“Mercenaries”: the word is in everyone’s mouth. They are in Ukraine, in Africa and across the Middle East. But few really know what this actually means.
An attempt to establish a legal framework
Private security companies / private military companies, are considered as private actors intervening for the benefit of other private companies, NGOs, but also states which do not have sufficient expertise or capacity in the field of security. PMCs intervene in the following fields: Logistics in war zones, training, security and protection of goods and people. This need has been growing since the 1990s with the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts.
Against the backdrop of potentially growing abuses by some PMCs, a text on legal obligations and good practices for states regarding the use and operations of PMCs emerged in 2014 with the Montreux Document.
This document is the result of a cooperative initiative between Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It was developed with the participation of government experts from 17 states – Afghanistan, Angola, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Iraq, Poland, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States of America – in meetings held between 2006 and 2008. Representatives of civil society and private military and security companies were consulted.
The Montreux Document highlights the responsibilities of three types of states on which a PMC depends:
– Contracting States (countries that mandate SMPs);
– Territorial States (countries in which PMCs operate);
– Home States (countries in which PMCs are based).
While the responsibility for a breach of international law is the responsibility of the company, the Montreux document mainly aims to recall the responsibilities of these three types of States. Indeed, violations of international humanitarian law, human rights law or other rules committed by a PMC are also attributable to the contracting state. Thus, contracting states are obliged to take necessary measures to investigate, prosecute and extradite members of a PMC who have committed war crimes such as torture, hostage-taking… The home states are responsible for the implementation of their human rights obligations. To this end, these States are required to take appropriate measures to prevent misconduct by PMCs and their personnel through legislation.
Non-governmental organizations and companies cannot formally adopt the Montreux Document, as it is the result of an initiative primarily aimed at recalling the responsibilities of states. However, they are encouraged to use it as a reference in their dealings with private military and security companies.
PMCs as fronts for governmental activities
Although PMCs are private companies, the link with the state of origin is not excluded. Often denied, some states maneuver these companies to carry out actions without political responsibility. Two private military companies are suspected of being in the hands of their state: the best known are Sadat by Turkey and Wagner by Russia, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard also controls a multitude of companies abroad.
Iran: a variety of companies
For instance, Al-Qalaa, also known as CSP (Castle Security and Protection) promotes Iranian interests and protects its nationals abroad. It is known, for example, that this PMC guarantees the security of Iranian pilgrim convoys in Syria. Another PMC, Al-Fajr Security, provides security on the road from Damascus to Iraq, passing through the province of Deir Ezzor. The activity of Al-Fajr is said to be determined by the Revolutionary Guards in cooperation with Syrian military intelligence. In Deir Ezzor province, the PMC protects the oil infrastructure controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and secures the roads to it. Iran seeks to hide any connection with these companies, which are under Syrian law and therefore officially not connected to Iran in any way.
Turkey and Russia: monopolies of private security
Sadat was established by 23 retired officers and NCOs under the command of Adnan Tanri Verdi on February 28, 2012. Its mission is “to establish collaboration in the fields of defense and defense industries with Islamic countries.” This company is officially a security consulting firm. However, it is a paramilitary organization. Sadat trained about 3,000 Syrians and Libyans in late 2015 early 2016. It oversaw the transportation of Syrian fighters to Libya in 2019. Other information indicates that 38 people from Sadat provided the operation and 50 instructors provided the training.
In addition to what is mentioned on the company’s website, Sadat’s most important activity is the marketing of Turkish armaments, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Some media outlets have specifically revealed that Sadat has sold weapons to militias loyal to Tripoli by shipping, between July and September 2019, about 10,000 tons of weapons and ammunition (armored vehicles, missile launchers and drones). Still denounced recently by opposition parties in Turkey, a complaint was filed against Sadat International Defence Consultancy for illegal arms trade. The Turkish president denies any connection with Sadat claiming that he had “nothing to do” with the company’s leadership, despite the appointment of Sadat founder Adnan Tanrıverdi as his advisor following a 2016 coup attempt.
A competitor of Sadat in Libya, the Russian private military company Wagner, gained international notoriety in 2014 during the Dombass war in Ukraine. Significant support was provided to separatist forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics without Russia admitting their involvement. Wagner has since been present on the African continent in Central Africa and in Mali, Syria and Libya. Wagner operatives are accused of war crimes in the areas where they are deployed. The charges include rape and torture. While the founder of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is close to Vladimir Putin, the latter denies any connection with the Wagner group or even its existence.
Private military companies are indeed illegal in Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin could potentially punish or disband the group in order to escape any responsibility for atrocities committed by the network’s agents. However, Russia didn’t take any such steps, showing tacit support for Wagner. On February 7, 2022, during a press conference, Vladimir Putin declared that “The Russian Federation has nothing to do with the private military organizations operating in Mali”. These words were confirmed by Sergei Lavrov in May 2022, who admitted that the Wagner group was present in Mali. Despite these acknowledgments, the Malian transitional government continued to deny the presence of Wagner, admitting only to a partnership with Russia, which provides equipment and instructors. The presence of the group is now fully assumed by the transitional government because the presence of the mercenaries is widely visible.
The real goals: Denial and profit
Given the responsibility of the contracting states and the states of origin of PMCs, it is in everyone’s interest to deny the existence of these paramilitary groups that act, without saying so, for the benefit of private, political or ideological interests. Wagner uses ideology as a front and adopts symbols and ideas reminiscent of the Soviet era, as reported by a former mercenary. The group also advocates an ultra-nationalist worldview. However, the mercenaries are ultimately motivated by pure gain. The company itself is trying to establish a business model while obeying the orders of the Kremlin. Therefore, it can be said that they are trying to promote Russian interests and make a profit at the same time. In contrast to these companies, Sadat claims to be completely inflexible with regard to his ideological goals, i.e. the defense of Muslim countries against “Western capitalists” with “crusader mentality”. Nevertheless, the company concentrates its efforts on the export of Turkish arms to Muslim countries. It is thus to be noted that Islam is a pretext for acquiring preferential access to the markets constituted by the Muslim countries. Sadat’s ideology should thus be considered as a facade, hiding power games and a commercial strategy.