed over hundreds of years, there has been insufficient time to integrate mercenary forces into military law, or develop parallel legal structures for PMCs alone. Nor is this likely to happen anytime soon. Because civil law prohibits the state from interfering in the personnel affairs of a private corporation, it is up to the PMC to ensure that its mercenaries respect national laws and international regulations.

-But modern military contractors have raised more ethical challenges than legal ambiguities alone. As Rolf Uesseler wrote in his introduction to Servants of War,
“Seldom is it clear for whom they’re fighting, or who pays them or has sent them into action. Often no one can say to whom they’re responsible, if indeed anyone. Nor is anyone in any great hurry to inquire where they acquired their state-of-the-art military hardware, including tanks, attack helicopters, grenades, and missiles.”

-Finally, even if mercenaries were deployed in place of national soldiers as UN peacekeepers, they would (presumably) still have to operate under a United Nations mandate, one that is just as prohibitive to private soldiers as public ones. Gibney and Boot can argue that PMCs would bring their professionalism and resources to Darfur and deal with insecurity more effectively than the present UN mission, but it seems unlikely that Khartoum would consent to anything other than a traditional UN deployment, that is, one with national contingents and Security Council mandates. Using mercenaries as peacekeepers would be too tempting a loophole for Khartoum to ignore, and its inevitable demands for immediate withdrawal would carry some real legitimacy.

Some more pros and cons in point form:

-Pro: Rapid deployment of military forces to conflict zones.
-Pro: Potential UN area of operations expanded.
-Con: Use by the UN endows PMCs with significant legitimacy.
-Con: Refugees protected by PMCs viewed as "taking sides", making them
more legitimate military targets. (Uesseler 196).
-Con: Aid organizations protected by PMCs lose their neutrality.
*See Uesseler Servants of War
So what do you think? Should we “unleash the dogs of peace” as Gibney and Boot advocate, or resist the temptation to use (probably more effective) mercenary forces in Darfur, thereby confronting the ethical dilemmas of using mercenaries more generally?

James S. Gibney, "Unleash the Dogs of Peace?" Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2009.

Max Boot, "Send in the mercenaries: Darfur needs someone to stop the bloodshed, not more empty UN promises. Council on Foreign Relations",

Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army, (New York: Nation Books, 2007).

Rolf Uesseler, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2008).

Nicholas D. Kristof, "Sending Mercenaries Into Darfur", The New York Times

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