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Involvement of Private Contractors in Armed Conflict: Implications under International Humanitarian Law

25-01-2008 Article, Defence studies, Volume 4, Number 2, Summer 2004, by Alexandre Faite

This paper analyses the status, under international humanitarian law of personnel of private companies carrying out activities in a country at war. It also considers what are the implications for States that contract such companies if their personnel commit violations of international law. Alexander Faite is a legal advisor at the ICRC.


    This article was published in the Defence Studies , Volume 4, Number 2, Summer 2004.


 The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  




Foreign personnel hired to provide military services have often been present in armed conflicts. During the sixties and the seventies, this situation has been mainly associated with covert, mercenary activity. The provisions on mercenaries included in Article 47 of the First Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention of 1949 (hereinafter “Protocol I”) the “Convention on the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa " , and the “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries“ were adopted at a time when th is phenomenon was widely observed.

In recent years, however, there has been the emergence of highly professional companies that offer their services openly, sometimes using websites. Some companies such as Executive Outcomes and Sandline have carried out active combat operations in various countries. Executive Outcomes, which drew heavily on members of South African special forces, assisted the Angolan government against the rebel movement, UNITA, and helped the Sierra Leone authorities defeat the Revolutionary United Front and restore the elected President to power . Sandline, a sister company to Executive Outcomes “admits to having undertaken six international operations since 1993”, including in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone. 

Many more private companies are present in countries confronted to armed conflicts, including Iraq, Colombia and Afghanistan. According to sources, “contractors are or have been training security forces in Iraq, flying gunships in Colombia, training civilian police in Bosnia and Kosovo and protecting Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai”. Their activities comprise security monitoring, logistics, training and intelligence gathering, to name a few. Some companies have developed a high level of expertise, such as the American firms Airscan, which operates private air reconnaissance, and Ronco, which is specialized in clearing mine fields.

The customer base of these private corporations is not restricted to States, and includes multinational firms and international organizations. In a famous statement made in 1998, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said he had considered the possibility of engaging a private firm to separate fighters from refugees in the Rwandan refugee camps in Goma. But, he added, “the world may not be ready to privatize peace”. 

Things might be changing. On February 12, 2002, Mr. Jack Straw, Secretary of St ate for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, declared that ”a strong and reputable private military sector might have a role in enabling the UN to respond more rapidly and more effectively in crises. The cost of employing private military companies for certain functions in UN operations could be much lower than that of national armed forces.” It has already been reported that a private company provided logistic support for the UN force in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).

Whilst mercenary activity has attracted hostility from the United Nations and most national governments, the activities of private companies have led to both support and condemnation. The debate has opposed those who view the activities of private companies as de facto related to mercenary activities that should be banned, with those who agree that, whilst there might be a need to reinforce accountability and prohibit a number of activities, consider it inevitable that regular armies will turn more and more to private corporations to fulfill some of their missions, especially abroad.

The phenomenon of private contractors carrying out duties for the armed forces is not new: Article 4 (4) of the Third Geneva Convention explicitly refers to “persons who accompany the armed forces without being members thereof, such as [… ] supply contractors, members of labor units or of services responsible for the welfare of the armed forces.” Article 4 (4) of the Third Geneva Convention even provides that those persons who have fallen into the power of the enemy shall be prisoner of war “provided that they have received authorisation from the armed forces which they accompany, who shall provide them for that purpose with an identity card similar to the annexed model”. What is more recent, however, is the level of outsourcing that is now taking place, and the nature of the activities contracted out to private companies, which are doing tasks previously carried out by the military itself.

Most analysts agree that this has taken unprecedented proportions in Iraq, where private companies appear to fill in some of the work that the occupying powers are unable or unwilling to carry out, relieving the strain that is placed on the military. A British private company reportedly trained a private security force to guard government buildings and other important sites initially protected by US soldiers, while the Iraqi army itself was trained by the US based company Vinnel, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. According to one author, “Private companies are being asked to provide security for the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer III, and other senior officials, to escort supply convoys through hostile territory, and to defend key locations, including 15 regional authority headquarters and even the green zone in downtown Baghdad, the center of American power in Iraq”. A senior official of Control Risk Group, a private company active in Iraq, considers that private contractors have been “making up for the shortfall in military resources” . The brutal murder of four staff members of the American firm Blackwater by a crowd in Fallujah on March 31, 2004, has dramatically focused the attention on the role played by private companies operating in that country.

This paper does not purport to make a judgment on the legitimacy of private contractors, nor to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages for States and other actors to call upon the services of private companies. On the one hand, it analyses the status, under international humanitarian law -also known as the law of armed conflicts-, of personnel of private companies carrying out activities in a country at war. On the other hand, it considers what are the implications for States that contract such companies if their personnel commit violations of international law.

Two preliminary issues will be addressed: firstly, the distinction, that is often found in the literature, between " privat e security companies " and " private military companies " and, secondly, the question whether the personnel of private companies can be considered as mercenaries under international law.

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