Security Sector Reform

Topic Guide: Private Military Companies (PMCs)

The terms Private Military Company (PMC) and Private Security Company (PSC) have been used exclusively and interchangeably in different contexts. Technically the difference is between the services that each provide. A PMC will typically provide military combat services (offensive and/or defensive) as well as military training and intelligence. As opposed to this, PSCs will provide actual security for commercial interests and/or government interests, close protection of VIPs, risk assessment and risk analyses. However, with the diversification of these companies and the massive contracts that they now command, there is a huge overlap in the work they do, and it is not uncommon to find major PMCs and PSCs offering the same service. The topic guide will use the term PMC to refer to both of these companies.

Page contents

A good place to start

DCAF, 2006, ‘Private Military Companies’, DCAF Backgrounder, DCAF, Geneva.

What are PMCs? Are they more cost-effective than the military? How does domestic law apply to them? What international regulations have been proposed for PMCs? The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) provides concise and useful background information for PMCs. It includes succinct answers to frequently asked questions and compares the legal approaches of the United States and South African governments to those of PMCs. It also links the reader to further documents on the issue.

– Full text available here.

Goddard,S., 2001, ‘The Private Military Company: A Legitimate International Entity Within Modern Conflict’, A thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA

A good introduction to what PMCs are and how they operate can also be found within the thesis prepared by Major S Goddard for the US Army Command and General Staff College.
The thesis tracks the development of PMCs from the start of operations of Sandline, Executive Outcomes and Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI). These three PMCs were involved in controversial events in Africa and Europe and brought PMC activity to public attention and scrutiny. It also looks at defining their role and the legitimacy of their existence and services offered. More specifically, the thesis focuses on the PMCs that have a strategic political and security impact on the countries in which they operate – thus being of direct relevance to SSR activities and studies.

Full text available here.

Government policy towards PMCs

FCO, 2002, ‘Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation’, Return to an Address of the Honourable the House of Commons, Green Paper, Foreign and Commenwealth Office, London.

Being private, commercially-led institutions in conflict areas has brought a lot of attention to PMCs and generated many concerns over their roles in conflicts. It is important to define what a PMC is, what its function is, what are acceptable contracts for it to undertake and what are not. This paper provides detailed information about these issues.
As PMCs operate in a grey area of the law and are paid to carry out security services many critics are concerned at the way in which there appears to be a lack of accountability in areas where government agencies would be held accountable. This green paper was published in 2002 and discussed the various regulatory options available for HMG in dealing with PMCs. It also gives detailed examples of where PMCs have been active in the past and why the industry should be regulated.

Lilly,D., 2002, ‘Regulating Private Military Companies: The Need for a Multi-dimensional Approach’, Seminar to consider the FCO green paper Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation, Foreign and Commenwealth Office, London.

Why must a specific set of regulations be made and what should they be? Should the spotlight be on actors themselves or on activities and their consequences? What scope should there be for a licensing system? Further discussion of the FCO’s green paper ‘Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation’ was undertaken by Damian Lilly of International Alert in a paper presented to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) after the publication of the green paper. Lilly’s paper proposes a multi-regulatory system which includes international bans on unlawful participation in armed conflicts, a licensing system for PMCs as well as a code of conduct for them to operate under.

HMG, 2002, ‘Private Military Companies’, Ninth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, The Stationery Office by Order of the House, London.

The Foreign Affairs Committee built on the findings of the FCO’s green paper ‘Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation’ by praising its content and re-iterating the concerns highlighted within it. These included: What are the current British, US and International measures used to regulate PMCs? What are the moral problems posed by PMCs and do their vested interests play a role in prolonging conflict? Is there a lack of clear industry regulations and HMG policy towards the industry?
Answering these questions as well as discussing the relationship between PMC activity and UK foreign and defence policy, this report deepens the arguments that were in the green paper. This paper also includes an annex of PMCs and PSCs contracted by HMG departments abroad.

