Wars are forever with private armies
Since the end of the Cold War, the outsourcing of military and security by armed forces activities has shifted from the exception to the rule.
With the approach of the twentieth anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security (WPS), emerging global peace and security challenges are increasingly being recognised as part of this agenda. Among these challenges is the exponential growth of private military and security companies (PMSCs) and, with this, the growing privatisation of war.
Since the end of the Cold War, the outsourcing of military and security by armed forces activities has shifted from the exception to the rule. Moreover, this growth goes hand in hand with a regulatory gap around PMSCs and their activities which makes it challenging to hold private contractors accountable to human rights standards. As PMSCs take on more significant roles and are being deployed in greater numbers in conflict contexts, those working for the implementation of the WPS agenda should include this reality in their work, recognising it as an emerging challenge to international peace and security.
Violations of human rights are often widespread in conflict contexts, and civilians suffer the most, including from gendered crimes such as sexual abuse, sexual trafficking, and rape. Private contractors, as non-state actors that can and do partake in armed conflict, have perpetrated gendered violence with similar if not the same patterns as national armed forces. Data on private contractors committing gender-based violence is available, though limited, stemming from two phenomena.
First, PMSCs generally shield themselves and thus their proprietary information by keeping agreements between them and their clients private. This complicates any effort to pursue PMSCs who commit human rights violations or gendered violence, especially in conflict-affected and high-risk contexts, where rule of law is often weak or strong judicial institutions lacking. Second, collecting data on the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) is challenging. As a sensitive issue, CRSV remains underreported due to both social (taboos, stigma) and structural barriers.
Despite these challenges, we know of a handful of cases of contractors that committed gendered human rights violations, many of them uncovered by whistleblowers. Some of these cases include sex-trafficking and sex-slavery of women committed by some UN peacekeepers and contractors in Bosnia, the use of brothels with trafficked girls and women by a group of contractors at the United States embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, or the allegations that, in Iraq, a US Army subcontractor held a group of women against their will and sexually assaulted them.
Nonetheless, existing regulations have been insufficient and calls for better regulations have been made by various actors, including the UN. For example, the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, believes that the most effective way to regulate PMSCs is by developing an internationally legally binding framework to "fully protect human rights," which would address a major concern around the regulatory gap: the difficulty in holding the perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.
The privatisation of war phenomenon is likely to keep growing over the next decades as dependency on private contractors increases. The WPS community can do better to address the challenges that this emerging phenomenon brings to international peace and security by coordinating efforts. This includes through conducting further research and increasing the available data, and advocating for the development and implementation of regulation measures that both strengthen and harmonise existing PMSCs legal frameworks and mainstream gender.
-IPI Global Observatory
Marta Bautista Forcada is working in the Women, Peace and Security Program at the International Peace Institute (IPI)