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The mercenaries or the corsairs of the XXI Century? Print
by Jose Gomez; July 01, 2006

The 25 000 private security contractors presently working in Iraq constitute, after the United States Army, the largest force of occupation well before the British Army. These private security companies with over 420 deaths and some 4 000 injured, according to the USA Department of Labor, also yield the highest number of casualties with the exception of the US Army which has already reached over 2 500 deaths and more than 18 000 injuries.

According to a report emanating from the USA Government Accountability Office, contracts for over $ 766 million have been awarded to private security companies in Iraq. Criticisms have been raised pointing out that, on the basis of such contracts, unethical mercenaries are being recruited complicating the reconstruction undertaken by the Coalition and receiving sometimes salaries up to several thousand dollars daily. In addition, these companies are accused of fraud and of overt confrontations with the US Army under which they should operate.

With the globalisation of the economy, the use of force has become another business to be privatized. The privatized military and security industry which was estimated, in 1990, at $ 33 billion, reached in 2006 some $ 100 billion and will reach probably over $ 200 billion in 2010. During the first Gulf War, in the 1990's, one out of every 100 soldiers was a private contractor. A few years later, during the former Yugoslavia's wars the rate was one of every 50 and presently it is one out of every ten. The armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Angola, Colombia and Sierra Leone, among others, have favoured the expansion of such private companies. But it has been the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the instability that followed in the post war period in those two countries which has been the driving force in the extension and multiplication of the private military and security industry. It is also in those two countries where the limits of the grey zone, where these companies operate, which very easily becomes blurred: security activities and human rights violations are often inextricably linked.

The thousands of armed contractors operating in Iraq represent one of the major problems in the reconstruction of the country for they carry out their activities without any control or accountability. Their behaviour is often similar to those of the employees of CACI and Titan working in the prison of Abu Ghraib. These two USA private security companies have been allegedly implicated in the 2004 human rights violations. The report of USA General Antonio Taguba indicates that two CACI employees were directly or indirectly implicated in the use of dogs on prisoners, forced sexual abuses and other types of violations perpetrated on prisoners. Another report suggests that one of the 27 employees of CACI working for the USA Army in Iraq knew pertinently that the instructions he was giving to the soldiers interrogating the prisoners was a form of torture. CACI sources argue that their personnel were at all times performing under military instructions. According to Titan their employees are translators and interpreters working for the USA Army and they were not implicated in the tortures committed on prisoners. The inquiries carried out to establish the implication of both of these two companies in the crimes committed in Abu Ghraib has not prevented the USA Government from renewing their contracts: one of some $ 15 million to CACI under which it will provide interrogating services with a view to obtaining information in Iraq and the other of $ 400 million to Titan to recruit more translators.

At the time of the incidents in Abu Ghraib, the United States Government as Occupying Power had jurisdiction in Iraq. The fact that the human rights violations were allegedly perpetrated by employees of private security companies, such as CACI and Titan, does not exempt the USA Government of its obligations according to international human rights and international humanitarian law. However, contrary to the comments made by the US authorities to United Nations affirming that "contract personnel of the US are under the direction of the Coalition and are subject to criminal jurisdiction in US Federal Courts", not one single civil employee allegedly implicated in the abuses perpetrated in Abu Ghraib has been investigated impartially by a US Federal Court or has been legally sanctioned.

In the presentation of the 2006 Amnesty International report in Washington, the USA Director emphasized that United States were creating the equivalent of Guantanamo "- a virtual rule free zone in which perpetrators are not likely to be held accountable for breaking the law". He said that "business outsourcing may increase efficiency, but war outsourcing may facilitate impunity". He added that "illegal behavior of contractors and of those who designed and carried out U.S. torture policies and the reluctance of the government to bring perpetrators to justice are tarnishing the reputation of the United States, hurting the image of American troops and contributing to anti-American sentiment". According to Amnesty International, out of 20 known cases of civilians suspected of criminal acts, there has only been the indictment of one contractor on assault charges in connection with the death of a detainee in Afghanistan: there has not been a single prosecution of a private military contractor in Iraq.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, in view of the growth of these private military and security companies, has decided to examine the activities of these non state actors and how to relate with them in a more systematic approach, focusing on the companies operating in situations of armed conflict or those which provide training and advice to armed forces. In addition, the Committee maintains a dialogue with the authority which contracts the company and with the state of origin.

