Private military companies can play a positive role in the developing world - but regulation is essential
Private military companies are, in some ways, the modern-day equivalent of the colonial exploration companies that, in the name of empires, went out into the world and colonised vast parts of the globe. They are often compared with the mercenaries of the 1960s, the demobilised and disgruntled western soldiers who fought for all sides in the chaos of decolonisation. But to tar mercenaries and today's private soldiers with the same brush misses the point.
Much of the attention now focuses on the role of private military companies in the developing world; part of this stems from a renewed interest in mercenarism, last seen during the mid-1970s, and part is related to the perception of private security companies as a new phenomenon in regional security. The furore surrounding the 1998 arms-to-Africa affair, when a private military company run by a former British army officer supplied weapons to Sierra Leone despite a United Nations arms embargo, is but one demonstration of the sensationalism that this subject attracts.
But the fact is that for decades private military companies have operated with the tacit or explicit approval of their western governments. As long ago as the Vietnam war, the company Vinnell was used extensively; today, companies such as MPRI, Betac, SAIC, AirScan and many others are contracted by the US government to provide defence and security services for overseas operations.
Much the same can be said of British companies such as Defence Systems, which provided bodyguards for Diana, Princess of Wales, during her visits to landmine victims in Angola. With a reputation for professionalism, integrity and good business, DSL was hired throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s by international organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations and various aid organisations.
To take another example, in October 1998 the US government subcontracted its involvement in the Kosovo monitoring force to DynCorp. The contracting was done because the US government did not want to send its trained military personnel into harm's way unarmed, as the monitors are; it also ensured that the US government did not have to undergo the political risk associated with sending soldiers into situations that are little understood or supported domestically.
There will always be concern over private military companies' relationships with oil and mining companies operating in some of the more lawless parts of the developing world - and over their often-perceived role as covert proxies for western governments. But they are increasingly being used to provide security and related assistance to humanitarian and aid organisations operating in regions of conflict.
They can bring stability - albeit temporary and in need of follow-up from the international community - to conflicts in the developing world, as well as providing non-combatant services (such as mine-clearance, medical and welfare services, infrastructure and repair and child-combatant repatriation services) and helping to develop professional armed forces - a contribution towards domestic stability and security that should not be under-estimated.
The way forward is clear: effective regulation, at both national and international levels, is the key. The proposals that were announced this week in the government's green paper highlight the need for this both to "set guidelines for the industry (to give companies) an indication of what was and was not expected of them by the government" and to "help establish a respectable and therefore more employable industry".
Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, is said to prefer regulation based on licensing; however, this is not stringent enough to ensure full transparency.
By introducing legislation that differentiates between mercenarism and private military activity - generally through labelling the activity and not the actor - the industry can be rendered more transparent. South Africa's 1998 Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act is, for all its faults and limitations, a strong example to build on in the UK. The South African legislation regulates both the existence of the companies (by forcing them to be licensed even to operate) and their operations (by making them seek licensed approval for each contract undertaken). The aim is to ensure that the companies are monitored after they have been authorised, as well as ensuring that they are individually licensed for the types of services they wish to provide.
At the same time, the UK should push for a new definition of the problematic 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (in force since October 2001), so that the activities are defined, rather than the actors. Until this is done, not only will the International Convention remain virtually unenforceable but national legislation will remain only moderately effective.
The writer is a senior policy analyst with RAND Europe
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-2002
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on February 20, 2002. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.