Guns for hire: profiting from war and conflict

3 February 2016 - 4:00pm

Ross Hemingway, Senior Media & Communications Officer, War on Want. A version of this article was published by New Internationalist

Private military and security companies (PMSCs) burst onto the scene 15 years ago, following the declaration of a ‘war on terror’ and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, UK companies dominate the industry, supplying much more than ‘guards at the gate’. PMSCs are increasingly involved in active combat on the front-line of conflict zones across the world.  We are witnessing the return of the ‘Dogs of War’.

PMSCs from several countries are now being contracted to take up active combat roles in ongoing wars within African and Middle Eastern states. In Nigeria, the government has secured the services of South African mercenary troops from the apartheid era to fight the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the north of the country. Meanwhile, Colombian mercenaries recruited by infamous US company Blackwater are fighting alongside Saudis forces in Yemen.

Today, leading PMSCs are sprawling corporate entities, with complex structures and a global footprint. They come complete with PR departments and marketing teams. This vast private industry, now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, is dominated by UK companies reaping enormous profits from exploiting war, instability and conflict around the world.  

Yet despite facing numerous accusations of human rights abuses, PMSCs remain unaccountable and unregulated. The UK government claims the likes of G4S, Aegis Defence Services, Control Risks and Olive Group are best left to police themselves, which is not surprising when you consider that at the heart of the industry is a revolving door between senior defence and security officials and the corporate world. 

As large-scale military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by US and UK troops wound down, security operations, once the preserve of the occupying armed forces, were outsourced.  Today, the biggest market for British PMSCs in Iraq is the provision of security for private corporations seeking to invest in the country. Having signed deals to produce, refine and export oil from the country, the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and others are now paying PMSCs to secure their operations.

G4S, the world’s largest private security company, is one such organisation. When not providing equipment and services to Israel, making it complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people, it continues to secure lucrative deals in Iraq. In September 2015 it won a new contract worth up to $270 million to provide security services to the Basra Gas Company.

While Iraq and Afghanistan remain longstanding markets for British PMSCs, instability in other resource-rich regions of the world, such as northern and western Africa, is leading to increased opportunities for these companies.

Aegis Defence Services claims it has experience in 18 African states, including resource rich Angola, Niger, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, where it provides “protective security for multinationals in very high-risk environments”. G4S, meanwhile, makes over a third of its profits in the “emerging markets business”, with annual turnover of around £500 million in Africa.  

It is not just on land that PMSCs are rife. The use of private armies in the maritime industry is booming, and British companies are again at the forefront, providing services to oil corporations seeking to secure assets along major sea lanes. According to G4S the security of trade vessels in the Indian Ocean is “a big commercial opportunity”, one which David Cameron sugar coated in 2011 when he authorised the use of private armed guards on board UK registered ships.

Unsurprisingly then, the militarisation of the oceans is having significant consequences, with PMSCs having shot indiscriminately at approaching vessels, sometimes resulting in the deaths of innocent fishermen. “It’s the wild west out there,” said one captain working in the Indian Ocean.

As the presence of private armies on board ships can contravene local and international law, security companies have been known to buy arms illegally in war-torn countries such as Yemen, and then dump them overboard before reaching their destination.

According to one contractor: “Given that you can get an AK-47 for about $200 in most big African towns and it costs about $1,000 per weapon to do it legally, and then there’s all the forms, coastguard licences etc., a lot of people think it’s easier to buy weapons illegally and drop them [overboard] when you get out of the danger area.”

Furthermore, PMSCs are increasingly exploiting a legal loophole when it comes to use of arms in international waters. Making use of floating armouries - which are ships harboured at sea and stacked with rifles, ammunition, night vision goggles and other military grade equipment - they are able to operate freely, without fear of legal repercussions.  

There are 20 such armouries currently on the Indian Ocean. In August 2013 the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issued 50 licences for floating armouries operating in Indian Ocean & Gulf of Aden.

For too long, this murky world of ‘guns for hire’ has been allowed to grow unchecked. PMSCs have a long history of profiting from war and conflict, and in allowing the industry to regulate itself, the British government has failed. Only strict public scrutiny and binding regulation will do. The time has come to ban PMSCs from operating in conflict zones and end the privatisation of war. Let’s put these dogs back on the leash.

War on Want’s new report, ‘Mercenaries Unleashed: The brave new world of private military and security companies’, coincides with the 65th anniversary of the letter from Victor Gollancz to The Guardian in February 1951 which led to War on Want’s  founding.  Gollancz's letter called for an end to the Korean War; today, to mark 65 years of fighting for justice, War on Want is calling for an end to the privatisation of war.

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