The history of this profession is relatively recent and has, at the very least, questionable roots. In 1989, in South Africa and Namibia, the apartheid is about to collapse and the army of these two countries will be reorganized soon. Among the new unemployed soldiers there is Eeben Barlow, former colonel of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a unit (basically a death squad) responsible for the murder of many political opponents.
Barlow decides to put his strategic know-how at the service of privates, foreseeing the business potential: war zones are always a lot and, after the Cold War, less and less ideological. He founds the Executive Outcomes, and in 1993 he gets the first commission, in Angola. An oil company wants to protect its interest in the port city of Soyo.
Fame arrives a few years later, when the Executive Outcomes is able to stop the Revolutionary United Front, which was besieging Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. Barlow’s company won’t have a long-living future ahead, though. In 1998 Mandela’s government approves a law that forbids mercenary operations.
The question is if those private companies are comparable to mercenaries and therefore against UN directives, expressed by the Convention of December the 4th 1989. There are many similarities between the two activities, but also a difference. A contractor is hired by a private company (oil, construction, engineering companies, for example), not by a national army.
Despite this distinction, only few countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and South Africa, followed by France, Russia and China, allow private security agencies. None of these countries ratified the UN convention, but international laws have a gray zone, even after the Montreux Document regarding private military and security companies in war zones. So, a private security company can’t be registered in most countries, but private people from all over the world can work for them.
In Italy, the debate started only in 2004, after the execution of Fabrizio Quattrocchi in Iraq. As his last words were “I’ll show you how an Italian dies”, there had been a strong ideological division in the public opinion, between those who exalted the (rhetoric) patriotic heroism of Quattrocchi and those who showed no mercy for a mercenary. That can be a perfect example of the polarization of the discussion.
Sure the business is very profitable, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. Military, with contracts of at least 20 thousand dollars a month. But of course contractors face high risks. In the worst period in Iraq, between 2003 and 2007, it is estimated that almost a thousand private security contractors died, plus we have to add all the local victims who provided support and logistic.
Another argument against this job is the vicious cycle created. The United States and the supporting coalition invade and destroy a country, hiding behind the noble purpose of eliminating dictators (Saddam Hussein) and oppressive or terrorist organizations (the Talibans). Then they take care of reconstruction of infrastructures, phone lines, pipelines… Many private companies got richer thanks to Middle Eastern instability – like Halliburton, where, accidentally, Dick Cheney was the CEO before becoming vice president in Bush Jr.’s administration.
Working as a security contractor is totally legitimate, but makes winkle the nose of many people who think that making a lot of money by exploiting bloody conflicts is not the best option. At least we can agree that is not genuinely heroic.
There had been also cases that worsened the reputation of security contractors, like causing innocent, civilian victims. But, honestly, this depends on how a single person practices the profession, not on the profession itself, which includes only defensive tasks.
There is also a bright side, though. Hiding a private company doesn’t weight on public expenditure, relieving contributors from tax increases. So, some countries are debating whether opening to this kind of agencies or not, in order to create employment and profit, even for the public finances (through the taxes that the companies would pay). Supporters of this phenomenon claim that wars already existed, since ever, and private military services can only protect civilians (or at least they should).
At the same time, we can’t exclude arguments about war management and political-economical interference that, systematically, go on from centuries. Even if it starts with the best intentions, a profession like this risks to perpetuate those distortions.
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