Alarm has also been voiced by the Council of Europe. In view of the growing concern in Member States in the increase and use of private security services which in a number of states exceeds the number of police forces, in 2005 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation entitled "Democratic oversight of the security sector in member states". This recommendation underlines that "from being rather limited in scope and action, private security services are increasingly moving into areas which traditionally have been reserved for the public police". It also draws attention that "ensuring security in society through the rule of law is a fundamental mission of public authorities". And while recognizing that security services may make a useful contribution "the lack of public control over these services, the scope of their activities and the professional conduct of their staff might well endanger the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms". The recommendation also underlines that "national regulations developed by member states on this issue vary greatly and in some member states such regulation is non-existent".

The mass media is increasingly interested in the activities of these private security companies particularly those operating in Iraq. The Suisse Romande TV disseminated, in March 2004, a program in which private contractors are seen actively participating in direct combat. CNN, on 13 June 2006, also devoted a program on the activities of those companies. It reproduced a video in which someone was filming from the interior of an armed vehicle going through the streets of Baghdad. From the vehicle a rifle is shooting at another vehicle, a Mercedes, behind it. The impacts of the bullets hit the Mercedes which bumps into a taxi parked on one side of the street. People come out from the taxi but nobody from the Mercedes indicating that the persons in that car have been injured or killed. According to CNN the persons traveling in the armed vehicle worked for a private security company named Aegis. It is well known to everybody that the personnel in the vehicles of those companies, when they travel through the streets of Baghdad or any other Iraqi city, being afraid of being attacked, shoot indiscriminately right and left to avoid any car approaching them.

It seems that Aegis carried out an investigation about the incident but its conclusions are confidential. A USA Army inquiry says that probably it would not be indication of a crime having been committed. CNN tried a number of times to interview without success the person who created Aegis, Tim Spicer, who told the channel that he "had not the intention of responding but that wished to inform that the contract to Aegis had been extended for a consecutive third year". The contract to which he referred totals some $293 million and is considered one of the most important awarded by the Pentagon to a private security company. Tim Spicer, former Colonel of the British Scots Guards, is the same person that survived allegations involving him in several international scandals. In 1997, he was contracted by the Government of Papua New Guinea in order to recapture the Island of Bougainville in the hands of separatists. And in 1998, in Sierra Leone in a scandal of illicit arms being exported to both parties in the conflict breaking the UN embargo, a scandal which endangered the survival of the then British Foreign Office Secretary.

Aegis is one of the many private security companies which present themselves as peace and security builders and which forms part of the International Peace Operations Association (IOPA), a very active lobby in Washington which strives to obtain respectability and legitimacy at the international level.

The use of mercenaries has been a historical constant till almost the end of the XX Century, when their activities were criminalized by the international community. Parallel to that phenomenon, governments authorized, since the XIII Century, two other forms of non state violence: the corsairs and the merchant companies such as the East India Company or the Hudson Bay Company. What is the difference between the private security companies and the mercenaries? In the same way as the corsairs differentiated themselves from the pirates because the former were authorized by the governments and the latter not, for they only pursued their own interests, the private security companies, by the fact of being registered and paying an annual tax to the government, cease to be considered mercenaries. When they contract these private military and security companies, the USA and British governments, among others, avoid parliamentary controls and at the same time can be present in armed conflicts where they have interests or wish to intervene deploying private companies as auxiliaries. These companies thus constitute an element of their foreign policy.

Some of the activities of the private military and security companies, with President's Bush doctrine of preventive war, constitute another weakening factor of the collective security system established in 1945 with the adoption of the UN Charter. This Organization, in the framework of its Human Rights Commission which in 2006, after the adoption by the General Assembly, has become the Human Rights Council, an organ with more prerogatives, has drawn the attention of Member States to the activities of these private military and security companies operating at the international level through the reports of the Special Rapporteur or the now Working Group on Mercenaries. Reports that unfortunately up to present have had little impact in Western countries, from where these companies mainly operate. It is to be hoped that Member States will soon consider seriously to what extent the use of force can be privatized.

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- Jose L. Gomez del Prado is a member of the United Nations Working Group on Mercenaries 

 
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