Send in the Mercenaries

Posted in Other | 08-May-06 | Author: J. Peter Pham and Michael I. K

Awaiting relief : Freshly displaced Darfuris in the rebel held town of Gereida in southern Darfur.

The crisis has taken another turn for the worse in the Darfur region of western Sudan. On April 26, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that the security situation has so deteriorated that international aid agencies are no longer able to gain access to some 700,000 internally displaced people who thought they were "safe" because they had managed to get inside UN-managed camps. The latest attacks by government forces, Human Rights Watch reports, occurred on April 24 on a village in South Darfur state called Joghana, which is about 6 miles from the town of Gereida, where about 80,000 refugees live.

The Sudanese government on April 3 stopped the UN's top emergency aid coordinator, Jan Egeland, from visiting Gereida, saying it couldn't guarantee his safety. Egeland said the government didn't want him to see the escalating attacks. Widespread speculation is that Gereida will be the next target of the government-backed forces, whose activities we described in a previous TCS essay.

Meanwhile, the most the international community has been able to agree to do is to reluctantly pass a Security Council resolution sponsored by the United States barring four Sudanese nationals accused of war crimes from international travel and freezing any assets the four may have abroad. Were it not for the seriousness of the crimes of which the four men are accused, the whole exercise would make great comedy. It is rather hard to imagine, for example, that Sheikh Musa Hilal, a tribal leader who leads one of the groups of the government-backed Janjaweed militia, takes many vacations in Europe, much less has offshore bank accounts that might be attached.

U.S. forces are stretched thin by ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are rightly distracted by the need to keep military options open against soon-to-be-nuclear, apocalyptically minded, Iran. Meanwhile, as we noted in our earlier essay, other nations are reluctant to commit enough forces to shore up the undermanned "peacekeeping" operations of the African Union. So it's hard to imagine how sufficient resources will be found to take care of one task that could literally mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands in Darfur: the protection of the camps where they have gathered and where they receive humanitarian relief. It's not asking much, but for now protection of these camps from Janjaweed killers seems beyond the capabilities of the international community -- unless, that is, we are willing to look outside the box and turn to private military companies (PMCs).

Generally, modern states have been reluctant to recognize the existence -- much less advocate the use -- of PMCs, viewing the enterprises as "mercenaries" who threaten the monopoly of states on the use of force. There is certainly a historical basis for this hostility towards private armed forces, especially in Africa.

In the 1960s, mercenaries allied to secessionists in Katanga helped precipitate the Congo crisis, then moved on to prolong the Biafran War in Nigeria. Mercenaries not only fought alongside secessionists, but were also hired to overthrow established governments as was the case in 1970 and 1975, when French and German mercenaries were used in abortive efforts to overthrow Guinea's Marxist despot, Ahmed Sékou Touré. One particularly colorful post-colonial Soldier of Fortune was Frenchman "Colonel Bob" Denard (known in Arabic as Said Mustapha Mahdjoub, but born in Bordeaux as Gilbert Bourgeaud). Denard was notorious for having brought down the government of Comoros three times: in 1975, when he overthrew President Ahmed Abdallah and helped install Ali Soilih twenty-eight days after the Comoros' unilateral declaration of independence from France; in 1978, when he toppled Soilih and reinstalled Abdallah; and in 1989, when his coup resulted in Abdallah's death and an unsuccessful attempt to seize control for himself. Given this record, it is not surprising that the member states of Organization of African Unity adopted a "Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa" in 1977.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly got in on the act as well with the "International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries" which obliges signatories to "not recruit, use, finance or train mercenaries," and to "prohibit such activities in accordance with the provisions of the present Convention." While the Convention only took effect in 2001 -- and legally applies only to the twenty-eight states (none of them major powers) that have ratified it -- its adoption by the General Assembly serves as an indicator of a bias in international law against military activities by for-profit entities.

On the other hand, there is an increasing amount of state practice -- the basis of a ius cogens legal argument of general acceptance -- in favor of the activities of PMCs.

Vinnell Corporation of California, for example, received a multimillion-dollar, long-term contract to provide military equipment and large-scale combat training for the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

Reportedly, Vinnell advisors provided "tactical support" and advice to the Saudi military when it retook the Grand Mosque at Mecca after antigovernment forces occupied it in 1979. At least two Vinnell-trained Saudi armored brigades fought in the Gulf War of 1991.

Between 1991 and 1995, the government of Sierra Leone teetered in the face of an offensive by the Revolutionary United Front (a client of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor). RUF rebels seized Sierra Leone's rich diamond fields and carried out a vicious campaign of terror that included the torching of homes and businesses and the hacking to death (or at least the chopping off of hands and feet) of hapless civilians.

After the debacles in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans, the international community was reluctant to be drawn into what seemed to be another intractable African conflict. So the Sierra Leonean government turned to Executive Outcomes (EO), a South African PMC that employs veterans of apartheid-era elite military and intelligence units which had successfully waged counter-insurgency warfare in Angola and Namibia. Controlled by Johannesburg-based Strategic Resource Corporation (SRC), EO's role was described by its founder, Lt-Col. Eeben Barlow as offering:

"A variety of services to legitimate governments, including infantry training, clandestine warfare, counter-intelligence programs, reconnaissance, escape and evasion, special forces selection and training, and parachuting."

EO's troop strength in Sierra Leone, consisting mainly of soldiers of "Cape colored" origin serving under Afrikaner officers, averaged 160, topping off at 350 in early 1996, and declining to about eighty by the time the operation ended in January 1997.

Within days of arriving in late May 1995, the EO mercenaries proved their worth. EO undertook an unrelenting nine-day campaign that drove the RUF from its advance positions surrounding the capital, Freetown. EO's capture and sacking of the RUF's headquarters and several other key bases forced the rebels to come to terms with the government and sign a peace agreement. As P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution commented in his 2003 study Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Private Military Industry: "At a total cost of $35 million (significantly, just one-third of the government's annual military budget), the fighting in Sierra Leone had ceased and over one million displaced persons returned to their homes. Suffering less than 20 total casualties, including those from accidents and illness, the private firm had succeeded in bringing stability to two endemically conflict-ridden states."

Since then, the role that PMCs play in international security has become even more significant, not only in providing armed support and peacekeeping services for weak states, but also an array of military services that major powers have outsourced. Analysts estimate that the PMC business is a $100 billion industry with several hundred companies operating in more than one hundred countries. In Iraq, for example, PMCs are a vital component in the U.S.-led coalition's efforts, with some 20,000 workers from Blackwater Corporation and other firms engaged in "security" tasks. Taken as an aggregate, PMCs in Iraq constitute the second largest contingent in the "Coalition of the Willing," handling everything from feeding soldiers to maintaining weapons systems for the U.S. military to guarding convoys and training a new police force for the nascent Iraqi government.

Two PMCs, Pacific Architects and Engineers and DynCorp, have recently been awarded U.S. government contracts worth $95 million to train and equip new security services for the democratically-elected government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia.

If no one else has the courage and will to act in Darfur, why doesn't the UN, or NATO for that matter, contract out the problem and let the free market save countless lives? If the African Union, whose troops are notoriously ineffective, finds the PMC option unpalatable, perhaps the credible threat of its use might compel the regional organization to come up with an alternative that will actually save the lives of innocent Darfurians, rather than merely observe their extermination.

Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are academic fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.