Anj — Mercenaries and the new configuration of world violence

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Mercenaries and the new configuration of world violence
By Mariano Aguirre
Created 2007-10-16 17:30
A series of incidents involving employees of private companies
operating as security guards have resulted in the deaths of around
twenty Iraqis in recent months. The bloodiest of these was on 16
September 2007, when guards working for the United States company
Blackwater – which is subcontracted by the Pentagon – shot and killed
[1] as many as seventeen civilians at a Baghdad intersection.
The Iraqi government would like to call a halt to the activities of
Blackwater,, and begin legal proceedings against it. The human-rights
minister Wijdan Mikha’il Salim said on 15 October [2] that an inquiry
would publish its results by the end of the month, but that the
government had already decided to bring the private companies under
Iraqi jurisdiction.
The United States administration takes a very different view: it wants
Blackwater and other security companies which operate in Iraq [3] (and
which sources variously estimate as numbering 50,000-100,000
employees) to carry on with their activities unencumbered by any legal
restrictions. This is even more the case now, when there is pressure
both by the Democrats and the US electoral timetable to decrease US
troop numbers in Iraq.
Mariano Aguirre is a journalist and writer on international relations.
He co-ordinates peace, security and human-rights matters at the
Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior
(Fride [4]), in Madrid. He is a fellow of the Transnational Institute,
Amsterdam; the former director of the Peace Research Center (CIP),
Madrid; and a former programme officer at the Ford Foundation in New York.
The Iraqi human-rights minister’s [5] declaration notwithstanding,
there is little chance of the weak Iraqi government being able to make
legal headway against Blackwater [6]. In 2004, Paul Bremer, as head of
the post-occupation Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq,
signed Order 17 granting legal immunity to private-security firms
which worked for Washington; Iraqi law confirmed this unusual measure.
The legal expert Joana Abrisketa [7] of the University of Deusto
points out that this immunity makes the security firms triply
unaccountable: to military or civil American law, or under the terms
of international law (see “Blackwater, mercenaries and the rule of law
[8]”, Fride, 27 September 2007).
On 4 October 2007, the House of Representatives passed a bill [9]
which could bring the private-security contractors under the
jurisdiction of United States law. The White House, it is almost
needless to say, opposes the measure; but even if it were to be
matched [10] by the Senate and pass into law, its effect would not be
retroactive; moreover, it would in practice be very difficult to carry
out a meaningful investigation in an arena as dangerous as Iraq or to
bring witnesses from the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah to a military
court in Washington.
The US defence and state departments are pursuing parallel
initiatives: using different interpretations of the “uniform code of
military justice” to define if a security contractor is working “in
declared wars” or as “security escorts for a civilian agency”.
The Bush administration is desperately seeking a way to mollify the
Iraqi government and at the same not cancel the contract with
Blackwater. As part of this effort, it has resorted to extravagant
gestures: on 5 October, the state department announced that several of
its officials will be sent to Iraq to escort every Blackwater convoy.
Jan Schakowsky [11], the Democratic representative from Illinois) –
who has been fighting for years to introduce legislation that will ban
the use of private military contractors – said that “dozens and dozens
of agents (will) baby-sit these Blackwater units”.
Congressional pressure to bring non-state military actors under legal
control – and the administration’s reaction to the argument – raise
serious questions about the relationship between the state’s armed
agents and their non-state equivalents: among them are what crimes
should official military justice have jurisdiction over, and should it
equally cover non-American security workers? (see Alissa J Rubin &
Paul von Zielbauer, “Blackwater case highlights legal uncertainties
[12]”, New York Times, 11 October 2007).
The roots of privatisation of war
The tendency by the United States to privatise security is a serious
matter. In the last decade, Washington has increasingly subcontracted
the use of force to numerous companies (ArmorGroup, Military
Professionals Resource Inc [MPRI [13]], and Dyncorp as well as as
Blackwater) in several countries (Iraq, Colombia, Somalia, Azerbaijan,
Kosovo and Afghanistan). MPRI has been among the companies engaged in
training military forces in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Ukraine.
Many former generals and officials from the cold-war era have
reinvented themselves as executives in the new age of privatised war
(see Ken Silverstein, Private Warriors [14] [Verso, 2000]). This
“revolving- door” system [15] between former officials and military
contractors remains very active.
In the case of the prisons and private-security forces there is a
“double burden” for the American taxpayers. Jan Schakowsky said [16]
in 2002: “American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund
the world´s most powerful military. Why should they have to pay a
second time in order to privatise our operations? Are we outsourcing
in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy and embarrassment? Is
it to hide body-bags from the media and this shield them from the
public opinion?” (see Leslie Wayne, “America’s For-Profit Secret Army
[17]”, New York Times, 13 October 2002). Her words were a premonition
of how US government policy would be conducted after the invasion of
Iraq five months later.
Since 2003, Blackwater [18] has signed contracts worth $750 million
with the Pentagon and the CIA. The company’s president Erik Prince, an
ex-member of the special-forces division of the US army, says with
pride that it represents “the widest ranging and most professional
company in the world in military solutions for law enforcement, the
provision of security, and peace and stability operations”.
Blackwater executives and public-relations officers vehemently reject
the designation of their employees and colleagues as to “mercenaries”.
They say that are legally hired by democratic governments, that they
more efficient than the public sector, and that they help to promote
democracy: “Blackwater lives its core values of excellence,
efficiency, execution, and teamwork. In doing this, we have become the
most responsive, cost-effective means of affecting the strategic
balance in support of security and peace, and freedom and democracy
Blackwater follows in the footsteps of South African, British and
Israeli companies, composed of former military officers who are
recruited from the armed forces. They are attracted by much higher
salaries than in the regular forces, though there are major
differentials: Americans earn around €700-1,000 ($995-$1,420) a day,
whereas former soldiers from Latin American armies (who have been
hired in recent years to work in Iraq and other countries) earn closer
to €30-115 ($40-$163) a day.
