Regulatory oversight of the private military and security sector is failing to keep pace with the rapidly growing and diversifying industry, leading to heightened global risks of fraud, corruption and violence. Better regulation of the industry is urgently needed.
This three-page fact sheet defines Private Military and Security Companies and outlines the required response.
Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are a growing presence globally. They act as ‘shadow armies’, operating without transparency and free from legal accountability for their actions in conflict zones around the world.
Since the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the industry has expanded from an estimated value of US$100 billion in 2003 to US$224 billion in 2020.
Such is the power PMSCs wield, there is an urgent need for United Nations members states to collectively commit to regulate, investigate and prosecute misconduct by these firms.
It is against this backdrop that Transparency International Defence and Security is bringing policymakers together at a hybrid event, open for registration now, to highlight this issue and catalyse change.
Many of the largest PMSCs were founded in the United States and Europe. But sophisticated PMSCs are increasingly being established in a variety of countries ranging from Australia to China, India to Israel, and Turkey to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Russian Wagner Group is operating in many African countries and the network’s grip on matters of national security is tightening.
PMSCs are not merely providing ‘bodies’ and direct combat services. They sell services such as intelligence, surveillance and cyber security. This expansion in services has elevated corruption and conflict risks in many countries with critically weak protection to guard against defence and security sector corruption.
In response to these trends, a United Nations Intergovernmental Working Group on PMSCs is debating an international framework to regulate their activities.
Currently the internationally supported but non-binding Montreux Document encourages countries to refrain from hiring PMSCs that have a record of engaging in bribery and corruption, among other crimes. While it is a step in the right direction, it lacks teeth.
Some countries, such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand are also exploring new regulations and laws at national level.
These are positive moves. However, until international and national legislation is formally agreed upon, the kind of law-breaking carried out by PMSCs such as land grabs facilitated through corruption and violence against civilians, documented in our latest research paper, will continue.
In Washington this month Transparency International Defence and Security will be convening a workshop to galvanise international support for anti-corruption standards for PMSCs. Chaired by Transparency International co-founder Peter Conze, the event is being held as part of the influential International Anti-Corruption Conference.
We will be making the case for the UN to establish:
- Clear complaint mechanisms and standards to protect whistle blowers
- A requirement of reporting on beneficial ownership of PMSCs and subcontracting by PMSCs
- Increased transparency of contracts and enhanced reporting on exports of PMSC services to enable external oversight and accountability, including procurement and transfers of weapons and equipment in line with arms control requirements
- Heightened oversight at the higher level of states institutions. For example, the State and Defense Department should establish accessible whistleblowing channels and regularly monitor their use, at a minimum
As the event is being held in Washington, we will also share a roadmap for progressing US legislation, highlighting the need for:
- The definition of defence services to be expanded to include combat activities and potentially intelligence services, so that US companies and individuals must obtain US government authorisation (or a licence) to export such services
- More detailed reporting to Congress on defence service exports, including listing the specific types of authorised defence service and associated dollar value for each country
- Enhanced policy guidance for the State Department to assess the risks of corruption before approving a contract or license for PMSC services abroad
It’s time for PMSCs to be brought out of the shadows. Join us.
In response to reports the United Kingdom’s new National Security Bill could offer ministers immunity from enabling torture abroad, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:
“If the UK wants to maintain its leadership role advocating for integrity in military institutions worldwide it must maintain the same stringent accountability standards in its operations abroad as at home. Cases of wrongdoing and malpractice must be investigated and prosecuted through formal processes, without undue political influence.”
By Dr Jelena Aparac, the UN’s Independent Expert on its Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries and Ara Marcen Naval, Head of Advocacy at Transparency International Defence and Security.
The Russian network Wagner, which has spawned shadowy mercenary groups operating in conflict zones around the word, has just opened its first headquarters in Saint Petersburg.
From the battlefields of Ukraine to the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan and the war in Yemen, private military security companies and their corporate partners are flourishing from conflict. Despite the deadly force they fuel, these firms remain subject to scant regulation and accountability.
Next week [December 1 – December 2], the United Nations will stage talks on the dangers posed by the Wagner network and other private military and security companies. Governments recognised and began talking about the need to better regulate the activities of non-state security outfits back in 2008. Well over a decade on, they’re still talking.
In that time, the industry has grown to be worth US$224 billion. That figure is expected to double by 2030. New groups are proliferating, seizing on opportunities to make money from conflict hotspots.
