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Why there’s a case for bringing private armies in from the cold

The aftermath of a Libyan militia’s clash with Islamic State. Reuters

Libya is a country on the brink of total chaos. Two rival groups both claim to be the legitimate government, and between them seem incapable of achieving stability. In the resulting security vacuum, one of the two sides has resorted to hiring private militias to try and keep control.

Among these is the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a private military organisation that directly participates in combat on behalf of the Tripoli-based faction, the General National Congress. PFG has become known for its recent clashes with Islamic State (IS), and for both failing to protect and misappropriating the nation’s oil.

It’s cases like this that give private military forces a bad name. A similar furore blew up in 2015 when reports surfaced that South African mercenaries were on the ground in Nigeria fighting Boko Haram. Given that the Nigerian military had already denied that it had received any assistance from hired outside forces, the government was quick to shoot the stories down.

Private military companies and mercenaries are still stigmatised as irretrievably immoral and untrustworthy, and therefore as liabilities. Clearly there are plenty of cases where their activities have caused grave trouble and civilian casualties – think of the 2007 incident where Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians in Baghdad – but it’s not as if armies and official standing forces don’t have innocent blood on their hands.

Still, there’s a deeply embedded feeling that fighting for money outside an army is profoundly perverse. And as far as Western thought on the ethics of war goes, that revulsion dates back to the Renaissance.

Niccolo Machiavelli. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th-century Florentine republican whose writings on power and strategy form the basis for much modern thought on war and state power, was one of the most significant opponents of mercenaries in history. He denounced the trade of military force across borders and deemed soldiers-for-hire an immoral liability. As he saw it, they lack the strong commitments that would make them faithful and devoted to a state and its subjects.

That said, Machiavelli’s perspective was inflected with his own republican vision and passion for voluntary citizen militia, as opposed to hired guns. He overlooked Florence’s debt to Sir John Hawkwood, an English-born mercenary whose devoted service earned him a marble fresco in the Duomo cathedral.

That his objections to hired mercenaries ring so true today shows how ahead of his time he was. In the 16th century, monarchs were quite reluctant to arm civilians for fear of popular uprisings; many took pains to demilitarise the nobility in efforts to subordinate rivals and centralise their power.

Similarly, one of the most common contemporary objections to the individuals involved with private force is that they have an inappropriate motive. Even though most states now offer a salary in exchange for citizen military service, the organised standing civilian army is still held up as the “right” way to defend the state.

But over the last century, the practical and moral grounds on which this idea is based have shifted markedly.

Mercenary activity persisted throughout the 20th century and is alive and well in the 21st. Along with the sort of actions witnessed throughout decolonisation in Africa (the intervention in the Belgian Congo by “Black-Jacques” Schramme, say, or the work of “Mad Mike” Hoare), we’ve begun to see far more of these forces cropping up in response to domestic or regional conflicts. Many of them are disenfranchised and dispossessed people seeking to defend the only lifestyle they know – rather challenging the view that money is the only driver for mercenary activity.

That calls into question the norm against the use of mercenaries. Does it specifically apply to those whose incentives are entirely financial? And can we really dismiss private military companies based on inconsistent assumptions about their loyalties and motives? And does the law actually rule them out at all?

Reality check

Clearly, the law is doing little to curb this practice. But nonetheless, major powers such as the US have enthusiastically employed them over the past couple decades. And now we’re starting to see a more geographically diverse clientele for their services, with countries such as Ukraine and Nigeria getting in on the act.

It’s not even clear whether these entities are illegal or not when it comes to international law. The Montreux Document, which is meant to guide states on how to use private forces, has no binding authority and doesn’t apply to non-state actors who might hire them (corporations, for instance). This is a big failing – especially in the 21st century, when wars hardly ever take place between two sovereign states.

Worse still, the consequences of closing our minds on this subject are all too easy to underestimate. At the outbreak of the Rwandan atrocities in 1994, the noted South African private security firm Executive Outcomes reportedly approached the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to offer its services. The UN was firmly set against using a private military company to address the crisis, but the world then proved unable to mobilise public forces in a timely manner. The inaction allowed the genocide to continue, resulting in over 800,000 casualties.

So instead of focusing narrowly on ethical problems that are just as applicable to national armies as they are to mercenaries, we need to think about how private forces can be brought into the international legal system.

If they were only properly regulated, monitored and legislated for, the increasingly arbitrary moral objections that stand in their way might start to change. Ignoring them is neither sensible nor productive, and they will always naturally find room to exist.

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