Note: This article is part of a series. You can read part one and part two here.

PMSCs have transformed from “historically ubiquitous mercenaries” to highly corporatised firms that have dominated the conduct of every major American military operation in the post-Cold War era, and they appear to be making yet another professional evolution. PMSCs have drawn a considerable amount of criticism in recent times and as such have been labelled by some as a negative phenomenon that has eroded political accountability and democracy, as well as states’ control over violence and other traditionally held responsibilities.

The contracting of PMSCs and other military service providers by different states has also been seen as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the responsibilities to human rights that most are obliged to uphold as signatories to the Geneva Convention. PMSCs, as non-state actors, are not impelled to abide by these regulations, and are criticised for being able to operate outside of these moral boundaries. This was seen on a number of occasions throughout the Iraq War where PMSCs such as Blackwater, Titan Corp., KBR, DynCorp, CACI, and Aegis Defence Services acted at times with impunity and a complete disregard for the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). In the same way that mercenaries of the 20th century earned themselves a complete distrust based on their professional and personal conduct, history appears to have repeated itself with PMSC involvement in events such as the Nisour Square massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

With their reputation and perceived trustworthiness steadily on the decline, PMSCs have focused their efforts on branding and carefully selecting the types of operations they are conducting in order to reverse the ever-growing public scrutiny. As with any business, corporation, firm, or publicly traded company that operates on a ‘for-profit’ basis, negative public perception can adversely affect their reputation and, ultimately, their profits. PMSCs have reverted to again filling capability gaps, but this time they are applying a humanitarian approach to the services they are providing. Private military firms are forging very close alliances with more traditional humanitarian actors and non-government organisations in order to soften their image and to distance themselves from the damaging reputation that contemporary PMSCs earned during the height of the Iraq War.

PMSCs framing their operations in the most positive light possible and working with NGOs has been seen by some as an attempt to present themselves as the “new humanitarians.” Adding another complex layer to the international security landscape, PMSCs are now combining the military, business, and humanitarian worlds in new and unfamiliar ways, sometimes “presenting themselves according to their clients’ needs, sometimes as force-multipliers…other times as genuine firms that follow a client-focused approach, and occasionally as humanitarians interested in saving the world.”

This tactic is being used extensively by some PMSCs in order to differentiate themselves from the ‘bad-eggs’ and increase their pool of clients, market share, and overall profitability. There is a growing body of research that clearly identifies how a number of PMSCs are appropriating the humanitarian frame through a number of their marketing and advertising applications, from the designs of their websites, their company overviews, services, mission statements, as well as through multiple trade association memberships such as the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC), International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), and the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC).

Despite this attempt by PMSCs to distance themselves from their traditional functions, the shift to adopt a humanitarian identity by engaging in altruistic discourse is still driven by factors that primarily serve the business interests of these firms. As private entities, these interests invariably revolve around the sustainability and profitability of the company. It is always going to be a delicate subject when combat-related services are performed by private companies and driven by money rather than by the moral obligations such as those championed by the international community. Although the humanitarian approach may not be the silver-bullet solution for PMSCs, it certainly is a step in the right direction to consciously apply self-driven regulatory procedures, even if profit is still the underlying driving force.

Contemporary PMSCs have evolved into one of the most powerful non-state actors that currently operate within the international security and political landscapes. This unprecedented influence is the direct result of their extraordinary and unchecked growth since the end of the Cold War, and this growth has generally been attributed to large-scale military reductions, the push to privatise government services, and an increase in regional conflicts around the globe. Military overstretch and operational failure of inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations created solution gaps that needed additional support to effectively mitigate them.

State- and inter-governmental-supplied force contingents were not able to quell the long-suppressed ethnic and regional rivalries erupting throughout different continents. What emerged were practical and efficient remedies in the form of the private military security company. These firms were contracted to fulfill a variety of roles that had traditionally been the responsibilities of states and IGOs. This has led to some significant issues and challenges to traditional understandings of power. The growth of this industry and the subsequent reliance on their services by even the most powerful countries drove PMSCs to amass so much influence that they are now considered to be threatening the traditional Westphalian paradigms of the state.

One of the main criticisms that has been leveled at PMSCs is that they are eroding the monopoly that states should ostensibly have over the implementation of violence. Unlike finance and trade, two fields in which governments have grown to minimise their involvement, the consequences of privatising war and conflict may not yet be fully realised. This new and unfamiliar dynamic is highlighting the very real dilemma that questions state relevance. The trend toward privatisation of services relevant to the conduct of war may unfortunately set an irreversible precedence. If PMSCs are to distance themselves from criticism, they must minimise their offensive and kinetic focus and reframe their services in a humanitarian and altruistic light.