Russian contractors, subject this summer to gold smuggling investigations in Sudan. Wagner, perhaps the world’s most notorious network operating in this sector – often through elusive and locally-registered companies that use an alphabet soup of opaque brand names – has meanwhile been accused of murdering civilians in Central African Republic, in Libya, and more recently in Ukraine.
Latest research from Transparency International Defence and Security underscores the myriad threats that leaving this growing sector unregulated pose on a global level.
Contractors are expanding their sales of surveillance, armed security and military training to many countries around the world, often including nations that have critically weak protections against defence sector corruption.
This growing industry, while sometimes providing necessary or benign support to the keeping of security and safeguarding of rights, has the potential to infringe international law, and insufficient oversight and regulation risks personnel engaging in corrupt conduct or human rights abuses.
Recent reports point to firms perpetrating suspected war crimes in Mozambique. In Libya and Yemen, claims have been made that groups are engaging in cyber-attacks against political opponents, human rights activists, and journalists, and almost always linked to the exploitation of natural resources.
As firms seek to expand opportunities, they are increasingly taking on activities in new areas, such as security around border controls and for mining industries. These often require technical and logistical support, opening the door to bribes to politically connected sub-contractors.
This outsourcing of one of the primary responsibilities of the state, the provision of security, is worrying. And efforts to respond to the risks are falling flat.
Initiatives such as the publication of the Montreux Document, which outlines the theoretical and non-legally binding responsibilities of states, have proven out of step with the risks posed, largely due to the non-binding nature. Similarly, the industry’s Code of Conduct only encourages voluntary standards to be upheld by the companies it audits and certifies.
With the ever-accelerating rise of Wagner, the time to move from words to the establishment of robust international rules and regulation that provide transparency and accountability for victims around the globe has surely arrived.
In response to the UK withdrawing its entire force from Mali and France ending Operation Barkhane, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:
“The exit of British and French troops from Mali leaves a fresh vacuum for private military and security companies (PMSCs), in a country that has been devastated by a decade of violence. Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity index indicates that oversight and regulation of these private actors is rare or non-existent within Mali. The United Nations, EU and regional organisations must urgently establish binding regulations governing PMSCs.”
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Responding to reports related to Wagner interference in the US mid-term elections, Transparency International Defence and Security Director Josie Stewart said:
“Russian private military security contractors (PMSCs) are critical to the geopolitical goals of the Kremlin. Beyond providing frontline force, logistical support and targeted surveillance, groups such as these from Russia and around the world are now expanding their services to cyber and disinformation warfare. The lack of a clear legal architecture provides a licence to PMSCs around the world to take further steps in this direction. As set out in our report Hidden Costs – US Private Military and Security Companies and the Risks of Corruption and Conflict, there is a pressing need to regulate, investigate and where necessary prosecute these private military and security companies, ensuring they are always held accountable for their actions.”
+ 44 (0)20 3096 7695
Out of hours – Weekends; Weekdays (UK 17.30-21.30): +44 (0)79 6456 0340
Our latest research catalogues conflict and corruption around the word – harm caused by leaving the privatisation of national security to grow and operate without proper regulation.
Post-Afghanistan, exploitation of global conflicts is big business. Most private military and security firms are registered in the US, so we are calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. The time has also come for accreditation standards to be enforced rather than only encouraged, at both a national and international level.
Michael Ofori-Mensah, Head of Research at Transparency International Defence and Security, describes some of the dangers documented in our latest research paper.
Unaccountable private military and security companies continue to pursue partnerships that in recent years have led indirectly to the assassination of presidents and journalists, land grabs in conflict zones, and even suspected war crimes.
From Haiti to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria, US-based organisations – the firms that dominate the market – have found themselves associated with a string of tragedies, all while their sector has grown ever-more lucrative.
Transparency International Defence and Security’s latest research – ‘Hidden Costs: US private military and security companies and the risks of corruption and conflict – catalogues the harm playing out internationally as countries increasingly seek to outsource national security concerns to soldiers of fortune.
Hidden costs from the trade in national security
While the US and other governments have left the national security industry to grow and operate without proper regulation, the risks of conflict being exploited for monetary gain are growing all the time.
Hidden Costs documents how the former CEO of one major US private military and security company was convicted – following a guilty plea – of bribing Nigerian officials for a US$6bn land grab in the long-plundered Niger Delta.
Our research also highlights that the Saudi operatives responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s savage murder received combat training from the US security company Tier One Group.
Arguably most damning are the accounts from Haiti, where the country’s president was killed last year by a squad of mercenaries thought to have been trained in the US and Colombia.
