A working group from the United Nations has been visiting South Africa this week to investigate the link between African conflicts and international mercenaries, and discuss ways to enforce legal regulations.
Ex-soldiers from all over the world flock to war zones for pay
Africa is a continent that seems to be perpetually at war with itself. Nearly half of its 53 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one.
The causes behind most of the dirty wars raging in nations such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Niger have been lost in time; the soldiers and rebels involved locked in a spiral of violence where killing is the only aim as ideological targets fade into the past.
But where there is little hope, there is considerable profit. Much of Africa is a fertile recruiting ground for private mercenaries and security contractors who are willing to do the dirty work for various governments, according to Dex Torricke-Barton from the Executive Office of the Secretary-General at the UN in New York.
Independence led to an upsurge in African conflicts
"Many ex-military personnel from South Africa have offered their services over the last decade and there are also plenty of former European and US troops who are willing to fight," Torricke-Barton told Deutsche Welle.
"The vast majority of these people are contractors, and they perform a wide range of services including providing intelligence, risk assessment, training, and logistics - as well as fighting."
The well-paid private soldiers often operate with impunity, either under the shield of government command or through the shady subterfuge of multinationals who have hired them to protect their interests.
Currently a UN working group - its mouthful of an official name is the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-determination - has been visiting South Africa this week to investigating the link between African conflicts and international mercenaries, and to discuss ways to enforce legal regulations.
The UN has said the growth of unaccountable private armies has exacerbated conflicts in Africa. It has suggested the hired guns are helping to keep the cycle of violence alive in many wars purely to reap financial rewards, while committing atrocities with no fear of prosecution.
Legal gray area
"There are many problems associated with the growing use of private security contractors in conflict zones," Torricke-Barton said. "Governments can rely on these people to avoid taking direct legal responsibility for their conduct, and to commit human-rights abuses which fail to get addressed through the current, weak international legal framework."
Allan Cowley, a former British army officer and military analyst, agreed that private soldiers "absolve the governments from any direct responsibility" in the conflicts they're waging.
"They work in a netherworld, a gray area between legality and criminality, where neither they nor their employers appear accountable for their actions," he told Deutsche Welle.
Earlier this decade, a golden era for private security firms heralded the rise of companies that have gained Western credibility - and sometimes notoriety - through their involvement in government-backed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And the use of mercenaries has only increased in line with the grudging acceptance of their role in modern warfare.
Now the UN wants governments in Africa to enforce both new and existing laws in an attempt to rein in what many experts says is an exponentially expanding industry.
Turning a blind eye
"In the post-Cold War world, there has been a proliferation of new security challenges in Africa," said Torricke-Barton. "Governments and conventional military forces have been ill-equipped to deal with these, so they call in independent talent to solve their problems."
Growing interest in Africa's natural resources and the growing presence private firms there has led to an explosion in international investment, points out military analyst Cowley.
"A blind eye cannot see what's right under its nose," Cowley said. "Just as many of these companies pay little regard to the people and surroundings in which they operate, so they have even less concern about who they employ to protect their businesses, and how these security firms enforce their directives."
European and US security firms are at large in African states
A number of African governments signed legislation in 2007 that required private soldiers and security firms to get official authorization to operate in war zones. However, these laws and older statutes have remained unimplemented by many of the signatories.
"There are many national, regional and international legal arrangements which relate to the use of mercenaries. But all of these legal layers have deficiencies of some form of another, and the legal status of contractors remains fuzzy at best in international law," said Torricke-Barton.
"Most of the work of modern private security contractors falls outside the purview of the 1989 UN Convention on Mercenaries ... A lot more work needs to be done by the international community to adapt the regulatory framework to the 21st century," he added.
Private security firms sign up to new Code of Conduct
The UN's efforts to address exactly these problems come just days after a landmark US and British-backed code-of-conduct was implemented by the Swiss government and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law.
The code will be compulsory for any country using private security operators, and will require companies to meet standards in "recruitment, vetting personnel, training, control mechanisms, compliance with local and international laws and protection of human rights."
The code also imposes limits on the use of force and an assurance that staff cannot invoke contractual obligations or "superior orders" in a conflict zone to justify crimes, killings, torture, kidnappings and detentions. The aim is to prevent abuse and rein in excessive violence in lawless conflict zones.
The US and Britain are among the 35 countries that have backed the Swiss code, and 58 private security companies – including Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater – have already signed up.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn