Private military contractors are companies that make a profit from performing military and security duties, often on behalf of national governments. Their relevance and impact in conflict zones around the world has been increasing for decades. During the 1990s, it is estimated that the ratio of military personal to private military contractors was 50 to 1. That number is now estimated to be closer to 10 to 1, and with this growth has come more profitability for an already multi-billion-dollar industry. Currently, it is estimated that there are over 4,000 PMC personnel in Syria, a majority of which are employed by the Wagner Group. In December 2006, there were estimated to be at least 100,000 PMC personnel in Iraq. While PMCs are used in direct armed conflict, they are also often used as security. The United Nations uses private military contractors to protect its diplomats and humanitarian aid, as in the case of Afghanistan, where the company IDG Security Ltd. was contracted by the United Nations to provide security for humanitarian aid. 22% of organizations that provide humanitarian aid report having used PMCs for security.
Private military contractors have been responsible for many abuses while involved in conflict. For example, military contractors were present at Abu Ghraib, a prison in Iraq, where in 2003 the PMC CACI International Inc. used methods of torture, such as electric shocks and sexual assaults, against Iraqi prisoners, in violation of international law. Another example is the Nisour Square massacre, in which Blackwater Security Consulting shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians, injuring 20 more. Incidences of abuses by private military contractors have shifted international attention towards them. Accusations of torture used by these contractors, as well as the shooting of civilians in conflict regions have highlighted the need for increased international regulation. The most prominent international treaty addressing the use of private military contractors is the United Nations Mercenary Convention. This treaty, which was established in 1989 and concluded in 2001, was in reaction to violence involving PMCs during the decolonization of Africa. The convention prohibits the use of mercenaries, which was defined as “[a person] recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict”. However, the effective scope of Mercenary Convention is very limited, as some of the largest militaries in the world, including all P5 nations, have not ratified the treaty.
In order to reduce instances of abuses by these contractors, the international community must work to establish consensus on the limits of acceptable use of contractors, both by the UN itself and by individual nations. The UN Mercenary Convention was an initial step in addressing concerns with PMCs, but in order to prevent more abuses by these corporations, more must be done to address the nuances and complications inherent in their operation. How can the international community address the way in which PMCs profit from conflict? What might potentially constitute an acceptable use of PMCs? Is there room for these companies to work ethically in our world?