Many governments around the world argue that critical security capability gaps are being filled quickly and with relatively minimal costs through the growing practise of outsourcing.
Spurred on by the US government’s normalisation of the trade, US firms are growing both their services and the number of fragile countries in which they operate.
The private military and security sector has swelled to be worth US$224 billion. That figure is expected to double by 2030.
The value of US services exported is predicted to grow to more than $80 billion in the near future, but the industry and the challenge faced is global.
The risks of corruption and conflict in the pursuit of profits are plain.
These risks are as old as time. But their modern manifestations in warzones must not be left to spill over. The 20-year war in Afghanistan cultivated dynamics that threaten further damage, more than a decade after governments first expressed their concerns.
International rules and robust regulation are urgently needed. We need measures that ensure mandatory reporting of private military and security company activities. The Montreux Document lacks teeth, operating as it does as guidance that is not legally binding. Code of conduct standards must also become mandatory for accreditation, rather than purely voluntary.
Most private military and security firms are registered in the US. So Transparency International Defence and Security is also calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. There is an opportunity arriving in September, when draft legislation faces review.
Policymakers have long been aware of the corruption risks and the related threats to peace and prosperity posed by this sector. The time for action is well overdue. No more Hidden Costs.
Work is underway to shape policies necessary for the prevention of further coups in Mali, following two recent military takeovers of the west African nation.
Mali has been operating under what leaders have described as a period of “transitional” military governance since August 2020, with elections repeatedly delayed.
Transparency International is embarking on a new project aimed at establishing policies that would prevent future coups being carried out and see corruption threats mitigated in the nation’s defence and security sector, assessed as “high risk” through our Government Defence Integrity Index.
The initiative supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund aims to empower ordinary Malians and their civil society organisations to “exercise oversight” and engage with government representatives and defence institutions in reforming defence governance.
Legislative foundations will be laid in preparation for the resumption of parliamentary work following a two year hiatus that has seen female representation in positions of political influence shrink to zero.
‘Power to convene’
The project will be delivered through a partnership between Transparency International’s national chapter — CRI 2002 — and TI-UK.
Working together we combine national level civil society legitimacy, contextual understanding and power to convene with global expertise in corruption in the defence sector.
We will partner with local journalists and with a civil society network — the CSO Forum created under the previous UNDEF project — while expanding the project’s reach to all 10 of the country’s regions.
We will present policy recommendations to the National Transition Council (NTC), with whom we are already engaged, to integrate into legislation once the National Assembly resumes.
Our approach is underpinned by three activities:
- In-depth research into the role that corruption can play in facilitating military coups. The paper we produce will identify policy recommendations to anticipate and prevent future coups in Mali. It will also signpost risks to other countries facing similar challenges.
- Analysis of the defence sector’s performance during the COVID-19 emergency. Our briefing will focus on the impact of corruption during emergencies and how it undermines the country’s capacity to respond to disasters. The analysis will include policy recommendations that can inform disaster risk reduction (DRR) interventions.
- An advocacy program for CSOs to facilitate engagement with the National Transition Council and defence institutions. This will encourage integration of policy recommendations into legislation.
Our research shows Freedom of Information regimes in countries across the world are not good enough at protecting the public’s right to know
By Ara Marcen and Najla Dowson-Zeidan
The ‘right to know’ for citizens to learn what public institutions are doing on their behalf is a crucial component of human rights law, and vital to combat corruption by providing transparency and accountability. But as with all rights, there is often a big difference between being entitled to them and being able to realise them. With the right of access to information, nowhere is this gulf more apparent than in the defence and security sector.
Militaries, security institutions and ministries of defence are notoriously opaque. Despite robust international (and some national) anti-corruption and freedom of information legislation that governs public sectors, the defence sector is frequently given a green light to remain secretive and evade accountability by utilising the ‘national security’ exemptions so often contained in this legislation. The result is that secrecy is often the norm and transparency the exception.
This approach to transparency in defence needs to change. The secretive nature of defence, and a lack of transparency and access to information, impairs civilian control of the security sector, hampers oversight bodies and increases corruption risks at all levels. It allows corruption to occur unexposed, unaddressed, and in the shadows.
Transparency should be the norm and secrecy the exception. While some information in the defence sector may need to remain classified for legitimate national security reasons, this should be a well-founded exception – not a rule. Maintaining high levels of secrecy limits scrutiny and allows the vicious circle of secrecy, opportunity for corrupt acts and self-enrichment to flourish.
