Written by: Carlos Díaz, Ekaterina Zepnova, Felip Daza, Giulia Campisi and Nora Miralles. Observatorio de Derechos Humanos y Empresas del Mediterráneo (ODHE) and Shock Monitor research team.
The growing alarm over the security situation in Cabo Delgado (Mozambique), where more than half a million people have been displaced by the violence of the clashes between Islamist armed groups and state forces, has brought the spotlight back on the role of Private Military Security Companies (PMSC). This conflict illustrateswellthe nature of the alliance between states, PMSC and companies involved in extractive industries, since the Wagner Group, one of the largest Russian PMSCs, and the South African company Dick Advisory Group have been deployed in the area, their main role being to support the army into the fight against insurgent groups who are threatening the gas deposits exploited by the French transnational Total.
This is not an isolated case. The progressive privatization of state security functions under neoliberalism has enabled PMSC to expand dramatically in recent decades, becoming service providers linked to coercive power, the standard, legitimate and legal power that states exercise through their armies and security forces. Thus, in the last two decades, security has become both a legitimation of any state action and another source of profit maximisation.
Although governments often refer to them as private security companies, PMSCs also include companies that differ from these by virtue of their military and coercive state functions, their international presence, and their vast operational capacity, including military equipment such as any modern army would have at its disposal. This capacity, together with their highly versatile ability to be deployed anywhere in the world, has made PMSCs essential for many governments. They are used both for international missions in conflict zones, where they support conventional armies or oppose insurgents (control and protection of extractive industries or counterterrorism), and to provide domestic security services alongside or instead of the state’s own security forces (border control, protecting critical infrastructure, prison security management, etc).
The outsourcing of foreign policy through PMSCs
At the foreign policy level, comparative analyses of the involvement of PMSC personnel and US Army troops in the most privatized conflicts in recent history, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, show that in 2013, for every US soldier there were three private security contractors. There has been no reduction in the use of PMSCs in armed conflicts since then. Some governments have attempted to justify this policy by claiming that it is a strategy to reduce military spending, since it is not necessary to maintain these military contractors in ‘peacetime’. The use of PMSCs allows governments to intervene in armed conflicts while avoiding public scrutiny and as a way of evading international regulation, where the new types of mercenaries have ample room for manoeuvre.
Recent wars in Libya and Syria, have been fertile terrain for the use of PMSCs in international conflicts, whereby third countries participate by contracting these non-state armed actors. In February 2015, hundreds of employees of Wagner Group died in an airstrike by US troops in the Deir Ezzor region of Syria. Moreover, in the highly fragmented civil war that has afflicted Libya from 2014 to very recent times, the armed forces of the official government had between 3,000 and 6,000 Syrian mercenaries, trained by the Turkish PMSC Sadat, while the militias of the former Libyan colonel Khalifa Haftar have had the support of about 200 foreign combatants financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and equipped with Russian weapons. Indeed, the Wagner Group again.
As there is no binding system for holding these companies accountable, nor any transparency regarding the services they perform, due to their private status and the confidential nature of their contracts, it is enormously difficult to hold them accountable for the human rights abuses and violations committed by their employees. Regulation relies, thus, on non-binding international standards, such as the 2008 Montreaux Document, which Russia has not even signed up to. The most recent instance of this potential impunity is Trump’s pardoning of the mercenaries working for Blackwater (now called Academi and part of the Constellis Group) who were serving a prison sentence for the civilian massacre in Nisour Square in Iraq, in 2007.
Private policing in the interior of the states
Responding to the political chorus warning of ‘new threats’ to national stability such as terrorism, cyber-attacks or migration, PMSCs have also begun to focus on other emerging sectors in the arena of national security, related to the protection of critical infrastructure, management of migration flows, the institutions of punishment such as prisons and migrant detention centres, cybersecurity and national intelligence, and other quasi-policing tasks. For example, in the context of widespread public protests in France, companies such as Groupe DCI provided training and advisory services for the government’s security forces.