Krahmann,E., 2003, ‘Controlling Private Military Companies: The United Kingdom and Germany’, presented at The International Studies Association Annual Convention, International Studies Association, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA

As a comparative analysis between two government policies, this paper is a useful resource in looking at different approaches to regulating PMCs. Krahmann focuses on Western countries as it is Western countries who employ PMCs the most and use them for their own interests. The paper also touches on private/public partnerships as a concept and how it can be applied to a public/private partnership between government and PMCs. Historical backgrounds to the status quo in both countries is given in a detailed manner.


The role of the private sector in providing support to or carrying out SSR is controversial due to the sensitivities surrounding SSR and the mainly commercial nature of PMCs and PSCs. The potential for misusing the services of these private firms has been discussed in the following papers:

Richards, A. & Smith, H., 2007, ‘Addressing the role of private security companies within security sector reform programmes’, Saferworld, London.

As SSR is fundamentally an exercise to achieve democratic control of those institutions that exercise force on behalf of the civilian community, then clearly PSCs fall under this category. In order to properly factor the role of PSCs into SSR it is important to map out duties and roles as well as legislation that includes both areas. As well as placing restrictions on physical operations and the use of weapons, the paper also advocates the prohibition of political affiliations or ties between political parties and the private security industry. The paper draws heavily on the Sarajevo Code of Conduct for PSCs which was a successful culmination of work done by SEESAC, Saferworld and the Centre for Security Studies that set out guidelines for working with PSCs.

Mancini,F., 2005, ‘In Good Company? The Role of Business in SSR’, DEMOS, London.

This is a generally themed paper looking at regulation of private sector involvement within SSR and how the use of private firms in SSR makes oversight more complicated but even more of a necessity. Alongside this it forecasts an increase in outsourcing SSR operations to the private sector. It also names a set of risks that must be mitigated as much as possible prior to commissioning the private sector in SSR efforts.

Full text available here.

Case Study 1: Iraq

Singer,P., 2004, ‘The Private Military Industry in Iraq; What have we learned and where to next?’, DCAF, Geneva.

Singer looks at examples in Iraq where there were obvious benefits in outsourcing various tasks to PMCs. However, he makes it clear that there were also serious concerns that must be addressed in order for the positive aspects of PMC involvement not to be undermined. He mentions the total lack of accountability of the PMCs in Iraq and their involvement in local conflict as inherent problems that are still to be solved. One of the key reasons for this lack of accountability is that he believes the industry is wholly financially motivated, disregarding any moral, ethical or legal boundaries. Singer then suggests possible future steps to counter this serious problem.

Case Study 2: Iraq

Isenberg,D., 2004, ‘A Fistful of Contractors, The Case for a Pragmatic Assessment of Private Military Companies in Iraq’, Research Report 2004.4, British American Security Information Council, London.

Isenberg provides a well researched account of the PMCs operating in Iraq and the way they are staffed (both local and international staff). He looks at how they operate free of civilian oversight and international law, recommending that certain safeguards need to be placed not just to regulate the PMCs but also the client who hires the PMCs.
The example of the Abu Ghraib scandal is looked at with lessons learnt from how PMCs were engaged in the scandal. The paper also suggests the extension of the International Court of Justice to include PMCs, the negotiation of a convention on the use of PMCs by an occupying force and the harmonisation of national laws regarding PMCs.

Case Study 3: South Eastern Europe

Page,M., Rynn,S., Taylor,Z. and Wood,D., 2005, ‘SALW and Private Security Companies in South Eastern Europe: A Cause of Effect of Security’, South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, Belgrade.

Covering Romania, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro (at time of publication), Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Croatia, the report published by International Alert, Saferworld and South Eastern Europe Clearing House for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC) provides detailed accounts of the participation of PMCs and PSCs in these countries and what their affect on the internal security of the countries has been. It acknowledges that there has been huge growth in the industry and that governments should work with the more progressive elements of this industry to regulate and monitor their operations. It also recommends that vetting be an integral pre-condition to awarding contracts and that the role of the public and private sectors in providing security be clearly defined.