Wednesday, February 04, 2004


For some time, private industry has walked hand in hand with the military sector: providing consulting and strategic advisory services; providing technical and military training to personnel; providing civilian logistical services, supply-chain management and technical support for frontline troops; and, of course, those sweet, sweet deals to develop and mass produce all those expensive toys. And sometimes, governments even use completely private armed forces.

This is the topic of interest for Peter Singer of the ideologically schizophrenic Brookings Institution. Private military corporations (PMCs) are now a multi-billion dollar global industry. Their ascendency results from a confluence of supply and demand spawned by the fracturing of the geopolitical order. At the same time more states are failing and small arms are proliferating--creating civil disorder and humanitarian crises--there is less political will to intervene in crises for states with the capacity to actually stop them. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed a supply of advanced military hardware available at bargain basement prices from Eastern European governments financially strapped amid their transitions to market economies. The end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of communist state opression left a reserve army of military grunts highly skilled in thuggery (for example, soldiers who committed war crimes or egregious human rights violations).

It was a match made in heaven, and PMCs such as the euphamistically named South African firm Executive Outcomes profitted splendidly by having a hand in almost every civil war in Africa in the past fifteen years. PMCs were employed in the Liberian war in the early 1990s (International Charters, Inc. of Oregon), in Ethiopia in the 1998 war against Eritrea (Sukhoi of Russia), in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s (Executive Outcomes of South Africa). Who employed these PMCs is a matter of debate, but it is clear that multinational mining, mineral and oil interests have backed PMCs or backed governments to hire PMCs. EO was able to accomplish a rout of the RUF and establish stability in Sierra Leone while the UN could not, despite having a 20 times larger budget and personnel. These groups have even formed an industry lobbying group: the likewise euphamistically named International Peace Operations Association.

Singer is interested in whether PMCs could be used in place of multinational UN peacekeeping forces on the ground in situations where public perception of injustice demands international attention, but the politics of national governments or international organizations prohibit the risk of intervention. Singer is quite aware of the pitfalls of PMCs and confering on them the legitmate use of force otherwise reserved for the domain of nation-states: questions of authority, legitimacy, accountability, and conflicts of interest between the profit motive and the demands of the mission. What Singer lacks, however, is a vision to provide moral guidance through the morally nebulous world of PMCs.

While Singer sees PMCs as a palatable option for Western bourgeois liberal internationalists who can't stomach the costs of humanitarian intervention, supplanting multi-national peace-keeping forces with soldiers of fortune undermines the whole credo of humanistic liberal internationalism: that the dignity and freedom on universal human rights should be bestowed equally on people everywhere irrespective of per capita GDP. They are not a problem that can be bought off to appease Western guilt. Have we all forgotten satyagraha?


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