PMSCs have also been instrumental in the US-funded international “War on Drugs”, such as Plan Colombia and the 2006 Mérida Initiative in Mexico. They have also engaged in and continue to perform tasks such as training, maintenance, and providing logistical support and equipment to state actors that are directly and indirectly responsible for human rights violations.
Another manifestation of these companies’ penetration of state security is their growing role in the maintenance of public order, performing roles that could properly be those of public security forces. In Cape Town (South Africa), where the exercise of public security often continues to reflect the inequalities of the Apartheid era, private security companies such as Professional Protection Alternatives not only patrol wealthy white neighbourhoods, they are also carrying out operations to evict people from public spaces. Paradoxically, this challenges the state’s monopoly on coercion and force but with the state’s open connivance.
Another one of the trends that best illustrates the outsourcing of security is the privatisation of prisons, internment facilities and migrant detention centres. This is the aspect of PMSCs involvement in public security that sparks the greatest opposition and alarm among human rights defenders and in civil society because of its impact on rights. In the case of the US, as for instance, the three PMSCs that dominate the market – CoreCivic, Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation – have a long history of complaints about degrading treatment, forced labour, abuse, violence and sexual assault in prisons, correctional facilities, and detention centres holding children and migrants. The pandemic made this situation even worse, leaving migrants’ health and safety at the mercy of PMSCs such as MVM Inc, that has been using hotels to detain and confine unaccompanied children and babies as young as a year old before deporting them, as The New York Times revealed in August 2020. Similarly, one of the major contractors in the UK prisons and immigration centres, G4S, has been involved in multiple scandals and accused of repeated human rights violations in the UK and elsewhere, for providing services to the US base in Guantánamo where torture occurred or for selling equipment to Israeli checkpoints in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
From traditional intelligence to cyber-mercenaries
Author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, Tim Shorrock, states that 70% of the US intelligence budget in 2007 was outsourced to security contractors. A year later, an investigation by The Washington Post found that 1,931 private companies were collaborating on national security, counter-terrorism and intelligence tasks from 10,000 US locations.
Government intelligence agencies contracting from corporations producing surveillance technologies is nothing new. However, these services have evolved with the use of new technologies and, now, private security contractors supply and maintain software technology and hardware systems; gather data related to national security by intercepting calls, hack mobile phones and IT systems; analyse and systematise data related to national security; produce risk-assessment reports for the military high command; operate reconnaissance drones during protests or in armed conflicts beyond borders; and conduct secret operations that involve irregular or illegal activities such as infiltrating social movements or interrogating suspects.
Cyber-espionage has thus become one of the PMSCs’ key services, involving contracting large numbers of hackers – or what the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries calls cyber-mercenaries, that deliberately complicates democratic oversight of these operations, as the researcher Armin Krishnan has pointed out. Additionally, these services include extremely sensitive and controversial work, as companies are used as proxies to evade public scrutiny and meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries.
As an example, the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU) used the services of the Internet Research Agency, also known as the Troll Factory, linked to the oligarch Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election by hacking into Democratic Party email accounts and computer networks, and spreading disinformation on social media in order to favour Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
At the same time, cooperation in the field of intelligence implies that private security contractors have access to sensitive information related to national security and to the databases of government agencies that contain citizens or activists’ personal information. This clearly has an impact on civil and political rights, in cases such as the shadowy intelligence activities by the PMSC Tiger Swan, who gathered data by infiltrating the Standing Rock indigenous and environmental movement in North Dakota, or where there is collusion between state security forces, security contractors and hired killers, such as is in the case of Berta Cáceres murder in Honduras and many more human rights defenders and environmental defenders in Colombia and Brazil.
Underlying these commercial relationships is an alignment with the economic, social, and moral agenda of neoliberalism in its most advanced state, which sees the public sphere solely as an economic opportunity to be exploited, with no concern for its social consequences. As governments outsource public security roles that are overly sensitive in human rights, protection is shifted into the background as priority is given to private-sector profits and the absence of public scrutiny.
This article is an edited version of the original essay published in Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2021 report: Coercive World.
 Observatory on Human Rights and Business in the Mediterranean Region. http://www.odhe.cat/es/
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