By Elizabeth Rubin 

Colonel Roelf was an Afrikaner who as a soldier and trained assassin spent his adult life suppressing black African liberation movements for the apartheid-era South African defense forces. Yet when I met him in the spring of 1996 in Sierra Leone, the black African civilians whose homes he had liberated in the midst of a brutal civil war said they regarded him as their savior.

Roelf was in Sierra Leone with Executive Outcomes (EO), a private mercenary army composed of former South African soldiers, which had been hired by the government to end the war. “We want to help African countries to neutralize their rebel wars and not depend on the UN to solve their problems,” Roelf told me one afternoon in the remote diamond region where he and his fellow mercenaries had set up their hilltop military base. “We are something like the UN of Africa, only with a smaller budget.” When some Sierra Leonian women stopped by to request protection for a soccer game down by the river because rebels were still roaming the bush, Roelf promised to help. “I am the ombudsman here,” he said. Roelf was in fact more of an independent marshal hoping to enlarge his bank account with diamonds. And he was clearly attempting to dress up his mercenary operation with the language of international peacekeeping. But the village chiefs didn’t care whether Roelf was a mercenary, an Afrikaner, a UN peacekeeper, or what, so long as he continued to protect the people with his soldiers and helicopter gunships.

Between 1991 and 1995 Sierra Leone descended into a state of violent anarchy with both rebels and renegade government soldiers waging a war of terror against civilians—torching villages, hacking people to death, or chopping off their hands, feet, and genitals. The international community had little inclination to get involved. The United Nations had seen enough humiliation with Somalis dragging dead American peacekeepers through the streets of Mogadishu, the Bosnian Serb Army taking United Nations peacekeepers hostage, and Rwandan genocidaires killing Belgian blue helmets. So the young Sierra Leonian military president turned to the international market and hired Executive Outcomes. They agreed to destroy the rebels and restore law and order in return for 15 million dollars and diamond mining concessions. Within a year EO stabilized the country enough for the population to line up for its first presidential elections in twenty-eight years.

EO belongs to the burgeoning industry of private security companies that have entered the theater of war in the last decade offering to do what the United Nations cannot—take sides, deploy overwhelming force, and fire preemptively for a hefty fee. As Roelf’s corporate employer back in South Africa stresses, unlike the mercenaries of yore, the company will only work for “legitimate governments.” Nevertheless, EO also fits Additional Prorocol I’s definition of mercenaries—any person who is not a national of a party to the conflict and who is promised material compensation in excess of that paid to his employer’s armed forces.

International laws concerning the status of mercenaries and the use of them by warring parties are extremely murky due to the changing political atmosphere in which they have been drafted. Mercenarism is perhaps the second-oldest profession. Back in the days of Italian city-states even the Pope contracted condottieri to hire outside soldiers for defense. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Swiss were renowned for their free standing battalions hired out to other European countries. It was not until this century, during the turbulent period of decolonization in Africa, that mercenaries gained notoriety as bloodthirsty dogs of war wreaking havoc with the sovereignty of weak, newly independent African States. Such freelance guns-for-hire are accountable to no nation-state and no international laws. They will work for the highest bidder regardless of the cause and are rightly regarded as destabilizing agents. After all, they have no stake in the country’s future and as long as war continues, so do their salaries.

So, in 1968, the United Nations General Assembly and the Organization for African Unity established laws against mercenaries, making the use of them against movements for national liberation and independence punishable as a criminal act. In 1977, the Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the recruitment of mercenaries to overthrow governments of UN member-States. The 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, in Article 47, stripped mercenaries of the right to claim combatant or prisoner of war status, thus leaving them vulnerable to trials as common criminals in the offended State. It also left the definition of mercenaries, in the view of many critics, dangerously subjective and partly dependent upon judging a person’s reasons for fighting.

The United Nations Charter, however, also declares that nothing shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a UN member. With the proliferation of low-intensity internal conflicts around the globe and the reluctance on the part of member-States to intervene militarily, States and even humanitarian operations may, in the future, rely more on private security companies. So did Sierra Leone violate the laws against the use of mercenaries? Or was it practicing its right to defend against State collapse?

Depending on how you tally the gains for Sierra Leone, there was some truth to Roelf’s claims. EO’s intervention allowed over 300,000 refugees to return home. To keep the same number of people in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Guinea was costing the international aid community about $60 million a year. Furthermore, the civilians trusted EO much more than they’d ever trust their own unreliable soldiers to keep order. On the other hand, the new civilian government owed millions to a company of South African mercenaries and was wholly dependent upon them to stay in power. As it turns out, the World Bank ordered the bankrupt civilian government to terminate their contract with EO. With no reliable national army or peacekeeping force, the country slid back into violent disarray. A year later, rebels and rapacious government soldiers overthrew the government and ruled by terror. The cycle didn’t end there. About eight months later, a British company related to EO launched an assault with a Nigerian force and threw out the junta, causing a tremendous political scandal in London. In the end, where have all these private armies left Sierra Leone? At the time of writing, the weak civilian president is back, the mercenaries are gone, and angry rebels are still cutting off the hands and arms of Sierra Leonians far away from the capital.

At the heart of the debate about mercenaries and security companies is the question of whether it is possible to make a distinction, in legal terms, between good and bad mercenaries. Would Sierra Leone have been better off if EO were employed on a semipermanent basis? What to make of the Serb and Croat soldiers—formerly enemies—who were hired by Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, to stanch a popular revolution? Or the Romanian and South African snipers paid by the Bosnian Serbs to kill Bosnian civilians during the siege of Sarajevo? Perhaps the time has come to modify the laws and the definition of mercenaries. International law experts have suggested that by affording mercenaries the status and hence the rights of combatants, they would be more likely to abide by their obligations as combatants. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Others suggest a law requiring security companies to be registered with national governments. This would at least make the companies accountable to a government licensing body, which would require such companies to abide by international laws. Despite the fact that states are likely to use these private companies as covers to engage in unpopular foreign policy, this may be the best possible means of control.

While Executive Outcomes is not the most savory form of crisis intervention, it was hard to argue with the words of Sam Norma, the Sierra Leonian deputy defense minister, who said to me back in April of 1996, “Our people have died, lost their limbs, lost their eyes and their properties for these elections. If we employ a service to protect our hard-won democracy, why should it be viewed negatively?”

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