U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries

The U.N.’s ‘Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination’ was established in July 2005 pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 2005/2, and is a great resource for learning about the role of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in modern warfare.

Their annual reports can be found here, with the most recent PDF in English here.

Aside from reporting on human rights violations, such as the well-known controversy over the U.S. PMSCs Blackwater (now Xe) in Nisoor Square in Iraq 2007, the latest report contains an annex detailing a draft convention on the regulation of PMSCs.  The desire to retain and reaffirm ‘inherent state functions’ and the state’s right to a ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ comprises much of the Articles, which is not surprising given the erosion of both by PMSCs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Jose L. Gomez del Prado, former Chairman of the group, has published an overview of the group’s findings. In 2009, the DoD employed 218,000 private contractors of all types in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 195,000 uniformed personnel. Around 8% of these contractors are armed security contractors (i.e. 20,000).

The Working Group received information from several sources that up to 70 per cent of the budget of United States intelligence is spent on contractors. These contracts are classified and very little information is available to the public on the nature of the activities carried out by these contractors.

The State department uses 2,000 private security contractors for protection in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Pakistan: awarded to Triple Canopy, DynCorp Intnernational, and the U.S. Training Center (part of Xe).

Human rights violations include examples of summary acts of torture, cases of arbitrary detention; of trafficking of persons; serious health damages caused by their activities; as well as attempts against the right of self-determination.

Summary Executions

On 16 September 2007 in Baghdad, employees of the US-based firm Blackwater[1] were involved in a shooting incident in Nisoor Square in which 17 civilians were killed and more than 20 other persons were wounded including women and children. Local eyewitness accounts indicate the use of arms from vehicles and rocket fire from a helicopter belonging to this company.

The report also mentions that Blackwater/Xe has been invloved in 200 ‘escalation of force’ incidents since 2005, with 80% of the first shots fired by Blackwater/Xe. In addition:

Also in central Baghdad the shooting of employees of the PMSC, Unity Resources Group (URG), protecting a convoy, left two Armenian women, Genevia Antranick and Mary Awanis dead on 9 October 2007 when their car came too close to a protected convoy. The family of Genevia Antranick was offered no compensation and has begun court proceedings against URG in the United States.


Two United States-based corporations, CACI and L-3 Services (formerly Titan Corporation), were involved in the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. CACI and L-3 Services, contracted by the Government of the United States, were responsible for interrogation and translation services, respectively, at Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities in Iraq.

Arbitrary Detention 

A number of reports indicate that private security guards have played central roles in some of the most sensitive activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) such as the arbitrary detention and clandestine raids against alleged insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan[5] and the involvement in CIA rendition flights[6] as well as joint covert operations[7]. Employees of PMSC would have been involved in the taking of detainees, from “pick up points” (such as Tuzla, Islamabad or Skopje) transporting them in rendition flights and delivering them to drop off points (such as Cairo, Rabat, Bucharest, Amman or Guantanamo) as well as in the construction, equipping and staffing of CIA’s “black sites”.

Within this context, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in May 2007 against Jeppesen DataPlan Inc. (a subsidiary company of Boeing) on behalf of five persons who were kidnapped by the CIA disappearing in overseas prisons kept by USA secret services. Jeppesen would have participated in the rendition by providing flight planning and logistical support. The five persons were tortured during their arbitrary detention


The 2009 annual report of DynCorp International refers to four lawsuits concerning the spraying of narcotic plant crops along the Colombian border adjacent to Ecuador on behalf of 3 Ecuadorian Providences and 3266 plaintiffs. From 1991, the United States Department of State contracted the private company DynCorp to supply services for this air-spraying program against narcotics in the Andean region. In accordance with the subscribed contract of 30 January 1998, DynCorp provides the essential logistics to the anti-drug Office of activities of Colombia, in conformity with three main objectives: eradication of cultivations of illicit drugs, training of the army and of personnel of the country, and dismantling of illicit drug laboratories and illicit drug-trafficking networks.

Self-Determination / Sovereignty

The 2004 attempted coup d’état, which was perpetrated in Equatorial Guinea is a clear example of the link between the phenomenon of mercenaries and PMSCs as a means of violating the sovereignty of States. In this particular case, the mercenaries involved were mostly former directors and personnel of Executive Outcomes, a PMSC that had become famous for its operations in Angola and Sierra Leone.

Prado and the Working Group find a lack of transparency in contracts, because they are not disclosed in the public – either because they contain confidential ‘commercial information’ or that non-disclosure is in the interest of ‘national defense’.

Much of the controversy that clings to PMSCs centers on their apparent impunity. Not a single contractor or employee has ever been sanctioned, despite a slew of human rights violations. One such legal argument in defense of PMSCs is the ‘Government contractor defense’ – that they were operating under the exclusive control of the Government of the US and therefore cannot be held accountable.

It looks as if when the acts are committed by agents of the government they are considered human rights violations but when these same acts are perpetrated by PMSC it is “business as usual”.

Further reading:

Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, 2007.

Peter Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, 2003/7.

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