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.