The independent resource on global security

4. Private military and security companies in armed conflict


Overview, Ori Swed, Marina Caparini and Sorcha Macleod

I. The global growth of private military and security companies: Trends, actors and issues of concern, Ori Swed

II. Private military and security companies in sub-Saharan Africa, Marina Caparini

III. The current regulatory landscape for private military and security companies, Sorcha Macleod

Trends, actors and issues of concern

The past 20 years have witnessed the rapid growth of private military and security companies (PMSCs). There is no universally accepted, legally binding, standard definition of a PMSC and the sector often operates in a legal lacuna:

the employees of PMSCs are not soldiers or civilians, nor can they usually be defined as mercenaries. The wars in Iraq (2003–11) and Afghanistan (2001–21) reshaped perceptions of the private military and security industry, with the massive deployment of contractors by the United States leading to new market opportunities across the globe. Factors contributing to the growth of PMSCs vary by region and state, but they mostly fit with cost-efficiency calculations, where the sector provides skills and services that states do not possess or that would be too costly for states to develop or perform themselves.


Today, PMSCs operate in almost every country in the world, for a broad variety of clients, assuming responsibilities for critical state and security functions. The main actors in the sector include both the host countries in which PMSCs are head-quartered and key companies within those countries. A handful of home states host the majority of PMSCs: the USA, the United Kingdom, China and South Africa together are estimated to host about 70 per cent of the entire sector. Russia, while having a relatively small PMSC sector, has arguably used its contractors for combat more than other countries.


There are thousands of PMSCs around the world, most of which abide by the law, operate within their mandate and, in general, contribute to stabilization and security in the settings where they operate, often working closely with the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. In the past two decades, however, the rising prominence of several high-profile PMSCs in conflict areas and security settings has prompted increased public interest in the industry.


The Wagner Group

Russian private military and security companies have been deployed in combat roles in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, as well as in several conflicts across sub-Saharan Africa. Concerns have centred on the activities of the Wagner Group, effectively a Russian state proxy. The Wagner Group’s activities have been linked with human rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law, problematic and exploitative contracts, and election meddling. In Mali alone, over 450 civilians were killed in nine incidents linked to the Wagner Group in 2020–22. In Ukraine, the Wagner Group has been deployed en masse alongside Russian military units and it has redeployed operators from other conflicts and recruited nationals from Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.


Private military and security companies in sub-Saharan Africa

Recent trends concerning PMSC involvement in sub-Saharan Africa suggest that the ascendant actors have close, symbiotic links to home state interests as instruments of national policy and geopolitical competition. Russia and China appear to be driving the current expansion of PMSC activity in Africa, although earlier waves of activity were led by European former colonial powers or were part of cold war proxy rivalries. The current phase of growing PMSC involvement in Africa has occurred in a context of increased geopolitical rivalry and internationalized armed conflict. The control and extraction of natural resources is a common focal point.


Western PMSCs remain active in Africa, especially in various counter-terrorism initiatives, but not in direct combat roles. In contrast, Russian PMSCs, in particular the Wagner Group, engage directly in military operations, typically for governments (and currently juntas or military transition governments) threatened by rebels or insurgents, with payment often in high-value natural resources or mining concessions. The Wagner Group has been the focus of numerous UN reports or investigations for alleged human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in sub-Saharan Africa.


Chinese PMSCs have emerged more slowly and in a more restrained and circumscribed manner, but with a close connection to Chinese investment, infrastructure development and trade expansion. This may portend a more lasting engagement for Chinese interests and actors, including PMSCs, and a greater strategic impact on access to natural resources and, more broadly, sub-Saharan African political dynamics.


The current regulatory landscape

While the use of PMSCs in armed conflicts and fragile environments appears to be growing, questions remain about the adequacy of existing inter-national efforts and norms to regulate the sector. One of the key regulatory challenges is the use of PMSCs, particularly by Russia and Türkiye, as proxy actors in armed conflicts. These deployments are often framed as lying outside the international legal definition of a mercenary, so some states have turned to counterterrorism approaches instead, for example, by seeking to impose terrorist designations on the Wagner Group or by sanctioning its leading personnel. Cases attempting to hold mercenaries and PMSC personnel to account under criminal justice regimes are rare.


Regulatory endeavours at the UN have been reinvigorated by the war in Ukraine and the activities of the Wagner Group. A UN intergovernmental working group process has been attempting to address the gaps between the international legal provisions addressing mercenaries and the softer regulatory approaches of multistakeholder initiatives addressing PMSCs, such as the Montreux Document and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. However, consensus on the necessity of a legally binding instrument, let alone substantive content, remains elusive. Several key issues arose in the working group discussions in 2022: states were still unable to agree on whether the instrument should be binding or non-binding and there was lack of consensus on its scope, human rights provisions and the content on accountability and remedies for victims. Discussions will continue at the UN in 2023, but whether they will translate into concrete and credible regulatory change remains to be seen. 

Dr Ori Swed, Dr Marina Caparini and Dr Sorcha MacLeod