Private actors providing armed services for hire, such as mercenaries and private military and security companies (PMSC), have flourished in recent decades. Where States have made conscious choices about the services they require (short of illicit ones) and where those companies are properly regulated, overseen, and held accountable, they have the potential to increase State security and foster human security and regional security. Recurrent examples, however, demonstrate that such actors have instead been drivers of conflict, fragility, and instability. Most recently, we have seen private actors acting as geopolitical proxies, exploiting armed conflicts and weak governance to bolster illegitimate regimes and aggressively extract natural resources from the countries in which they operate. In so doing they commit systematic atrocities against civilian populations at a scale and intensity not seen before.
The visibility of mercenaries during the Cold War, as well as PMSC in the 1990s and 2000s, led to international efforts – centred in Geneva – to create a corpus of texts and mechanisms addressing the issue, such as the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries (HRC Special Procedures); the Montreux Document on pertinent international legal obligations and good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict; and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. In addition, two successive Open-ended intergovernmental working groups have been discussing a regulatory instrument on PMSC for 13 years. It is clear, therefore, that neither mercenaries nor PMSC operate in a legal vacuum.
The key to addressing the challenges they pose today lies at national and regional levels. While a number of States have drawn on the Geneva-centred mechanisms and texts and have updated their legal and policy frameworks, insufficient political will means these frameworks still often remain insufficient; human and financial resources for regulation are lacking; and external oversight over mercenaries and PMSC is not fostered. This is particularly acute in fragile contexts where PMSC and mercenaries are having some of the strongest impacts on human, national and international security.
With PMSC and mercenaries again in the international spotlight, what are practical ways to strengthen their governance in the fragile contexts where it matters most and how can international norms and good practices support these efforts?