Soldiers for Sale: The New Frontlines of War Are Lawless

Published October 11th, 2017 - 01:35 GMT
Russian private military contractors, "Slavonic Corps" in Syria, courtesy of
Russian private military contractors, "Slavonic Corps" in Syria, courtesy of
Private military contractors are being used all over the world in conflict zones
Though they are being relied on more and more, they are dangerously unregulated
International and domestic laws are under-equipped to prosecute them
Their unregulated proliferation and use represents new and unique dangers to drawing lines of accountability and protecting human rights

Hundreds of years before the United States, Russia, the UAE, and other countries began relying on mercenaries to fight on and maintain their front lines, Machiavelli warned us not to use them at all.

Famed Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in his 16th century book, The Prince, that mercenaries have only two potential traits--both of which spell doom for anyone who uses them. They are either too weak and cowardly, and will flee the battlefield since they have no loyalty to the people they were hired to protect and act on behalf of, or they are strong and effective, and will overpower the state’s forces to seize control, or be bought by the highest bidder. 

Machiavelli wrote The Prince as if he were advising a Prince on how to rule effectively. It should not be lost on us, then, that a bona fide Prince has emerged as the most famous mercenary in the world. Erik Prince is the former CEO of Blackwater, and he helped to lead a particularly dangerous trend in wars: the proliferation of highly professionalized, wildly unregulated private military contractors.

Prince’s troops once supported U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq thanks to generous contracts from the U.S. government.  Now his soldiers for hire are mainly Colombians paid by the U.A.E. to fight its proxy war in Yemen, contributing to the overall humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the war-torn country.

The overall proliferation of mercenaries around the world goes far beyond Prince’s reach, and the world’s legal and political institutions are vastly under-equipped to deal with them. Domestic laws in conflict areas are rarely enforceable, effective international law essentially does not exist, and private citizens are stuck playing catch-up in finding out where, why, and how many private military contractors are being used to represent their interests abroad.

All of this threatens to tilt the balance of power away from citizens, eroding traditionally democratic institutions.


Mercenaries Around the World

Private military contractors in Baghdad, AFP/File

Not only is the U.A.E. using Colombians through Prince’s firm, but it is helping to spur Sudan to essentially use its publically raised army as a type of mercenary force in Yemen, with Sudan reportedly trading the mobilization of its forces with financial support from the U.A.E. and Saudi, and lobbying support from the U.A.E. The Intercept reports that Sudan was taken off Trump’s infamous Muslim Ban thanks to such lobbying from the U.A.E.

Russia too, has been caught using private mercenaries on its behalf in Syria multiple times, with the most recent example being a video published by ISIS’ propaganda agency, Amaq, showing two captured Russians who are reportedly mercenaries in ISIS’ custody.

In the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria found its own military vastly inferior to veteran South African mercenaries. They were hired and acted more like Nigeria’s special forces, air force, and armored cavalry than auxilliary troops. Nigeria was able to claim credit for its successful offensive against Boko Haram, thanks in large part due to its hired mercenary force using attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and block-by-block fighting to beat down the nascent terrorist group.

The United States is relying more on private military contractors in Afghanistan, as Al Bawaba previously reported. Contractors currently outnumber U.S. soldiers, with there being as many as three private contractors to every one soldier.

This is list is not exhaustive, and indeed it is almost impossible to know when and where mercenaries are fighting, let alone who they are.


The New Wild West is Private Military Firms

Blackwater employees, AFP/File

Political Theorist, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and expert on issues related to democratic accountability, P.J. Brendese, spoke to Al Bawaba about the particular difficulty in monitoring private military firms. "Since it is unclear whether Blackwater [and corporations like it] fall under the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branches of government, it is likewise unclear that there is any mechanism of constitutionally-defined accountability to begin with." 

Contracts detailing the activities of the contractors are rare to find, since they often subcontract out work to local mercenary groups that aren’t regulated and are virtually untraceable. Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Sean McFate told Al Bawaba that if these subcontracted groups get in trouble, “they just disappear.”

Getting access to the main contracts themselves and the activities of private military firms is nearly impossible. They almost always fall through the cracks of different countries’ Freedom of Information laws by having obscure or purely numerical titles, according to a source familiar with the contracts.

Erik Prince, AFP/File

Creating international laws that can effectively provide oversight and the ability to prosecute private military contractors and mercenaries has thus far been a failure.

The 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions tried to legislate some control of the use and prosecution of mercenaries. However, the same nations who helped to draft the Additional Protocols were also using mercenaries, giving them a vested interest in preventing the law from having any teeth.

Article 47.2 of the Protocols defines mercenaries so narrowly that it is nearly impossible to actually apply to individuals or groups. It requires courts to prove the actors in questions were motivated “by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces of that Party;”


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If this wasn’t enough, McFate reveals the core flaw in trying to arrest mercenaries in conflict zones: “who’s going to arrest these mercenaries? They’re just going to shoot law enforcement.”

According to Dr. Brendese, with all these elements of untraceabiltiy and unaccountability, "you've got yourself a witch's brew."

An Uncertain Future for Private Warfare

Russian private military contractors patrol an airport in Crimea, AFP/File

The soldiers for hire that are fighting the Middle East’s wars and proxy wars are here to stay, and we are likely to see more of them.

What this means for citizens is that they are stuck in a game of proverbial whack-a-mole, where they become aware of private military activity only after the fact, if they find out at all. They can then only put indirect pressure on governments and private firms.

And though they have proven to be occasionally more effective than publicly raised armies, like in the case of Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, the larger dangers they pose to traditional power balances between citizen, government, and military remain and will likely become more threatening.

As the future of warfare looks to become more monetized, privatized and commodified, ensuring that civilians’ rights are protected risks becoming nearly impossible if there remains a lack of enforceable regulations on private military firms.

The citizen’s right to know who is fighting wars for them and why is similarly at risk by the proliferation of private military contractors.

“The mechanisms of public oversight that are crucial to the democratic process are not available with respect to the interior workings of a corporation,” Dr. Brendese tells Al Bawaba.

So private military firms, 'have greater independence to exercise their own prerogatives and 'we the people' don't get a say. That's the most dangerous thing, because they're profiting--their motivation it not God and country; their motive is money." 

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