Humanitarian Principles, Private Military Agents: Some Implications of the Privatized Military Industry for the Humanitarian Community

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

February 1, 2006

This article appears as a chapter in Resetting the Rules of Engagement: Trends and Issues in Military–Humanitarian Relations (Humanitarian Policy Group Report 22), edited by Victoria Wheeler and Adele Harmer.

In Afghanistan, a private demining team clears decades-old minefields, permitting local villagers to till their fields. In Iraq, a unit of corporate commandos escorts an engineering team, allowing it to fix local sewage facilities. In Darfur, private helicopter crews provide transport for African peacekeepers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a team of private soldiers guards UN facilities and warehouses. And along the US Gulf Coast, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, private clients and the US government hire private firms to guard buildings from looters, rescue stranded families by helicopter, even collect and process the dead.

The context in which humanitarians are operating has seen many changes in recent decades, especially with the challenges of complex emergencies, man-made humanitarian disasters and new security threats. One of the more notable—but least understood—developments has been the emergence of hired military services, better known as the ‘privatised military industry’. Privatised military firms (PMFs) are defined as business providers of professional services linked to warfare. They are corporate bodies that specialise in the provision of military skills, conducting tactical combat operations and strategic planning, providing intelligence, operational and logistics support and offering troop training and technical assistance. While the notion of soldiers for hire is by no means new,2 PMFs represent the trade in a new form; organised as business entities and structured along corporate lines, they mark the corporate evolution of the mercenary trade.3 In some ways, this trend in defence contracting mirrors broader changes in the world economy, as industries move away from manufacturing to service provision, and countries increasingly outsource functions once considered the preserve of the state. At the same time, however, affairs of conflict and warfare are unlike any other aspect of human conduct, and cannot simply be viewed as mere business. In that sense, the rise of this new industry represents a profound development in the way that security is understood and realised.

It is important at the outset to distinguish between the various functions which PMFs may be asked to perform. This chapter considers two kinds of arrangement. One involves contracts directly between aid agencies and PMFs for the provision of services to the agency in the conduct of its field operations. The second (much larger) category involves arrangements between PMFs and political-military actors for the provision of military services, ranging from logistical support to the actual conduct of military operations, that affect the environment in which humanitarians operate. Both raise important, but little-discussed, questions for the humanitarian community. This chapter covers five main issues: the history and makeup of the private military industry; the growing link between humanitarian actors and the private military community; the potential opportunities that PMFs offer to humanitarian organisations; the potential perils and complications that must be considered; and lessons for optimising the relationship if such contracting is to occur.