Soldiers of Fortune 500: International Mercenaries. (Global Notebook)

By Creehan, Sean | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Soldiers of Fortune 500: International Mercenaries. (Global Notebook)


Creehan, Sean, Harvard International Review


Mercenary armies have long been stigmatized as profiteering opportunists devoid of any allegiance to the cause for which they fight.

Today's mercenaries still fight for money, but in the context of global capitalism, some groups are becoming less morally objectionable. The organization of mercenaries into corporations that function like consulting firms has put distance between them and their activities. Mercenary corporations' increasing efficiency and self-regulation is influencing the way legitimate governments view mercenaries as instruments of state policy.

Scanning the names of prominent mercenary groups, their corporate nature is immediately apparent. Sandline International, the now-disbanded Executive Outcomes (EO), Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI)--these private military companies (PMCs) are all located in developed countries and sell their expertise and manpower to those who need it, just like consulting firms.

Despite the prevailing distaste for mercenaries, the record of these companies speaks to their potential for resolving conflicts and establishing peace and order in countries that would otherwise be ignored by the world's leading powers. For example, both EO and Sandline were hired on separate occasions by President Ahmed Kabbah of Sierra Leone in his efforts to defeat the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had kept his democratically elected government from ruling the country. The initial deployment of EO in 1995 successfully quashed the rebel movement and maintained peace during the 1996 and 1997 elections. However, the withdrawal of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan due to the mercenaries' presence made it impossible for Kabbah to pay EO. The group's withdrawal led to a coup ousting Kabbah less than three months later.

In 1998, Sandline was hired to finish what EO had started. Sandline's involvement in Sierra Leone again restored Kabbah to power, but controversy quickly arose in the United Kingdom when Sandline came under investigation by the Department of Customs and Excises for alleged violations of a UN arms embargo in Sierra Leone. The controversy only deepened when the company claimed that it had the support of the British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone and the tacit approval of the British Foreign Office. A House of Commons Select Committee inquiry eventually exonerated the company of wrongdoing, but only after a damaging political scandal in the British Foreign Office. Back in Sierra Leone, Sandline was forced to withdraw after a peace accord with the rebels was hastily signed and the RUF leader was installed as vice president under Kabbah. When further bloodshed followed Sandline's withdrawal, British troops were sent in along with a UN peacekeeping force, where they remain today.

The example of Sierra Leone shows that mercenaries can be an effective tool in ending conflict, but can also lead to further chaos if not part of a long-term plan. The question is whether they are better suited to such efforts than UN peacekeeping forces or those of other governments. As Sandline's former chief, Tim Spicer, said in the year 2000, "It was a darn sight cheaper for the British Government to pay us than the 350 million pounds it is costing us to maintain our troops and the UN operation. …

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