Reliance on private military and security companies (PMSCs) to provide services in armed conflicts has steadily increased since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. By 2006, the United States employed about 100,000 government contractors in Iraq, many of them working for PMSCs. Public attention to PMSCs increased significantly in 2007 when members of Blackwater, a PMSC hired by the US to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq, were involved in the death of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Several of those involved were tried last year, sparking discussions regarding accountability for private actors in armed conflicts.

picThe presence of contractors in combat situations is controversial in light of reported human rights abuses by private military and security companies. Despite their controversial status, the use of PMSCs continues; faced with the threat of the Islamic State (IS), the US government may once again be sending military contractors to Iraq alongside deployed US troops.

What are private military and security companies?

Private military companies (PMCs) are for-profit business organizations that specialize in providing military and security services once considered to be exclusively the role of government actors. These include combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence collection and analysis, operational and logistic support, training, procurement, and maintenance. Due to the potential for negative perception, many firms that specialize in protecting persons and property prefer to identify themselves as private security companies (PSCs). This distinction may not be truly meaningful, however, as these companies can still be involved in conflict situations and perform the same functions as PMCs. That is probably why scholars often group them as PMSCs.

Under international humanitarian law (IHL), individual employees of PMSCs are protected persons if they fall within the definition of civilians accompanying armed forces and are entitled to prisoner of war status if captured. However, if an individual is considered a civilian directly participating in hostilities or a mercenary, that individual will not be entitled to protections as a civilian or a combatant. The status of individual employees of PMSCs may differ based on the situation in which they are acting and therefore can only be determined on a case by case basis.

Are PMCs or their employees mercenaries?

PMCs and their employees are generally not considered mercenaries. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, defines a mercenary as a person who is who is recruited to fight in an armed conflict and takes a direct part in hostilities, but is not a national or resident, nor a member of the armed forces of a state party to the conflict. Mercenaries must be motivated by a desire for private gain through material compensation “substantially in excess” of that paid to members of armed forces of similar rank or function of the state party to the conflict that hired them. Mercenaries are not entitled to the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war and may face prosecution under both domestic and international law for their actions. PMSC employees, however, are often nationals of the states who employ them. For example, many members of PMSCs hired by the United States are former US military members looking to extend their service. Additionally, what amounts to payment “substantially in excess” is undefined, and salaries provided to members of PMSCs may not reach that threshold.

What do you think of the use of PMSCs by the State armed forces during armed conflict? Let us know in the comments!

Weekly IHL Update

UntitledMonday, January 26, 2015

In the News

Last week in Yemen, Houthi rebels seized the president’s chief of staff and then attacked the presidential compound. The rebels agreed to release President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in exchange for more influence in the country’s affairs. The situation in Yemen is also increasingly relevant because the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Continue Reading »


There is a good deal of misinformation available concerning the Arms Trade Treaty. An online search brings up a blizzard of references, not all of them accurate. There are those who say that the purpose of the treaty is to bring about a world-wide ban on gun ownership. This is clearly untrue. Continue Reading »

Weekly IHL Update

Option 1Monday, January 19,  2015

In the News

Existing state borders become tenuous during armed conflict, as the events of this past week demonstrate. Spillover seems to be occurring with many of the existing conflicts… Continue Reading »

Just two weeks into his deployment in Iraq, Chris Kyle found himself providing guard to Marines traveling into Baghdad. While on sniper patrol, from a rooftop Kyle observed an Iraqi woman in the street pull something from beneath her clothes and tug at it. He described the scene to his platoon chief, who quickly realized that the woman was setting a grenade for the approaching Marines. The chief told him to shoot and, hesitantly, Kyle obeyed. It was the first and only time he shot anyone other than a male insurgent in Iraq. Continue Reading »

Weekly IHL Update

Option 3Monday, January 12, 2015

In the News

In the past week, Boko Haram seized an army base in the town of Baga and then proceeded to massacre as many as 2,000 people in northern Nigeria, a senior member in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) reportedly defected and surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic, and reports suggest North Korea is ramping up its cyber army. Continue Reading »


Welcome back! This is our second post reviewing armed conflict around the world in 2014. In our first installment we discussed Ukraine, Islamic State, and weapons development over the past year. In this installment we focus on militant organizations like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, international criminal law, and conflicts between states. Continue Reading »


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