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The outsourcing of war

José Luis Gómez del Prado, Chairman of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, has provided a damning indictment of private military and security companies (PMSCs), the use of which has expanded hugely over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, the DynCorp company was contracted by the United States to air-spray Colombian cocaine plantations, train the national army, and dismantle drug rings. By the middle of 2010, however, the U.S. Department of Defense had nearly 210,000 mercenaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about 20 per cent more personnel than the regular military. The worldwide U.S. total is about 240,000, with two-thirds of them coming from host countries and third countries. The main companies are American and British; many of their board members have come through the revolving door between high military ranks and the private war business. The industry, minuscule before 2001, now has a value of about $200 billion a year.

Some PMSCs are so notorious that they have changed their names (Blackwater, for instance, now calls itself Xe). In Iraq, they have intensified political instability and public hatred of the occupying forces. Blackwater/Xe may also have been involved in using white phosphorus as a chemical weapon in Fallujah. In Colombia, Washington gave DynCorp immunity from prosecution over long-term diseases, including cancers, caused by its spraying. In Croatia, MPRI company staff cannot be tried for ethnic cleansing (with which many Croatian officers have been charged). In Iraq, the mercenaries have immunity from criminal prosecution. Victims have to make civil claims at their own expense in U.S. or British courts — as do PMSCs' own staff, many of whom are victims of poor training and equipment, and brutal employment practices. As for the work, PMSCs have carried out rendition flights, tortured captives, and engaged in open combat, frequently causing terrible civilian casualties. Washington has circumvented a U.N. arms embargo by contracting MPRI to equip and train the Croatian army. In effect, many PMSCs are agents of foreign policy. The 1989 U.N. International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which covers individuals and not companies, is not adequate to deal with the current situation. It is extremely disturbing that PMSCs are taking over the military functions of the state, in apparent freedom from domestic or international accountability. The sooner they are brought within the ambit of international criminal law, the better.

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