The Evening Standard            
11 May 1998                             
 
  Why even war is being privatised

by Gerald Segal, director of studies as the International Institute for Strategic Studies

What are mercenaries? 

MERCENARIES are not necessarily trained killers who fight primarily for money. International law is foggy on the subject: as one analyst put it, if a mercenary cannot exclude himself from the legal definition of a mercenary, then he deserves to be shot - and his lawyer with him. Soldiers have been hired for war since the Greeks hired Macedonians, the Romans hired Germanic tribes and European feudal lords hired all manner of soldiers. The Swiss Guards who protect the Pope, the Gurkhas employed in the British Army and the French Foreign Legion all have hired soldiers. If you want to be pedantic, the professional armed forces of Britain and the US are also on hire. 

The image that most people have of killers on the loose is embodied in the likes of Dublin-born Colonel "Mad" Mike Hoare or the Frenchman Bob Denard who led small gangs of ex-soldiers to support rebel movements and private vendettas. Modern so-called mercenaries are best described as private military companies that provide a range of services including risk analysis, commercial security and logistical support including arms, military training, and in some cases, combat forces. 

Why the recent growth of private military companies? 

COMPANIES like Sandline and Executive Outcomes are the new breed of mercenaries and they can be very useful to the British and other western governments. They flourish in a post-Cold War world where the "goodies" and "baddies" are no longer obvious. They also flourish because armed forces in the West are privatising many activities and, because of defence cuts, there are many well-trained professionals with skills to sell. 

David Shearer, awarded a CBE for his work with aid agencies in Africa, has written a study of these private military companies and demonstrates how they are not illegal and have been very useful to local governments and even western powers. 

The Americans have made use of one of these companies, MPRI, to help defeat Serb forces and bring a form of peace to Bosnia. Executive Outcomes played a crucial role in putting President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in power in Sierra Leone and have helped the government defeat rebels in Angola. At a time when western powers are increasingly reluctant to undertake peace-keeping missions, such military companies have been useful in helping bring conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. In Sierra Leone it seems clear that both British and American officials saw that Sandline International and Executive Outcomes could help re-install the legitimate government of President Kabbah. 

Are private military companies part of a wider process of privatising security in western countries?

 IN EFFECT we are seeing the increasing privatisation of military security - something we already see at home in the way some prison services are privatised. The British armed forces increasingly contract to train foreign military personnel and even civilians (for example in how to operate modern aircraft). There are clear advantages in having British companies take the lead in the new market of private military companies not only because such companies may be useful, but also because they are clearly going to be a growing business in our more confused post-Cold War world. These companies clearly maintain close contacts with their former comrades in the official armed forces and in the intelligence services of the West. 

Did Sandline serve British interests? 

A GOOD case can be made that Sandline and Executive Outcomes were actually very helpful to British and American interests. They helped restore the legitimate government in Sierra Leone and did so in close cooperation with UK and US officials. 

The Government makes much of its new "ethical foreign policy" and Sandline helped bring about the most ethical outcome. They may have violated the letter but certainly not the spirit of the UN arms embargo, drafted by British diplomats, which was clearly intended to hurt the military junta, not President Kabbah. It is unclear whether Sandline's arms shipments to Sierra Leone from Bulgaria actually arrived in time to make a difference in restoring President Kabbah to power, but Sandline personnel were clearly involved in a military effort that included a British frigate. There is now clear evidence that British officials and military personnel worked closely with Sandline. 

So where does this leave our "ethical foreign policy"? 

WHEN one climbs to the lofty moral heights of an ethical foreign policy, one should not be surprised to be buffeted by powerful winds of controversy. It is ironic that while British diplomats and MoD officials were engaged in an ethically laudable effort to restore a democratic government to power in Sierra Leone, UK ministers have denounced their actions and hung them out to dry. A truly ethical and, dare one say, modern and cool foreign policy, would have embraced the idea of an ethically active foreign policy that made the best use of the UK's private military companies. 
 
 

© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 11 May 1998
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