Is Government Use of PMSCs (Private Military Security Contractors) Legitimate

Is Government Use of PMSCs (Private Military Security Contractors) Legitimate?

Following last week’s UN Security Council Resolution calling for significant humanitarian efforts in Gaza, Israel is considering hiring private security contractors to help protect the humanitarian aid shipments being sent to Gaza. Israeli officials broached the subject with the Biden administration, but US officials are not eager to place American troops or security forces on the ground in the middle of a war (and an election year). 

The US has approved a plan to use some 1,000 troops and civilians to construct a floating dock and pier system that would make it easier to receive aid in Gaza. When this plan was approved, Biden and the Pentagon both made guarantees that “no US boots will be on the ground.”

The US has requested that Israel provide security while they set up the floating dock and pier, but it seems that the Jewish State is currently short of helping hands. 

The Israeli army has about 170,000 active troops and another 465,000 reserve troops. However, the small country is not only facing threats from Hamas, but from Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, West Bank Palestinian terror attacks, and more. 

Israeli officials have reached out to several security firms and have requested that other countries pay the pricey security fees. As tensions rise throughout the region, the likelihood that Israel outsources this kind of security is steadily increasing, particularly after the IDF mistakenly attacked a vessel of World Central Kitchen aid workers this week, killing seven. The IDF has issued a statement taking responsibility for the strike and is promising a full probe into the events leading up to the strike. The tragic incident comes after months of international efforts to push aid into Gaza while military operations remain ongoing. 

Global Government Use of Private Military Security Contractors

Israel would not be the first country to hire private military security contractors (PMSCs). The US significantly increased its use of PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, reporting 28,000 PMSC personnel in 2011. By 2016, 25% of US personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were PMSCs, according to the Navy Times

Russia is also known for its use of PMSCs in matters of security and spreading Russian interests around the globe. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Russian government has used PMSCs “as a tool of foreign policy and irregular warfare” since 2015. 

In fact, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “PMSCs operate in almost every country in the world,” with the main concentration (about 70%) hosted in several specific countries: the US, UK, China, and South Africa. Though not one of the top hosts of PMSCs, Russia draws significant attention due to their disproportionate use of PMSCs in combat operations. 

The Controversy of PMSCs

As their name indicates, PMSCs operate  without government or public oversight. This keeps governments’ hands clean while enabling private security contractors to continue doing whatever needs to be done — sometimes, at the cost of human rights.

One of the most infamous cases of PMSCs gone-wrong occurred in 2007, when Blackwater contractors who were hired to protect a US State Department convoy fired on a crowd in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians and injuring 20. 

Similarly, the Russian Wagner Group has been accused of “Grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution.”

Regardless of the government for which they work, PMSCs operate with much greater latitude than a soldier subject to national and martial law. The use of PMSCs has become particularly appealing in the last twenty years, as protracted wars like Iraq and now Ukraine drain domestic resources and sour public opinion against government actions. However, with lack of oversight also comes a weakened ability to command and no commitment of loyalty. In a situation such as the Israel-Hamas war, PMSCs would likely serve only in the arenas least impactful to Israeli security positions and may come only at the behest of international actors pressuring for humanitarian intervention.

International Regulation of PMSCs

The international community has attempted to guide and regulate the use of PMSCs several times, though the major resolutions have been nonbinding. Among the most visible attempts is the Montreux Document. Created in 2008 by the government of Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the document describes how PMSC companies should act, although it is not legally binding. 

Similarly, the Draft UN Convention on Regulating PMSCs Activities, proposed in 2011, includes a comprehensive and legally binding regulation system for PMSCs that requires international cooperation. The convention, however, has not been adopted. 

These documents and those like them are outdated. Governments around the world largely agree that countries that hire PMSCs should be responsible for ensuring that they follow international humanitarian law. However, these same governments certainly recognize the value of PMSCs, particularly when it serves their own interests. For this reason, they are perhaps they are, as of yet, unwilling to relinquish their use of them.