Global Policy Forum

New Role for mercenaries

Most rich governments are "unwilling to commit troops yet unwilling to pronounce the M-word [mercenaries]" for peacekeeping. But, according to advocates of the private security industry, most poor countries do not have a choice – either mercenary-protection or no protection at all.

By Sebastian Mallaby

Los Angeles Times
August 3, 2001

In the late 1980s Mozambique was no-go territory. The rebel Renamo movement terrorized the countryside, and aid workers cowered in the capital. But Lonrho, a British company, chose that moment to buy a large swath of the country and farm cotton on it. Didn't rebels make such investment dicey? Yes, but Lonrho had hired a force of mercenaries.

If you visited Lonrho's Mozambican headquarters, they showed you candid snapshots of rebels crumpled on the ground.

It is worth recalling Lonrho because the dilemma posed by mercenaries is growing sharper. These days governments hire them, and a few weeks ago this habit came back to haunt US policymakers when The Washington Post reported that the private firm engaged to supply police officers to Bosnia had sent a few characters who needed police oversight themselves.

In Sierra Leone and Angola, however, mercenaries have performed effectively, raising the question of whether they should be used more often in peace-making operations.

The case for Lonrho's behaviour in the 1980s was not all that different from the case for government-hired mercenaries today. In an ideal world the state would provide for public safety. But government never quite deliver, not even in rich countries, which is why US spending on private security firms outstrips the combined budgets of public police forces by more than 2 to 1.

In poor countries the state is all but helpless. The choice is often mercenary-protected investment or no investment at all. In an ideal world, similarly, strong countries would help war-torn ones by sending in their soldiers. Last year a contingent of fewer than a thousand British troops beat back Sierra Leone's limb-chopping rebels from the outskirts of the capital and clobbered a particularly murderous bunch known as the West Side Boys.

But that British deployment was the exception. For the most part rich countries are sick with the Somalia syndrome: no troops for Africa, not even for Rwanda, not even to prevent genocide. So, much as with investment, the choice often comes down to mercenary peacekeeping or no peacekeeping.

The trouble is that rich governments are not as blunt as Lonrho, and refuse to acknowledge this bottom line. They find the idea of mercenaries embarrassing. They are cautious about their relationships with firms such as DynCorp, which supplied the police for Bosnia. And the result of this squeamishness is that lots of people die.Unwilling to commit troops yet unwilling to pronounce the M word, governments have devised a peacekeeping system that is mercenary in all but name. Rich countries pay poor countries' soldiers to go to dangerous places, either under the banner of the United Nations or in the name of regional super cops such as West Africa's Ecomog. And the pay is pretty handsome - enough so that poor countries can use the profits to subsidize domestic defence establishments.

This arrangement might be fine if it worked properly. Sadly, it does not. From 1995 to 1997 a South African firm called Executive Outcomes was paid $1.2 million a month for its Sierra Leone operation; it hammered the rebels so thoroughly that they ran to the negotiating table, clearing the way for an election. The firm was succeeded in Sierra Leone by Ecomog, and the rebels resumed their limb-chopping. Then came a UN peace force, whose current performance is encouraging - but at a cost of $47 million a month.

The critics of mercenaries say that paid war-makers cannot promote peace in the long run. But this is like pretending that weapons designed for killing cannot be lifesaving.

The critics charge that mercenaries won't be held accountable for battlefield atrocities. But Nigerian troops committed plenty of unpunished atrocities in the course of Sierra Leone peacekeeping. If the United Nations hired a private firm of mercenaries for peacekeeping, it could write accountability into the contract and enforce that contract much more readily than it can discipline a wayward government.

As it happens, the United Nations did once consider hiring mercenaries. It was in the wake of the Rwanda genocide, when the killers were hiding among refugees in eastern Zaire. Kofi Annan, who was then the man in charge of UN peacekeeping, wanted to disarm the fighters so that humanitarian assistance could flow to the civilians.


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.