Are Private Security Forces Sometimes Preferable to National Military Forces?
Robert Turner, Herbert Howe, Frank Fountain, & Christopher Coker
The supply of private security forces and the demand for them are growing by leaps and bounds. Trying to eliminate them is like trying to eliminate prostitution, said Herbert Howe, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. We can ignore them or ban them (which pushes them into the shadows) or we can regulate them. Howe's remarks came during a panel discussion on February 24, as part of the Fiftieth Anniversary Symposium of the John Bassett Moore Society of International Law. Joining Howe were Frank Fountain, a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and Christopher Coker, of the London School of Economics. All three panelists considered the use of market-driven, private security forces an acceptable alternative to the use of national military forces.
Going beyond the devil-we-know approach, Professor Howe described government-regulated private security forces not simply as unavoidable, but as a positive support of nation-states. He cited Angola's hiring of Executive Outcome, a private South African "pocket army", as a relatively cheap way to turn around the Angolan civil war in the 1990s. He said the work of Executive Outcome in Sierra Leone in the '90s helped lead the way to democratic elections there.
Disorder has increased since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Frank Fountain said; the big Cold War has been replaced by small hot wars. He thinks that in response to these conflicts we should not be asking how to make the United Nations better at international policing, but should ask how we can make international policing better. His answer is to use private forces with UN oversight, rather than national forces. The UN should hire private organizations to build military forces specifically tailored to the mission. He also believes private forces can usefully serve individual nations as well. Fountain refuted the claim that the profit motive of private forces would encourage them to prolong or expand a conflict. A national government can pay for and equip private forces with the contingency that they must meet their contract terms. If they don't, the government can hire other forces, or can seek international aid.
Christopher Coker distinguished between covenant and contractual approaches to military forces. Forces under contract (mercenaries) have limited, specific roles; their contract tells them exactly what to do, and requires penalities to enforce. In contrast, national forces of voluntary and conscripted soldiers serve under covenant. Covenants are open-ended, and are internally enforced by the soldiers, who have a sense of vocation and commitment to society, Coker said.
He cited nineteenth-century legal and philosophic bases of European preference for the covenant model. But he argued that today war is becoming contractual; the market determines the conditions under which military forces serve. Suppliers include those who do war, such as Executive Outcome, and traditional security companies who protect personnel, such as those of NGOs. Demand comes nearly exclusively from African countries and global corporations.
Coker said the moral issues of using private forces are often overstated or misrepresented. He thinks appropriate questions to ask are whether these private companies do the job they are hired to do and whether it is the job they should do. He argued that threatened governments may get a better deal from them than from the public sector forces, which pull out when death occurs or hole up in their barracks to prevent loss of life.
The two-day conference also included panels about export controls, international criminal law, and humanitarian intervention, a screening of the documentary film "Justice at Work: An Introduction to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia," and talks by the Honorable Stephen M. Schwebel, former President of the International Court of Justice, and Harry Inman, co-founder of the J.B. Moore Society of International Law.