Australian Outlook

In this section

How untouchable are The Untouchables?

01 Feb 2014
Simon Asfour

Increasingly, armed conflict in the 21st century is characterised by the involvement of private military and security companies—which undermine existing frameworks of public international law and global security governance.

The Rise of Private Military and Security Companies

The end of the Cold War marked the end of the longest period of inter-state posturing in modern history. The decline (if not demise) of inter-state conflict has seen a rise in intra-state conflict, conducted by smaller, ideologically diverse groups. This is arguably now the main threat to international peace.

The end of the Cold War saw a large reduction in national military personnel and the related sale of arms and munitions. This instigated a surge in the numbers of experienced, unemployed military personnel. Private entities were quick to seize the opportunity to capitalise on these marketplace influxes and government privatisation initiatives. The result was an expansion of existing private military and security companies (PMSCs) and the creation of new private military firms.

This shift in the international security environment has provided states and international organisations with a new challenge —one for which they were ill-prepared. Previously, international law was geared primarily towards preventing inter-state conflict. The shift in the nature of conflict meant these laws and norms were insufficient to deal with new modes of international conflict and new categories of combat. Operating outside the scope of existing international regulatory efforts, PMSCs quickly became known as “The Untouchables.”

Regulating The Untouchables

PMSCs remain largely untouchable. Measures have been introduced on the international stage to attempt to curb their global activities, but to date these have been largely ineffectual.

Some argue that their continuing untouchable status is due to a link between the use of PMSCs by governments in modern-day conflict and fiscal benefits of this approach for both governments and those they employ. Any disruption to this contract is financially unattractive. On this argument, the strength of market forces can keep PMSCs unaccountable and as such, the only way to hold them to account is through those who remain distanced from their contractual obligations.

Evidence shows that at present, the most effective way of curbing private military activity is through monitoring and lobbying by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or organisations without a financial interest in the matter. Even so, governments and the international community at large must assume greater responsibility for holding these personnel to account. Otherwise, effective regulation of PMSCs and of their role in intra-state conflict will remain elusive.
Simon Asfour has a Master’s degree in International Security from the University of Sydney. A longer version of this article appears in Emerging Scholars 2013.