This International Right to Know Day, we call on all governments and public authorities to limit the opacity around security to only the most sensitive information – where the likelihood of harm as a result of its disclosure clearly outweighs the harm to the public interest in withholding it – so national security is not a pretext for limiting citizens’ right to information. Defence and security sectors should not be treated as exceptional when it comes to the public’s right to know how their money is being spent and how key policy decisions are being made.
Initial findings of our global Government Defence Integrity Index, a vast pool of data that assesses how government defence institutions protect themselves against the risk of corruption, show that in most countries there is a long way to go to make mechanisms for accessing information from the defence sector effective. Of the 86 countries assessed, almost half were assessed as at a high to critical risk of corruption in relation to their access to information regimes, meaning that the legal frameworks for access to information, implementation guidelines, and effectiveness of practice at the institutional level are currently not good enough at upholding citizens’ right to access information.
Weaknesses in legal frameworks regulating access to information in defence expose countries to high levels of corruption risk as they reduce transparency and hamper effective oversight of the sector. However, the implementation of these frameworks in practice presents even more significant risks. Poor implementation of Access to Information regulations in defence makes information extremely difficult to obtain and undermines the effectiveness of legislation.
The GDI data shows a significant implementation gap; even where legal frameworks are in place, most countries score less well in terms of actually putting this into practice The vast majority of countries fall well short of the good practice standard for implementation, whereby ‘the public is able to access information regularly, within a reasonable timeline, and in detail’. Most were assessed as having at least some shortcomings in facilitating access to defence-related information to the public (for example, delays in access or key information missing), and in more than one in three of the countries assessed the public is rarely able to access information from the defence sector, if at all. While corruption in every sector wastes resources and undermines trust between the state and its citizens, corruption in the defence and security sector, among institutions tasked with keeping peace and security, has a particularly detrimental impact. In fragile and conflict states, corruption – both a cause and a consequence of conflict – frequently permeates all areas of public life.
And the costs of this are high – both financially (with annual global military expenditure estimated to be almost $2 trillion) and in terms of human security. Corruption damages populations’ conception of the legitimacy of central authorities, threatens the social contract, and ultimately the rule of law and attainment of human rights.
The right to information and transparency are key pillars for good governance and accountability and are crucial tools in the fight against corruption. They enable external oversight of government – and the military – by legislators, civil society and the media, increasing accountability of political decision-making and institutional practice. They enable informed participation of the public and civil society in public debates and development of policy and law. And they bring corruption risks – and actual incidents of corruption – to light, facilitating the push for accountability and reform.
We’re calling on states to renew their commitment to the right to information. They need to ensure that their national legal frameworks include laws that enable the public to exercise the right of access to information across all sectors. Rules for classification and declassification must be rigorous and publicly available, with clearly defined grounds for classifying information, established classification periods. And there should be the possibility of appeal for those who wish to access information withheld in Freedom of Information proceedings.
Defence institutions should have in place rigorous and publicly available rules for withholding information, with clearly defined procedures and grounds for classifying information, established classification periods, and a possibility of appeal for those who wish to access information withheld in Freedom of Information proceedings. They should be accompanied by clear criteria and process for public interest and harm tests that can help balance genuine needs for secrecy with overall public interest. Adopting and endorsing the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information (the Tshwane Principles) would be a good step towards having the right access to information regime in place.
To make sure that secrecy does not trump the right to know – and to strengthen the ability of defence institutions to protect themselves against the risk of corruption – governments should consider these key principles:
- Freedom of information is a right. Any limitations of this should be the exception, not the rule.
- Transparency is a key tool against corruption. Enabling public scrutiny, rather than undermining a public institution, can lead to better use of resources and reduce risk of corruption.
- The interest of preventing, investigating, or exposing corruption should be considered as an overriding public interest in public interest and harm tests, as corruption is not only a waste of public resources, but also seriously undermines the national security efforts of a country.
For more on Access to Information in the defence sector, see our factsheet.
The perception of transparency in defence needs to change. Currently, secrecy is often the norm and transparency is the exception. Instead, transparency should be the norm and secrecy the exception.
Despite robust and widely agreed international and national anti-corruption and freedom of information legislation that governs public sectors, the defence sector remains secretive and lacking a fundamental level of transparency that is crucial to ensure accountability. Such legislation frequently contains national security exemptions that are vague, undefined or overreaching and provide defence institutions with a sweeping mandate to classify information by labelling it critical to national security.
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.