by Marius Loufir, member of the International Relations & Foreign Policy Research Team
A mercenary is any person who “is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially 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” (ICRC, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), Article 47). The profession of the mercenary is as ancient as human civilization itself; the concept of hiring someone to eliminate or protect against one’s enemies, transcends eras and societies and in the post Cold War period seems to be reemerging as a common modus operandi across multiple battlefields around the globe.
The reasonable question that arises is: has anything changed since the era of Nubian mercenaries that fought for Ramesses II and the Varangian Guard that protected Byzantine Emperors? At the dawn of modernity, the insurgence of state sovereignty and the nation-state substantially limited the employment of third parties to wage wars. They were replaced by national armies that consisted of conscripted male citizens with the first and most significant example being the Levée en masse (massive conscription) that created the French Revolutionary Army. For the next couple of centuries, national armies were the norm in warfare and during all the great conflicts of the 19th and the 20th century conscripts would be called to arms and, if necessary, to give their lives for their country. However, with the end of the Cold War a major demilitarization swept across Europe and other regions of the world as the constant threat of all-out war no longer existed and the maintenance (and the relevant cost) of a major military force outweighed its benefits. Instead, the involvement of countries in the emerging conflicts of this new world order happens via the use of mercenary companies better known today as Private Military/Security Companies (PMCs). (After all, the term mercenary is frowned upon and forbidden by international conventions.) It should be specified that said companies usually undertake a wide array of tasks from logistic and civilian support to the training of local militaries and deployment in the field of battle in offensive and defensive roles.
To comprehend why PMCs are being favored by more and more governments across the globe, one needs to examine the predominant role they played in a country’s war-waring capabilities, namely the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The active military involvement of the country in two fronts had a remarkably high manpower cost which presented two options to the US administration: either issue a national draft or outsource part of its military presence to private contractors. The decision to use PMCs is not solely the result of the existing manpower insufficiency but also the fact that the alternative would constitute (a) political suicide for the Bush administration. The memories of Vietnam were still recent in the American public opinion; even if the average citizen cried for vengeance after the 9/11 attacks, the draft of ordinary citizens was and remains highly unpopular: in the aftermath of the twin towers terrorist attacks, 27% of Americans approved the return to mandatory conscription (Jones, 2007), a number which only deteriorated over the following years. On the contrary, casualties from private military contractors are not officially reported by the Pentagon and this very expendability allows military leadership to deploy such mercenaries in highly dangerous missions. (Ioanes, 2019).
In addition to the aforementioned, the state-employer can claim zero accountability not solely to their domestic audience but also to the international community. This so-called ‘plausible deniability’ allows the country to conduct military operations that are in breach of international law and should its agents be captured, can easily deny responsibility by using them as scapegoats. The most infamous incident that springs to mind is the 2007 Nisour Square massacre when employees of the Blackwater PMC who had been contracted by the US government to provide security services in the Iraqi capital killed 17 civilians and injured 20 more during a shootout. US officials blamed the company for excessive and disproportionate use of force and all perpetrators were prosecuted and jailed (Reuters, 2007). One can only assume how graver repercussions would be in bilateral relations and the country’s international image had that heinous crime been perpetrated by conventional forces.
This plausible deniability however proves to be a double-edged sword with major dangers lingering for international peace and stability. Using anonymously backed PMCs as a disguise for foreign intervention has reshaped the balance in the battlefield, drastically changed the outcome of multiple conflicts around the globe and should it become a norm, could jeopardize the international status quo for the worst. Another Private Security Company whose presence has been confirmed in multiple battlefields across the Middle East and Africa is the Wagner Group. The company is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur with alleged close ties to the Russian Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU. This PMC is the Kremlin’s most potent weapon in advancing Russian policy objectives; The Wagner Group was initially deployed during the 2014 Crimean crisis ‘as anonymous mercenaries’ who spearheaded the invasion. Since 2015, approximately 2500 men have been fighting alongside the Assad Regime in Syria (BBC News, 2018) and in 2018 it was these soldiers who participated in the bloodiest mercenary engagement in modern history: an assault on a US Outpost near the town of Khasham led to more than 100 casualties on the Assad-Russian side (Gibbons-Neff, 2018). A similar number of contractors has been deployed in Libya to support the Libyan National Army (Haftar’s faction in the civil war). (Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, 2020). Naturally, the Kremlin denies any direct involvement claiming that the contractors are Russian citizens and not regular soldiers. (BBC News, 2018).
Will this be the new code of conduct for the use of force? For the sake of avoiding international repercussions, can countries merely outsource their ‘dirty work’ to third parties that cannot be held accountable at the same level a state can? Does the necessary institutional and legal framework exist to crack down on this new form of military intervention? Provisions that deter mercenary activity exist in International Humanitarian Law, namely Article 47.1 of the Additional Protocol in the Geneva Conventions. Said provision does not ipso facto criminalize mercenaries but deprives them of their status as combatants and prisoners of war (ICRC, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), Article 47). Some other mercenary-specific conventions condemn and criminalize such activities (Draft Luanda Convention, Organization of African Unity Convention, United Nation Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, Draft code of crimes against the peace and security of mankind) without them translating into a prosecution organ for the crime of mercenarism. Instead captured mercenaries usually stand trial under domestic law and their status is not mentioned in the charge sheets.(Fallah, 2006).
Given the aforementioned legal vacuum to combat mercenarism and its lucrative nature both for the employer and the employee, the ‘dogs of war’ are expected to proliferate over the next decades. This is both a geostrategic phenomenon as well as a financial one: this norm is merely following the rule of supply and demand and there is ample of both. The overwhelming majority of conflicts in the 21st century are civil or international civil wars (Palik, 2020) which provide fertile ground for the deployment of PMCs. The most alarming scenario is what will happen if these soldiers of fortune whose allegiance lies to the highest bidder accumulate enough power to compete with their employers and have their own voice in the international system. Such a dystopian world order has only been depicted in films and video games and is highly unlikely to occur. However, PMCs are here to stay and continue to reshape a battlefield where state and non-state actors collide.
- Fallah. K. (2006). “Corporate actors: the legal status of mercenaries in armed conflict”. Volume 88 Number 863 of the International Review of the Red Cross. Accessed on November 21st 2020. Available here.
- Palik, J. (2020) Conflict Trends: A Global Overview, 1946–2019, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO. Accessed on November 21st 2020. Available here.
- BBC News (2018). “Russia admits dozens of Russian casualties in Syria battle”. Accessed on November 21st 2020. Available here.
- BBC News (2018). “Syria war: Who are Russia’s shadowy Wagner mercenaries?” Accessed on November 20th 2020. Available here.
- Gibbons-Neff, T. (2018). “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria”. The New York Times. Accessed on November 20th 2020. Available here.
- Ioanes, E. (2019). “More US contractors have died in Afghanistan than US troops — but the Pentagon doesn’t keep track”. Business Insider. Accessed on November 19th 2020. Available here.
- Jones, J. (2007). “Vast Majority of Americans Opposed to Reinstituting Military Draft. Fewer than one in five favor return to the draft”. Gallup. Accessed on November 19th 2020. Available here.
- Reuters (2007). “Blackwater faulted by U.S. military: report”. Accessed on November 20th 2020. Available here.
- Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress (2020) on East Africa Counterterrorism Operation & North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operation. Accessed on November 21st 2020. Available here.
- International Committee of the Red Cross, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977. Article 47. Available here.
- United Nations International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, 4 December 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 2163, p. 75. Available here.