Soldiers for Hire

By Sheppard, Simon | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Soldiers for Hire


Sheppard, Simon, Contemporary Review


Two years ago the former Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan contracted the British private military corporation Sandline to settle a long-running revolt on the island of Bougainville. Before operations could commence the PNG Defence Forces staged a revolt and ejected the Sandline personnel. Chan was forced to stand down and lost his seat at the ensuing election.

Because Sandline had only received half of its fee up-front, a lot of money remained outstanding. Last October Sandline was awarded the balance of the US$36 million contract it signed with Chan by an international tribunal which included Sir Edward Somers of the New Zealand High Court, in addition to Sir Michael Kerr from the Appeal Court in the UK and Sir Daryl Dawson from the Australian High Court. The new PNG Prime Minister Bill Skate refused to recognise the claim: 'We will stand our ground on this issue until the very last', he vowed. 'The contract with Sandline was illegal and services they provide ran against the moral spirit of this nation. We will stand up to this group of 'guns for hire' and expose every move they make against the people and the development of Papua New Guinea'.

Sandline retaliated by securing court orders for the seizure of state-owned properties and other assets of PNG missions in the United States, the Philippines, Germany, Luxembourg and elsewhere.

Skate has finally backed down. He was ultimately cornered by his government's intention to proceed with the $250 million sovereign bond issue. 'The decision (to settle out of court) is basically to win the investors' confidence', Skate explained. 'I decided, after weighing up everything, it was in the best interests that I should swallow my pride, swallow my words, and forget the politics that would have been in my favour if I kept on fighting'. Under the terms of the agreement PNG will pay US$13.3 million in installments over the next twelve months, and Sandline is free to recover US$14 million worth of military equipment, including four helicopters, which have been stored at the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal, near Darwin, since March 1997.

Sandline is only one of the new breed of private military corporations which have emerged in the post-Cold War era. Taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by a multinational business environment they have staked their claim in security operations until now held to be the exclusive responsibility for governments or supra-governmental bodies like the United Nations.

There may now be a reaction against the widening involvement of private military corporations. Sandline is already notorious for its involvement with the UK Foreign Office in supplying covert military assistance to loyalist supporters of the deposed government in Sierra Leone, in contravention of a UN arms embargo.

Last year British Petroleum sacked its chief security officer and was forced to conduct an internal inquiry after its security operation in Columbia, run by a subsidiary of Defence Systems Ltd., became too closely associated with the local paramilitaries.

Earlier this year the South African firm Executive Outcomes (EO) announced that it was suspending operations. 'We have had some good times', said EO director Nico Palm. 'What we did we did very well and we are proud of it'. However, 'African countries are busy working out solutions in Africa. Let's give them a chance'. Commentators suggest that in fact EO jumped before it was pushed into limbo by South Africa's recently initiated Regulation of Military Assistance Act.

David Shearer, a research associate at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, was senior advisor to the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in Liberia and Rwanda from 1995 to 1996, and he is the world's leading authority on private military corporations. He doubts that legislative measures can be effective in preventing the development and involvement of private militaries: 'The point about companies is they can establish, close and shift very quickly. …

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