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Soldiers of Fortune 500

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By Sean Creehan

Harvard International Review
Winter 2002


Mercenary armies have long been stigmatized as profiteering opportunists devoid of any allegiance to the cause for which they fight.

Today's mercenaries still fight for money, but in the context of global capitalism, some groups are becoming less morally objectionable. The organization of mercenaries into corporations that function like consulting firms has put distance between them and their activities. Mercenary corporations' increasing efficiency and self-regulation is influencing the way legitimate governments view mercenaries as instruments of state policy.

Scanning the names of prominent mercenary groups, their corporate nature is immediately apparent. Sandline International, the now-disbanded Executive Outcomes (E0), Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI)-these private military companies (PMCs) are all located in developed countries and sell their expertise and manpower to those who need it, just like consulting firms.

Despite the prevailing distaste for mercenaries, the record of these companies speaks to their potential for resolving conflicts and establishing peace and order in countries that would otherwise be ignored by the world's leading powers. For example, both EO and Sandline were hired on separate occasions by President Ahmed Kabbah of Sierra Leone in his efforts to defeat the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had kept his democratically elected government from ruling the country. The initial deployment of EO in 1995 successfully quashed the rebel movement and maintained peace during the 1996 and 1997 elections. However, the withdrawal of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan due to the mercenaries' presence made it impossible for Kabbah to pay EO. The group's withdrawal led to a coup ousting Kabbah less than three months later.

In 1998, Sandline was hired to finish what EO had started. Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone again restored Kabbah to power, but controversy quickly arose in the United Kingdom when Sandline came under investigation by the Department of Customs and Excises for alleged violations of a UN arms embargo in Sierra Leone. The controversy only deepened when the company claimed that it had the support of the British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone and the tacit approval of the British Foreign Office.A House of Commons Select Committee inquiry eventually exonerated the company of wrongdoing, but only after a damaging political scandal in the British Foreign Office. Back in Sierra Leone, Sandline was forced to withdraw after a peace accord with the rebels was hastily signed and the RUF leader was installed as vice president under Kabbah. When further bloodshed followed Sandline's withdrawal, British troops were sent in along with a UN peacekeeping force, where they remain today.

The example of Sierra Leone shows that mercenaries can be an effective tool in ending conflict, but can also lead to further chaos if not part of a long-term plan. The question is whether they are better suited to such efforts than UN peacekeeping forces or those of other governments.As Sandline's former chief, Tim Spicer, said in the year 2000, "It was a darn sight cheaper for the British Government to pay us than the 350 million pounds it is costing us to maintain our troops and the UN operation" Spicer claims that the company was in fact only paid US$1.5 million for its operations-a sum that did not even meet its operating costs. But one can presume that the mercenaries would have cost considerably less than 350 million pounds, even if they had been paid in full.

Low cost, however, does not eliminate the moral issue. Without proper regulation by an organization such as the United Nations, mercenaries cannot be counted on to adhere to the same ethical standards as national military forces party to international agreements such as the Geneva Convention. There are some commendable attempts at self-regulation, such as those of Sandline, which claims only to "undertake projects for internationally recognized governments (preferably democratically elected), international institutions such as the United Nations, [and] genuine, internationally recognized and supported liberation movements." But if governments are to allow mercenaries to intervene in the future, PMCs ought to be held to strict standards of conduct. Responsible companies such as Sandline are not likely to commit egregious ethical errors, but their regulation would make them more appealing to legitimate governments as tools of foreign policy. For this reason, PMCs may even welcome international oversight.

Unfortunately, the United Nations' official condemnation of mercenary activities prevents the establishment of a UN regulatory mechanism.

One company already employed by a Western government is MPRI. Composed of former Pentagon officers, MPRI is under contract with the US government.Though not a true mercenary force in the mold of Sandline or EO, MPRI trains the forces of governments in various military activities. Its list of operations includes teaching tactics to the Kosovo Liberation Army in the weeks before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in 1999. In the sense that it gave these forces a competence in Western military doctrine, MPRI succeeded. Yet, MPRI's collaboration with the Colombian military in the drug war became a case study in PMC mismanagement. Having staffed its Colombian offices with inexperienced people who did not speak Spanish, MPRI fell under criticism from Colombian officials. The payment of a sub-contractor removed the sense of accountability felt by taxpayer-funded government agencies. In 2001, the Pentagon chose not to renew its contract with MPRI in Colombia.

The case of MPRI makes clear the need for PMC oversight. As events in Sierra Leone have shown, PMCs can successfully enter a hostile environment and restore order. Likewise, PMCs such as MPRI can take part in successful training missions. However, if governments or international bodies intend to employ mercenaries in the future, they must first establish regulatory control. Given the new corporate nature of Western mercenary groups, such regulations would be easy to enforce, providing governments a flexible tool in peacemaking and peacekeeping operations.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.