The Changing Face of Armed Conflict: Private Military and Security Companies

Reliance on private military and security companies (PMSCs) to provide services in armed conflicts has steadily increased since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. By 2006, the United States employed about 100,000 government contractors in Iraq, many of them working for PMSCs. Public attention to PMSCs increased significantly in 2007 when members of Blackwater, a PMSC hired by the US to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq, were involved in the death of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Several of those involved were tried last year, sparking discussions regarding accountability for private actors in armed conflicts.

picThe presence of contractors in combat situations is controversial in light of reported human rights abuses by private military and security companies. Despite their controversial status, the use of PMSCs continues; faced with the threat of the Islamic State (IS), the US government may once again be sending military contractors to Iraq alongside deployed US troops.

What are private military and security companies?

Private military companies (PMCs) are for-profit business organizations that specialize in providing military and security services once considered to be exclusively the role of government actors. These include combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence collection and analysis, operational and logistic support, training, procurement, and maintenance. Due to the potential for negative perception, many firms that specialize in protecting persons and property prefer to identify themselves as private security companies (PSCs). This distinction may not be truly meaningful, however, as these companies can still be involved in conflict situations and perform the same functions as PMCs. That is probably why scholars often group them as PMSCs.

Under international humanitarian law (IHL), individual employees of PMSCs are protected persons if they fall within the definition of civilians accompanying armed forces and are entitled to prisoner of war status if captured. However, if an individual is considered a civilian directly participating in hostilities or a mercenary, that individual will not be entitled to protections as a civilian or a combatant. The status of individual employees of PMSCs may differ based on the situation in which they are acting and therefore can only be determined on a case by case basis.

Are PMCs or their employees mercenaries?

PMCs and their employees are generally not considered mercenaries. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, defines a mercenary as a person who is who is recruited to fight in an armed conflict and takes a direct part in hostilities, but is not a national or resident, nor a member of the armed forces of a state party to the conflict. Mercenaries must be motivated by a desire for private gain through material compensation “substantially in excess” of that paid to members of armed forces of similar rank or function of the state party to the conflict that hired them. Mercenaries are not entitled to the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war and may face prosecution under both domestic and international law for their actions. PMSC employees, however, are often nationals of the states who employ them. For example, many members of PMSCs hired by the United States are former US military members looking to extend their service. Additionally, what amounts to payment “substantially in excess” is undefined, and salaries provided to members of PMSCs may not reach that threshold.

What do you think of the use of PMSCs by the State armed forces during armed conflict? Let us know in the comments!

2 responses to “The Changing Face of Armed Conflict: Private Military and Security Companies

  1. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update | Humanity in the Midst of War·

  2. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update | Humanity in the Midst of War·

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