So-called private military companies (PMCs) play an increasing role in military conflicts. But what are they?
Wagner Group fighters are often called mercenaries. Is that an accurate description?
No. Under international humanitarian law, a person must meet six criteria to be classified as a mercenary. Article 47 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conference states: “Any person who:
1) Is specially recruited at home or abroad to fight in an armed conflict;
2) In fact, it takes a direct part in the hostilities;
3) You are motivated to participate in hostilities essentially by the desire for personal gain and, in fact, are promised by or on behalf of one of the parties to the conflict material compensation substantially higher than that promised or paid to combatants of similar status ranks and functions in the armed forces of that country;
4) is not a national of a party to the conflict or resident in territory controlled by one party to the conflict;
5) is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict; and
6) Not having been sent by a State that is not a party to the conflict in official service as a member of its armed forces.
These requirements are cumulative, which means that they must be applicable for a person to be classified as a mercenary.
Katharina Stein is a research assistant at the Institute for Public Law at the University of Freiburg in Germany and is currently writing her dissertation on the role of private militias in armed conflict. Stein says, “Many of these private military contractors don’t meet those criteria. If you look at Syria, for example, you could describe it as an internationalized armed conflict involving Russia. That means that none of the Russians fighting there can be defined as mercenaries.”
The most difficult criterion to meet, and not just for the Wagner Group fighters but for all potential mercenaries, is the third point, Stein says, namely that of substantially higher compensation compared to members of the national army.
Wagner’s fighters are not mercenaries by definition but members of private military companies. Where did these start?
Many Western countries privatized weapons manufacturing after the end of World War II, followed by the privatization of military services.
When the Cold War came to an end in 1990, and the United States, the United Kingdom, and the former Soviet Union began downsizing their militaries, many well-trained soldiers were out of work. Those people found new homes in private military companies (PMCs) and were often hired by those same countries to intervene in lower-intensity conflicts to allow the countries themselves to get involved militarily.
“Sometimes private military contractors are companies embedded in other, much larger business structures that offer a number of services,” says Stein. “We went in, freed a hostage and got out. Or we train the military.”
What are the advantages of hiring private military companies?
It’s often a classic case of profitable outsourcing luring states into what appears to be a cheap alternative to a full-fledged military.
“First of all, they are much less expensive because I don’t have to train them. I don’t have to pay for your retirement. I don’t have to pay them when they get sick. I don’t have to commit to paying them for 10 years. Instead, I just pay them to do a job – to do something, say, in three months,” says Stein, the international humanitarian law expert.
The US, for example, invested some $300 billion in 12 private militias between 1994 and 2007. That’s a terribly large investment, yet a good one in most countries’ eyes. “The contractors are highly specialized, well trained, and bring their own equipment. Basically, I pay for what I get, and I don’t have any additional costs,” adds Stein.
But above all, private military companies do the dirty work, just as the Wagner Group has been doing in Syria and Ukraine. Dead or wounded contractors don’t spark the same domestic debates as dead soldiers, And responsibility for, say, war crimes can be more easily brushed aside.
That is a central argument for Stein: «You can always say that it was not us breaking the direct chain of responsibility. You can always hire PMCs if you can’t convince parliament to deploy an army.”
Still, it is not always to the advantage of the state to relinquish its monopoly on power, as demonstrated by Wagner’s troops marching across Russia towards Moscow last weekend, with a PMC mutinying against their own country for the first time.
Can private military companies be held criminally responsible for their actions?
As a general rule, PMCs are difficult for states to control, as they often operate in murky legal waters and feel less compelled to abide by the rules or behave in accordance with the international laws of war.
One of the best examples of such behavior was the 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians by fighters from the American private security company Blackwater in Baghdad. Four of the men responsible for carrying out the murders were pardoned by US President Donald Trump in 2020.
“Criminal prosecution of PMCs in the countries where they are deployed almost never occurs. In recent decades, the only known criminal convictions stemmed from the failed 2004 coup in Equatorial Guinea,” says Stein. “Among others, Simon Mann, co-founder and CEO of Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, was sentenced to 34 years in prison, first in Zimbabwe and then in Equatorial Guinea after being extradited. He was pardoned by President Obiang [of Equatorial Guinea] in 2009 ».
The case drew attention mainly because it involved Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher had provided Mann with financial support, eventually paying £590,000 to avoid prison.
Could Wagner start a new debate on private military companies?
Stein said he hopes the Wagner Group case will force a fundamental change in thinking about PMCs and that societal pressure will lead to international regulations governing their deployment. However, to date, all attempts to do so have failed. “There have been several international attempts to create binding contracts for PMCs at the UN level. But they were all blocked, mainly by the US, the UK, South Africa and Israel. Those are the four states that use PMCs the most.”
Many states like to point to the so-called Montreaux Document, approved on September 17, 2008, when it comes to such initiatives. It is the first internationally developed document, created with the participation of Germany, Ukraine and the US, to define the basic rules governing how states deal with private military and security companies (PMSCs).
However, Stein says the document, which seeks to uphold international humanitarian law and human rights, has a major flaw: “It is widely celebrated because it claims to provide some kind of regulation. But it is not binding. It is repeatedly emphasized that no rights or obligations can be inferred from the document. The Montreaux Document is merely about appearances.”