Use of ‘Mercenaries’ in Conflict Zones Mulled

By Stephen Mbogo | August 8, 2008 | 9:02am EDT
Nairobi, Kenya ( – Despite the negative associations tied to mercenaries, debate is stirring in Africa about whether the use of private soldiers should be formalized in a way that sidelines disreputable players but could also help to bring intractable conflicts to an end.
For some, opinion appears to have shifted from outright condemnation of private security forces to recognition of the need to develop systems to differentiate between companies that carry out humanitarian support services and those involved in illegal activities like overthrowing governments.
The international community’s failure to deliver a robust peacekeeping force in Darfur, Sudan, has cast doubts on the commitment and ability of bodies like the United Nations (U.N.) and African Union (A.U.) to protect the most vulnerable.
A recent report by civil society and human rights groups noted that the combined U.N.-A.U. peacekeeping force in Darfur, UNAMID, is under equipped and does not have a single helicopter.
That is why Erik Prince, co-founder of Blackwater Worldwide, a private military company (PMC) with operations across the world, believes the international community should use private contractors to transform the peacekeepers into an effective rapid reaction force.
Prince, according to a Wall Street Journal article published last week, says such a force, numbering just 1,000, would be able to attack and disrupt the war strategy of the pro-Khartoum militia group known as the Janjaweed. The militia and rebels fighting the Sudanese government have been accused of targeting civilians in the western province, where the U.N. believes up to 300,000 people have died in the conflict and related crises since 2003.
In Africa, debate continues as to what role, if any, PMCs should play. A new report published by the Institute of Security Studies, a pan-African think tank, cites a need for appropriate laws governing the deployment of such forces in Africa.
One of the contributors, Cephas Lumina, who teaches law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, writes that some “corporate mercenaries” have been implicated in rights violations in the countries where they operate. In the absence of suitable laws, PMCs’ activities “pose a challenge to the state as the main provider of security and guarantor of human rights,” he said.
Sabrina Schulz, director of policy at the London-based British Association of Private Security, said regulations were needed “to separate the wheat from the chaff” among private security contractors.
Laws would enable legitimate PMCs to contribution to day-to-day security and also “provide the basis for long-term sustainable development in regions where insecurity is currently the biggest hurdle for widespread education, investment and economic growth,” she said.
J.J. Messner, director of programs and operations at the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, a membership body for PMCs, said while laws were necessary, a balance should be struck between “sensible” and “draconian” ones.
“It is incumbent upon states and the international community to seek clearly defined frameworks that allow the legitimate industry to continue its positive work,” Messner wrote. At the same time, “illegitimate or disreputable” companies should be marginalized.
African conflicts, both within and across the borders, are often attractive for PMCs because of the weakness of fighting forces and security infrastructure. Private sector organization offer their services to governments, other actors, or international bodies.
PMCs with active African operations include PAE, a Lockheed Martin Corp. subsidiary, which describes its activities as “mission readiness, peacekeeping, global infrastructure support and disaster relief” and is working in South Sudan.
KBR, which offers similar services, is active in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region, where it provides security services to oil companies facing rebel attacks. Like many others, the company also recruits retired army and police officers from Africa to work as support staff for coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A company called Ridgeback, based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi and working across the region, offers services to governments, international organizations, businesses and individuals, including protection, advising and training.
Dozens of PMCs are reported to have operations in Africa, with most working on government-approved projects.
However, this is not always the case. In 2004, about 60 men led by former British special forces officer Simon Mann were arrested in Zimbabwe and accused of buying arms to overthrow the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Mann and others are now serving long prison terms in the small West African country.
Earlier this year, officials of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change alleged that President Robert Mugabe’s government had hired mercenaries to lead a terror campaign against political opponents.
The MDC said the mercenaries had been identified because they could not speak or understand local languages.

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