This is not merely a hypothetical scenario, but an undeniable reality wherein conflicts and wars are fought not by conventional armies but by private armies and military contractors. Private armies, also known as Private Military and Security Companies (PMCs), are becoming a controversial topic that remains at the forefront of global security discussions.
The utilization of PMCs in conflict situations presents a multifaceted and contentious issue. While their involvement can at times yield positive results, the potential for human rights abuses and abuses of power, coupled with a lack of accountability, necessitates careful regulation and oversight.
PMCs from Ancient Greece to now
The Sacred Band of Thebes is believed to be the oldest private army in history, having been formed in Ancient Greece around the 4th century BC.
Private armies have been associated with various religions throughout history. In Hinduism, the private army of Maratha was one of the most prominent military forces in India. The Maratha army played a crucial role in expanding the Maratha Empire and were renowned for their mobility and flexibility in battle. During the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries were a private army of elite soldiers recruited from Christian boys. They were fiercely loyal to the Sultan and played a crucial role in Ottoman military campaigns. In Christianity, the Knights Templar were a private military order established in the 12th century during the Crusades. For centuries, the Swiss Guards, established in 1506 by Pope Julius ll, have stood as a renowned private army for protecting the Pope and Vatican City.
Another formidable private army was the French Foreign Legion, which was established in 1831. This mercenary force was composed of soldiers from various countries and was often deployed to conflicts around the world. However, the history of private armies dates back to ancient times, when wealthy individuals frequently hired mercenaries to augment their armies or even lead them into battle.
Private armies have become a global phenomenon, often resulting in devastating consequences for regional stability, human rights, and international law. In South Africa, a PMC known as Executive Outcomes (EO) was hired by the government of Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s to fight against rebel groups; while EO was credited with restoring peace and stability, it also faced criticism for human rights abuse, economic interests, and lack of accountability. Sandline International (SI), a British PMC, was contracted by ousted President Kabbah of Sierra Leone in 1997 to overthrow the military junta. But, SI’s involvement sparked diplomatic scandals.
In the Middle East, American PMC Blackwater (later named Academi) was contracted by the U.S. government to provide security services in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Nevertheless, Blackwater became infamous for its involvement in various unethical gross misconducts, especially the Nisour Square massacre in 2007.
After Blackwater’s contract was terminated, the American government hired Triple Canopy (TC). But, they too faced allegations of fraud, corruption, and misconduct. TC also operated in other countries such as Honduras, Haiti and Peru, where it faced accusations of human rights abuse, environmental damage and interference with local affairs.
In Latin America, the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Force of Colombia (AUC) was formed by landlords, drug lords and former military officers to combat leftist guerrillas such as FARC.
The Russian PMC Wagner Group (WG) has been accused of participating in several conflicts on behalf of Russia in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Venezuela. It has also been implicated in human rights violations, war crimes and covert operations. In the European Union, Wagner Group and RSB-Group—a military consulting company with close ties to Russia’s intelligence services—have gained notoriety for their involvement in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine respectively.
In Australia and Oceania, the private military industry is relatively small, with firms like Aegis Defense Services and G4S—both British multinationals. Asia is dominated by firms like Academi and Aegis Defense Services.
Should we be wary of the role PMCs are playing in world affairs?
Private armies are criticized for their lack of accountability, especially in areas where there is limited government control. Their activities often violate international and local laws. The most significant concern is that they undermine the monopoly of legitimate violence held by states. This can erode a state’s sovereignty and authority and can sometimes even act against the interest of the host government or local populations, ultimately leading to instability and conflicts.
Moreover, they typically operate under complex contractual arrangements, which obscure their identities, responsibilities, and liabilities. Currently, there is no effective international enforcement mechanism that can monitor, investigate, or sanction private armies for violations or abuses.
The private armies differ from other armed actors such as militia, rebels, and terrorists in several key aspects. These PMCs are motivated by profit rather than political or ideological objectives. They operate independently and are controlled by the objectives set by their clients. PMCs have a distinct operational scope, size, and capabilities that differentiate them from local or international security services providers.
Private armies mainly operate in conflict zones or high-risk areas, and also provide protection to infrastructures, convoys, or governments and private clients. In contrast, security service providers offer services, like security consulting, risk assessment and training.
It is crucial to develop a legally binding international convention on PMCs that defines their status, rules, responsibilities, and objectives under international law. To regulate or control private armies, states must review and revise existing law to establish clear criteria and procedure for licensing or registering PMCs operating within their territory or abroad. Oversight of PMCs should be established through a clear legal framework, licensing system, vetting procedure, contracting standards, monitoring mechanism, and complaint procedures.
What needs to be done?
The diversification of clients and missions poses a challenge for private armies to balance their profit motives with their professional ethics while maintaining their reputation and credibility in a competitive market. It is imperative for policymakers, international organizations, and civil society groups to collaborate in developing best practices and effective regulations that strike a balance between the need for security and respect for human rights and accountability.
This approach would ensure that private armies operate within ethical and legal frameworks, making a positive contribution to international security.