Corporate mercenaries

Last updated 24 January 2024

Mercenaries have been around almost as long as war itself. What is more recent, however, is the emergence of the corporate mercenary companies. It is a development that was of note in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is a feature in many other countries around the globe. The companies employ ex-military personnel and others, and then sell their services to governments, mining and shipping companies, relief organisations and similar bodies. The range of tasks undertaken by such companies is growing, some are non-combatant activities that used to done by members of the armed forces, but others involve the carrying, and potential use, of weaponry. Such companies are now involved in anti-piracy measures at sea, as well as land-based tasks.

The upper ranks of many of these companies are filled with recently serving officers from the US and UK armies. They can receive far more money in their new positions than they did in the official armed forces. However, governments, such as that of the UK, find the companies cheaper than regular armed forces, because many of the personnel come from Iraq or from poorer countries like Nepal and Fiji and are willing to serve for a fraction of a regular soldier’s pay.

Just as the corporate mercenary companies undertake a huge range of tasks so there are a variety of ways to describe them. Contractors, Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), Private Security Companies (PSCs) and, for those working at sea, Private Maritime Security Companies, confusingly also PMSCs.

Governments abdicating responsibility for regulation

The discussion has been about whether these companies should be regulated and, if so, how. CAAT believes it is essential that they be regulated by the UK government and that combat activities be completely banned.

The political debate really began with a Green (consultation) paper in 2002 and continued, intermittently, until finally, in April 2009, Labour’s last Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP rejected the call for regulation. Instead, he proposed that a trade organisation, the British Association of Private Security Companies should promote high standards through a code of conduct to be agreed with and monitored by the Government. The Government would also itself only contract companies which could demonstrate that they operate to high standards and would work internationally to promote high standards. Any system of Government licensing was ruled out.

A consultation on the proposal finished in July 2009, but the Government did not issue its response until December 2009, a delay which possibly occurred because of a shooting in Iraq in August 2009 which resulted in the death of two employees of the PMSC ArmorGroup. They were shot by a third employee, who despite vetting by the company, was said by family and friends to have severe mental health problems.

CAAT had hoped that this tragic case would prompt the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to reconsider its proposals for self-regulation as these were a total dereliction of duty. Unfortunately, it did not and only conceded the possibility that a body other than the BAPSC be charged with overseeing the code of conduct. The Government consulted further on its proposals, producing a summary of the results of this in April 2010. In September 2010 the Coalition government said that it was taking the Labour government’s proposals forward and, in March 2011, that ADS, which represents companies in the aerospace, military, security and space sectors had been chosen as the organisation to oversee the self-regulation. On 21 June 2011 the Government announced its agreement with ADS, including the establishment of a Security in Complex Environments Group (SCEG).

International Code of Conduct

In September 2008, seventeen countries, including the UK, agreed the Montreux Doctine, following a process initiated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. This has now developed into the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC), a partnership between governments, the companies and civil society organisations.

The ICoC is a not a substitute for national regulation. However, CAAT feels that the ICoC could increase transparency around the corporate mercenary companies and help hold them to account for human rights violations. Companies would be certified, monitored and subject to a grievance procedure.

The UK government sees itself as a strong advocate of the ICoC. However, in 2013 it became apparent that the UK FCO and the SCEG are pushing for an industry-led process, not only for the certification of companies, but also for the monitoring of their activities. They are pressing for an audit of the companies, looking at their management systems but not addressing their impact or performance. There would be no human rights field monitoring. This takes the whole concept of self-regulation to a new level, with a total lack of independent scrutiny and no accountability.

At sea too

The growth of piracy in the Indian Ocean led then Prime Minister David Cameron to announce in October 2011 that the UK government would recognise the engagement of private armed personnel as option where UK-registered ships were threatened with piracy. As well as being party to the SCEG self-regulation and the ICoC proposals, the Department of Transport has introduced Interim Guidance to UK Flagged Shipping on the Use of Armed Guards to Defend Against the Threat of Piracy in Exceptional Circumstances.

There have been numerous licences granted for the export of military to companies taking part in these operations. A submission made by academics from Coventry University to the Committees on Arms Export Controls in September 2014 looks at the issue of floating armouries.


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