Time to end the privatisation of war

UK companies are reaping enormous profits from exploiting instability and conflict around the world

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Photo credit: War on Want

Sixty-five years ago, on 12 February 1951, the Manchester Guardian carried a letter from Victor Gollancz calling for people to join him in an urgent campaign against world poverty and militarism.

Britain was at that time fighting an unwinnable war in Korea, and Gollancz asked all those who agreed with his call to end the conflict, to send him a postcard marked with the single word ‘yes’. Within a month he had received 10,000 replies.

The Association for World Peace was formed to meet the response and future Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was tasked with drawing up a plan for world development.

His report ‘War on Want: A Plan for World Development’, cited the yawning gap between the world’s rich and poor and called for a popular movement to address that challenge. War on Want was born.

To mark sixty-five years of fighting for justice, War on Want’s new report, ‘Mercenaries Unleashed: the brave new world of private military and security companies’, reveals the changing face of warfare and how UK companies are reaping enormous profits from exploiting instability and conflict around the world.  

Gollancz’s letter called for an end to the Korean War; today, War on Want is calling for an end to the privatisation of war.

Private military and security companies (PMSCs) burst onto the scene 15 years ago, following the declaration of a ‘war on terror’ and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet today, companies are supplying much more than ‘guards at the gate’. PMSCs from several countries are now being contracted to take up active combat roles in ongoing wars within African and Middle Eastern states.

We are witnessing the return of the ‘Dogs of War’. In Nigeria, the government has secured the services of South African mercenary troops from the apartheid era to fight the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the north of the country, while Colombian mercenaries recruited by infamous US company Blackwater are fighting alongside Saudi forces in Yemen.

Despite a track record of profiting from war and conflict, and numerous accusations of human rights abuses in conflict situations around the world, PMSCs remain unaccountable and unregulated.

The UK government claims the likes of G4S, Aegis Defence Services, Control Risks and Olive Group are best left to police themselves.

When you consider that at the heart of the industry is a revolving door between PMSCs, military, intelligence and corporate worlds, such a claim is not surprising.

Today, the biggest market for British PMSCs in Iraq is the provision of security for private corporations investing in the country. The likes of Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and others are now paying PMSCs to secure their operations. G4S, the world’s largest private security company, is one such organisation.

When not providing equipment and services to Israel, making it complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people, it continues to secure lucrative deals in Iraq. In September 2015 it won a new contract worth up to $270 million to provide security services to the Basra Gas Company.

While Iraq and Afghanistan remain longstanding markets for British PMSCs (a result of the outsourcing of security operations previously undertaken by US and UK troops), instability in other resource-rich regions of the world, such as northern and western Africa, is leading to increased opportunities for these companies.

G4S makes over a third of its profits in the ’emerging markets business’, with annual turnover of around £500 million in Africa.  

It is not just on land that PMSCs are rife. The use of private armies in the maritime industry is booming, and British companies are again at the forefront. According to G4S the security of trade vessels in the Indian Ocean is ‘a big commercial opportunity’.

Yet, as the presence of private armies on board ships can contravene local and international law, PMSCs are increasingly exploiting a legal loophole when it comes to use of arms in international waters.

Making use of floating armouries – ships harboured at sea and stacked with rifles, ammunition, night vision goggles and other military grade equipment – they can operate freely, without fear of being investigated.

There are 20 such armouries currently on the Indian Ocean. In August 2013 the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issued 50 licences for floating armouries operating in the India Ocean and Gulf of Arden.

For too long this murky world of ‘guns for hire’ has been allowed to grow unchecked, and in letting the industry regulate itself the UK government has failed. Binding regulation is long overdue.

The Swiss government has already banned all PMSCS based in Switzerland from operating in conflict; it is time the UK followed suit. The time has come to end the privatisation of war.

Ross Hemingway is a spokesperson for War on Want

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