>From the 1970s until the 1990s, mercenaries played a prominent role in
sub- Saharan Africa; notorious private military companies such as
(South African) Executive Outcomes [19] were called in to compensate
for weak government, and in some cases became involved in illegal
trading in diamonds and other resources. (It is perhaps symbolic of a
wider transition in the forms that mercenary action is taking that Bob
Denard [20], perhaps the most emblematic servant of power in this era
– in his case French – died on 13 October 2007.)
In response, the Organisation for the African Union (as it then was)
adopted the convention for the elimination of mercenarism in Africa
[21] (1977); and the United Nations general assembly approved the
international convention against the recruitment, use, financing and
training of mercenaries [22] (1989) – though neither the United States
nor any European state has ratified it. Moreover, the UN has a working
group on the use of mercenaries [23] as a means of violating human
rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to
The United States and Britain have been trying to promote the
legalisation of non-state forces. A green paper [24] by the British
foreign office in 2002 praised their work sough legitimation for it;
the then foreign secretary Jack Straw wrote [25] in the foreword that
“a strong and reputable private military sector might have a role in
enabling the UN to respond more rapidly and effectively to crises”. At
the time, the Labour backbencher Andrew Mackinlay called the proposal
The failure of the UN in Bosnia and Rwanda also caused some analysts
to promote the idea that private-security forces could be used for UN
missions. The rationale was that some governments’ fear of sending
their troops on risky missions, and the strict mandates imposed by the
Security Council, was an opportunity to turn the privatisation of
peacekeeping into a “humanitarian” solution (see David Shearer,
“Outsourcing war”, Foreign Policy [26] 112/1998).
The monopoly of the use of force
The security forces of a state must guarantee law enforcement. At the
most, the state can delegate (say) the protection of department stores
or airports to contracted private-security guards; but even then, the
state ultimately has responsibility for the security of such public
places. It is surely worrying that private-security companies financed
by the taxpayer are empowered to discharge duties that should belong
to the state.
The legitimate monopoly of the use of force is an attribute of the
modern state, in the same way as are control of borders and a
legal-administrative and constitutional order which guarantees the
security and basic rights of its citizens. That monopoly on violence
was the result of a long process which culminated approximately five
centuries ago with the founding of the modern state and the creation
of standing national armies, putting an end to the reliance on
mercenaries to wage war.
The Blackwater case spectacularly reveals the erosion of this concept
of the state, and the illogic of privatisation taken to suicidal
lengths. During the hurricane Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans in
2005 brought, the Bush administration neglected [26] to provide aid to
the city’s residents; but it did contract Blackwater and the British
company ArmorGroup International to work alongside the army to
militarise the city. A reporter wrote [27]: “They all carried
automatic assault weapons and had guns strapped to their legs. Their
flak jackets were covered with pouches for extra ammunition. When
asked what authority they were operating under, one guy said, ‘We’re
on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.’ Then, pointing
to one of his comrades, he said, ‘He was even deputized by the
governor of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests and use lethal
force if we deem it necessary.'”
Rodrigo de Almeida, “Brazil: the shadow of urban war [27]” (18 July
2007)Once the door is opened to subcontracting and its attendant legal
limbo, things become complicated. Individual testimony indicates that
employees of private-security firms interrogated and tortured inmates
in Abu Ghraib prison. Mercenaries soon begin to take over those tasks
which the state doesn’t want to be seen to be directly involved in:
American federal investigators are examining the alleged illegal
arms-trafficking of automatic weapons and military parts to Iraq by
Blackwater. Brigadier-General Karl Horst, deputy commander of the US’s
third infantry division says: [28] “These guys run loose in this
country (Iraq) and do stupid stuff. There´s no authority over
them…they shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the
aftermath” (see Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: the rise of the world’s
most powerful mercenary army [29], Serpent’s Tail, 2007).
A country’s foreign and security policies are an extension of its
domestic policy. If the United States invades Iraq or sends special
security services to Colombia; or if another state participates in a
UN peace mission – these are war-and-peace activities which the
state’s own officials and soldiers, professional or recruited, should
carry out. When a state is providing forces for a peace operation, it
is acting according to the legal instruments that previously had
signed. But to assign such responsibilities to private actors is to
create legal confusion [30] with potentially dangerous consequences.
The world system is progressively imposing an unequal geography [30]
of richness and poverty that is also reflected in the use of violence
in the global north and south. Around the peaceful, central areas
protected by official and private forces are unlawful, peripheral
areas of violence. A possible future for the armed forces of the US
and some other countries could be to have elite, high-tech, very
well-trained armed forces that would hire private-security forces for
short or longer periods of time. In this context, the Blackwater
affair [31] could be a turning-point that inaugurates a long process
of legal and economic negotiation [32] between the public and the
private interest. The result will not be the end of the modern
mercenary-system, but the establishment of their legitimacy so that
they can play a respectable role in the brave new configuration of
world violence.
The American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker [33], has declared to
Congress that if the state department is to be able to enforce
security “there is simply no alternative to sub-contracting”. This is
a dangerous precedent, because the state ought not to delegate
security responsibilities. At most, it could subcontract certain
non-violent activities in a way that moves in line with international
law. The use of force in the modern age cannot be allowed to slip back
into the middle ages.