Private Military Corporations (PMCs) and the Threats They Pose

(Nikhil’s Assignment : Grade 12 : World Affairs)


Mercenaries are a very old concept which, like all warfare, has undergone a major transformation in the twenty first century. What were once merely violent individuals employed by states against each other have now integrated themselves into modern militaries. Their lack of professionalism, regulation and respect for the law makes them an incompetent fighting force, which present several threats to the very states which hire them.

The rules of war outlined by the Geneva Convention and the United Nations (UN) are supposed to be all encompassing, and yet has gaping holes in it for the use of mercenaries. The UN 1989 mercenary convention identifies mercenaries as people “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain”[1], but are neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict.” Modern PMCs do fit this description and so are just twenty first century mercenaries, which are outlawed by the Geneva Convention, “A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war”[2]. While the convention illegalizes the use of mercenaries, the modern PMCs do not have to define themselves as such. This is because the primary employers of PMCs (Canada, Great Britain, USA, China) did not sign the UN convention, and so do not call their employees mercenaries. International law is also vague on the division of responsibilities of the employer to control their PMCs, which allows the PMCs to operate unchecked. The parties that “issue the contracts are barely capable of doing much in the way of monitoring, because army officers do not want to discipline private soldiers that aren’t part of its chain of command.”[3] This lack of mandatory control has given PMCs the confidence to operate unscrupulously like they did in Nisour Sqaure in 2007 (refer Appendix A), because there will be no oversight on them. There is also the issue of the rights of employees of PMCs operating in countries that did not hire them, such as American corporation Blackwater operations in Iraq. When Blackwater operatives abused women, and children and tortured civilians as part of counter-terrorism operations in Fallujah, the Iraqi people there killed four of them. This violent reaction has ” been the only justice the employees received for their crimes.” The actions of these Iraqis was also not, strictly speaking, illegal because the PMCs were not military personnel allied with the Iraqi government.

PMCs are supposed to replace real military personnel, but their lack of training and professionalism has made them a hindrance to the militaries they are supposed to support. The modern PMCs are desperate to keep overhead costs low, and so “sources and trains private military personnel from Latin America with minimal education and no military experience”[4] and ” these agents are paid as little as $1,000 per month”4. This lack of proper training makes the individual operatives unable to cope with the intricacies of the modern battlefield, and the low pay creates frustration and lack of motivation. There is also a lack of professionalism among PMCs, because they lack reverence for the cause and organisation they are serving with. This has led to a loss of cohesiveness amongst mercenaries, who have nothing to unite them except their paychecks. The fact is PMCs can do jobs like transportation and administration, but cannot replace actual military personnel.

PMCs pose a myriad of dangers to the states that employ them, making them the double edged swords of modern warfare. The financial motivations of these companies, along with their lack of infrastructure and lack of scruples are what make PMCs so poisonous to the countries today. The PMC is a corporation, and so is driven solely by a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. Corporations like DynCorp make three billion dollars, paid mostly before their deployments. This guaranteed payment regardless of quality of work removes the need for self-discipline in DynCorp, this “earned the firm a trigger-happy reputation as its soldiers fought rebel groups in Columbia in the early 2000s.”[5] The other danger of PMCs is their lack of loyalty to a state or ideology, which has led to rogue PMCs conducting illegal operations abroad. There are several documented examples of mercenaries in Africa attempting government overthrows for unknown employers, one “group, led by Nick Du Toit and former SAS member Simon Mann, were planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea.”[6] (refer Appendix B) The greatest threat of PMCs are their ruthlessness when on deployment, which historically has led to several tragedies. When a crowd in Iraq(refer Appendix C) appeared to be getting agitated the PMCs used excessive violence to quiet them, and “Four Blackwater guards have been found guilty of killing 14 people and injuring 17 more in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.”[7] This shows clear the ruthless, and inconsiderate nature of PMCs, and why they present such a problem for professional armies today.

PMCs also pose several latent dangers which, while not obvious now, have the potential to be even more devastating. The possible dangers of the continued use of mercenaries are PMCs making warfare deceptively easy, and lobbying for increased military operations. As of today 468 private contractors have died in Iraq.[8] Yet these deaths are never displayed on news networks or in newspapers, which allows states to wage wars without their citizens becoming concerned. Wars becoming easier will lead to more of them, and a disconnect between the population declaring war and the conflict itself. The second possibility is more alarming because of its inevitability, PMCs paying elected representatives to wage wars and thereby manufacture the need for PMC contracts. “The Defence Contractors, along with the PMCs, are one of the interests groups with powerful control over policy and decision making in the US Congress.”[9] This may lead to a cycle of incessant warfare, where PMCs use their wealth to lobby Congress and other governments to declare a war, and use the profits they generate from that war to lobby for more. The dangers are not obvious now, but evidence does suggest that the PMCs will make them a reality.

Private military companies are abundant today, with the industry worth over $100 billion a year. These companies have fully integrated themselves into the US military, and so have a great deal of control over when, where and why the US wages war. PMCs do reduce the costs of a deployment, so it is impossible for countries to ban their use, nor should they be banned as they serve a useful function. However the use of mercenaries must be strictly monitored, and regulated to ensure they obey the rules of engagement. It is only when these companies operate unchecked that illegal actions occur, and the UN, NATO, ICRC, and various watchdog groups must keep these “dogs of war” on a tight leash.


[1], Todd S. Milliard, Overcoming Post-Colonial Myopia a Call to Recognize and Regulate Private Military Companies. Diss. Judge Advocate General’s School, (United States Army Journal, 2003) 2014.

[2] Additions to Geneva Convention (ICRC, 2014).

[3] Rolf Uesseler, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, trans. Jefferson Chase (Brooklyn, New York: Soft Skull Press, 2008) 146.

[4] Private Military Companies:Beyond Blackwater.(The Economist, 2013)

[5], Luke McKenna and Robert Johnson, A Look At The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Armies (Business Insider)

[6] Adam Roberts, The Wonga Coup: The British Mercenary Plot to Seize Oil Billions in Africa (, 2009)

[7] Meredith Clark, Blackwater Guards Found Guilty in Nissour Square Massacre (MSNBC ,2009)

[8] Private Military Companies: Beyond Blackwater. (The Economist, 2013)

[9] Mario Zorro, Defence Contractors and Private Military Contractors: Armourers, Mercenaries, and Politics (, 2011)




Works Cited

 “Additions to Geneva Convention.” ICRC, 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Clark, Meredith. “Blackwater Guards Found Guilty in Nissour Square Massacre.” MSNBC, 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Isenberg, David. “Why Fighting Pirates Is Both Good and Bad for PSC.”The Huffington Post., 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

Johnson, Luke McKenna and Robert. “A Look At The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Armies.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 26 Feb. 2012. Web. 17 Sep. 2014.

Milliard, Todd S. Overcoming Post-colonial Myopia a Call to Recognize and Regulate Private Military Companies. Diss. Judge Advocate General’s School, United States Army, 2003. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

“Private Military Companies: Beyond Blackwater.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 23 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 Sep 2014.

Roberts, Adam. “The Wonga Coup: The British Mercenary Plot to Seize Oil Billions in Africa.” EG Justice, 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Uesseler, Rolf, and Rolf Uesseler. Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2008. Print.

Zorro, Mario. “Defence Contractors and Private Military Contractors: Armourers, Mercenaries, and Politics.” Mediums, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

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