The assassination of Haiti’s president by a mercenary hit squad demonstrates the destabilizing effects of privatized force. The United States does not have the laws needed to prevent and punish such acts.
By Michael Picard
On 7 July, a team of foreign mercenaries linked to a US security firm assassinated a head of state. Jovenel Moise, Haiti’s president, was murdered in his own home by a well-trained commando unit composed of Colombian and US nationals. His wife, Martine, was critically wounded.
This raises questions. Under what pretext did the US citizens participate in this heinous act? More importantly, what control does the US government have over such actions, and is this enough to prevent similar actions in the future?
Contemporary conversations about mercenaries focus on private military security companies and contractors (collectively PMSCs). The United States is home to a uniquely large PMSC industry, bloated by two decades of government contracting in support of the War on Terror, as well as a glut of recent combat veterans with special forces experience.
US PMSCs provide their services both domestically and abroad, from guarding oil pipelines and embassies to training foreign security forces. As the sector expanded and internationalized, so have concerns about the ethics, legality, and impacts of normalizing private force in fragile environments.
US mercenaries have a long history of operating in and destabilizing Latin American countries, which continues to this day. In May 2020, Venezuelan authorities captured and exposed a team of armed dissidents led by two US contractors – former green berets. The contractors worked for a US PMSC seeking to overthrow dictator Nicolas Maduro on behalf of the Venezuelan opposition.
US PMSC activity extends to Haiti. In February 2019, a group of US contractors were arrested in Port-au-Prince with a large cache of weapons and military equipment found in their vehicles. After the US Government intervened, the contractors were repatriated and set free without charge. The contractors claimed they were hired as a private security detail for Haiti’s wealthy elite in light of heightened civil unrest, while also claiming they were hired by the Haitian government to provide essential security services, demonstrating the blurry line between private and public interest in a country like Haiti. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries according to local perceptions of state corruption, Haiti ranks in the world’s bottom 10, below Afghanistan.
These two examples demonstrate how a US PMSC could be hired by sectional interests to conduct criminal operations in a highly insecure environment with impunity. On one hand, such a group could be hired to provide – on paper – official services to a foreign government, such as military training, technical assistance, or executive protection. On the other hand, they could be hired under the guise of providing security for private interests, such as an influential oligarch or a foreign company with local interests.
In either case, however, the US Government has little to no oversight. If a foreign government hires a US PMSC to provide essential defense services – such as military training, intelligence gathering, equipment maintenance, etc – the PMSC would require an arms export license from the US State Department. As stipulated in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the PMSC would present a contract-like document to the US State Department’s arms control body, which would then review it in coordination with the US Defense Department, before approving it.
As a rule, the State Department forbids the authorization of combat services under ITAR. While ITAR gives the government some oversight of PMSC activities, it is highly limited owing to the intangible nature of many defense services. Once in country, there is little to prevent the PMSC from carrying out unauthorized actions, especially when supported by the hosting state.
This was precisely the case with a US PMSC hired by the UAE to carry out assassinations in Yemen in 2015 and 2016. The team carrying out the killings reportedly received an ITAR license to provide the UAE with defense services, likely military training. Yet the US Government has few means to verify that the authorized services are carried out without diversion or misappropriation. Traditional post-delivery verification checks used for tangible defense items are arguably inapplicable to the knowledge- and skill-based services provided by professional soldiers.
Beyond ITAR, there is essentially no other avenue in which the US Government can monitor and control the overseas activities of a US PMSC (unless hired by the US Government). The ITAR definition for defense services intentionally excludes security services – whether for a government, a private company, or a wealthy individual – as its inclusion would overwhelm the thinly-resourced office responsible for licensing arms exports.
Furthermore, punishing the illicit actions of US PMSCs is also difficult. While mercenarism is illegal under international humanitarian law, its definition of mercenary is weak to the point of being redundant. US PMSCs operating overseas are typically held accountable to local law unless they are supporting a US military operation or diplomatic mission governed by a status of forces agreement. This poses a challenge in countries where there is little to no rule of law. Haiti’s justice system is debilitatingly corrupt, and likely lacks the capacity to impartially investigate and prosecute cases relating to political violence involving national elites.
Haiti has long suffered from the exploitative influence of foreign private interests as well as a government that is highly susceptible to corruption. This assassination shows that, in such an environment, it only takes a handful of mercenaries to potentially bring down the state. Without a substantive set of regulations governing the overseas activities of US PMSCs, there is little to prevent their diversion and misuse for subversive, destabilizing actions.
This puts countries like Haiti at risk – and in turn, the United States. It is apparent that any discrete actor can hire US PMSCs to assassinate influential individuals – perhaps even a head of state – and sow chaos in fragile, conflict-ridden countries. When that country borders the United States, it is apparent that US national security is at stake.
Michael Picard is a research fellow for Transparency International Defence & Security (TI-DS). Much of the research presented in this blog is the topic of a forthcoming report by TI-DS on PMSCs and corruption in fragile states.