What the Wagner Mutiny Says About Attempts to Control Private Military and Security Companies


Photograph Source: Fargoh – CC0

The recent mutiny by Wagner has left several unanswered questions. Among them: What about the role of private military groups in general? The Wagner Private Military Company, its formal name, is one of many private military and security companies (PMSCs) operating around the world that are thriving, but most remain outside any formal control.

The Russian government uses Wagner in its war against Ukraine, and multinationals hire PMSCs to protect their oil and gas facilities. According to a report from Aerospace&Defence News, “the global private military and security industry will be worth over $457 billion in 2030, up from $224 billion in 2020.” The company G4S Global, for example, had roughly 530,000 employees in 2011. Today, G4S Global reports a global workforce of approximately 800,000 people and revenues of about $20 billion.

For those who cringe at Russia’s use of Wagner in Ukraine, a great majority of PMSCs are located elsewhere. According to the 2023 SIPRI yearbook, “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.”

There have been two major initiatives to regulate PMSCs. The first, the Montreux Document, focused on the responsibility of states to oversee PMSCs. The second, the International Code for Private Security Providers (ICoC), is an attempt by the industry to self-regulate. In light of the proliferation of PMSCs, these efforts are to be saluted, but their regulatory power remains inconclusive.

The Montreux Document

In 2008, the Swiss Government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) joined with seventeen countries to endorse an agreement known as the “Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies During Armed Conflicts.” The Document described international law as it applies to PMSCs in the context of armed conflicts. Its two stated objectives were: 1) to clarify existing obligations of contracting states, territorial states, and home states; and 2) to develop good practices, regulatory options, and other measures for the same at the national and international levels.

The Document deals with three geographic considerations: the states in which PMSCs operate; states in which PMSCs are incorporated; states in which PMSCs subcontract with other PMSCs. The importance of these definitions is that “they constitute an explicit recognition by highly affected states that they have a specific duty to protect human rights during the operation of PMSCs operating from their territory, or with whom they contract regardless of the extra jurisdictional location of the activities of the private entity”.

There are considerable debates in international law concerning the engagement of PMSCs in armed conflicts. The question is whether in situations of armed conflict (inter or intrastate) international humanitarian law (IHL) and international criminal law apply to PMSC employees. Most lawyers agree that if serious violations occur, national and international courts can prosecute the employees. Some arguments focus particularly on the status of the employees. Are they civilians or combatants? Courts may hold superiors of PMSCs liable for international crimes committed by personnel under their effective authority, although control is always difficult to prove. For the moment, courts have prosecuted very few PMSC personnel for IHL, human rights, or criminal violations.

Part Two of the Document deals with good practices. (The recommendations, it is noted, may also apply for international organizations, non-government organizations, and companies.) As of today, 58 states and 3 regional organisations (EU, NATO, OSCE) support the Montreux Document.

The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC)

In response to industry demands, the Swiss government was involved in a second initiative to establish international standards for PMSCs. Its objectives were to establish clear standards for private security providers based on international human rights law as well as to develop an oversight and compliance mechanism. Members of the private security industry and the Swiss Government agreed on a final version for an ICoC structure in 2010, including a compliance mechanism, the ICoC Association. As of today, there are 126 company members of the Association, 7 government members, 51 civil society members, and 71 observers.

The ICoC Preamble states that “the Signatory Companies commit to the responsible provision of Security Services so as to support the rule of law, respect the human rights of all persons and protect the interests of their clients.” It explicitly states that it neither refers to legally binding obligations nor seeks to limit or prejudice existing international law, another example of soft law.

The ICoC has very specific principles regarding the conduct of personnel, especially dealing with the use of force, detention, and apprehending persons. Separate sections deal with the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as well as sexual exploitation, abuse, or gender-based violence and human trafficking.

The Montreux Document and the ICoC are reactions to the growing privatization of the use of force. The blurry distinction between official and non-official combatants remains undecided, just as is the distinction between actual combat and combat support. The Wagner Group’s relationship to the Russian government highlights these confusions. While the benefits for governments or companies using PMSCs include greater flexibility, minimized formal casualties, and reduced accountability, the lack of transparency and reduced accountability are the greatest negatives. The Montreux Document and the ICoC try to overcome those negatives, but both are very soft law as Russia’s use of Wagner confirms.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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