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Confronting the hidden costs of war

Private military contractor. Image: KaninStudio

Michael Ofori-Mensah

Head of Research at Transparency International Defence and Security

Last month the UK Guardian newspaper reported that the pro-Kremlin outfit Task Force Rusich – linked to Wagner Group mercenaries – has been advising its fighters not to report the capture of Ukrainians to Russian commanders. A message on Rusich’s Telegram channel sent on 22 September advocates the “destruction of prisoners on the spot”.

Too often groups like Rusich – private military and security companies (PMSCs) – are behind this kind of atrocity, acting unchecked and with impunity. Yet governments around the world increasingly outsource military operations to organisations like these, arguing that they fill critical security and capability gaps quickly with relatively minimal costs. In practice, the burgeoning industry is increasingly shaping the face of conflict and security around the world.

Global impact

Transparency International Defence and Security’s latest report – Hidden Costs: US private military and security companies and the risks of corruption and conflict – details the dangerous repercussions of this trend, focusing on the United States (US), which leads the world in exporting PMSC services. Companies in the US and other major economies increasingly seek to expand their sales of surveillance, armed security and military training services in countries that have critically weak protections against defence sector corruption.

These efforts allowed the private military and security sector to swell. It is now worth US$224 billion – a figure that is expected to double by 2030. US services make up nearly a third of this industry and are predicted to be valued at more than US$80 billion in the near future, making them the largest contributor. But the industry – and the harms it causes – are global.

In 2010, for instance, an Afghan PMSC owned by a relative of the president reportedly engaged in fake firefights, and even paid local insurgents to attack a NATO supply convoy as a means of inflating threat perceptions and securing new contracts. It’s likely that such actions contributed to the perception of many Afghans that the US government supported corruption – which in turn fuelled resentment and weakened the legitimacy of the US-supported Afghan police forces.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not a solitary case. In Latin America, PSMCs have been reported to engage in trafficking and extortion. In Brazil, an investigation by the federal police found that almost a third of all firearms held by local security firms in Rio de Janeiro were trafficked to criminals. In Africa, reports have pointed to additional crimes, including suspected war crimes in Mozambique. In Libya and Yemen, claims have been made that groups are engaging in cyber attacks against political opponents, human rights activists and journalists.

Stronger regulation needed

Although the US and other governments have recognised the serious risks of PMSC activities in fragile and conflict environments, they have left the national security industry to grow and operate without sufficient regulation.

Data collected as part of the 2020 Government Defence Integrity Index produced by Transparency International Defence and Security illustrates the scope of this issue. More than half (59 per cent) of the 86 countries assessed either have no legislation applicable to PMSCs, or the frameworks they have are incomplete and do not adequately cover the full extent of PMSC activities.

A few countries have agreed to some standards for regulating PMSCs in armed conflicts in a non-binding agreement known as the Montreux Document, but it is nonbinding and fails to sufficiently address the modern industry’s rapid diversification of activities and contexts. PMSCs’ activities in non-conflict countries, for example, are not included.

The US and other governments must examine potential risks and help to build national and international support for consequent restrictions on PMSCs to prevent human rights abuses and corrupt actions. At a minimum, countries must ensure mandatory reporting and require code of conduct standards – and to remove licenses from those who fail to comply. The abuses of Russian PMSCs, such as the Wagner group, have ignited new efforts by the UN to create an international framework to regulate them. But this process is slow, and the dangers caused by such groups require immediate action.

The US’s key role in the provision of PMSCs globally gives it the opportunity to lead the way in demanding change so that these companies can no longer act unchecked. Transparency International calls on US policymakers to incorporate reforms now. It is not enough to point to self-regulation; it is time for action from the US and around the world to end these hidden costs of war.



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