War, Profits, and the Vacuum of Law: Privatized Military Firms and International Law

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

March 1, 2004

Reprinted by permission of Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, (Volume 42 Number 2, Spring 2004).

Over the last decade, a new global industry has arisen, made up of private firms that sell military services. These companies, known as “Privatized Military Firms” (PMFs), sell everything from small teams of commandos to massive military supply operations. PMFs have operated in places as diverse as Sierra Leone and Iraq, including on behalf of the U.S., and signal an important new development in the way that war is now carried out. Unfortunately, the legal side has not yet caught up to events. This article examines the applicability of present international laws and definitions to PMFs and finds a gap in effectiveness. It next looks at national attempts at legal regulation and the challenges that they face. Finally, it surveys some of the possible solutions that have been offered to this legal quandary, seeking to offer workable proposals for how the PMF industry might be brought under some standard of regulation.