Last week’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has reopened controversies about the global market for force. Many of those implicated in the assassination were involved in or became engaged via the private security sector.
So how did we end up in a world where a Florida-based security company is entangled in a political assassination? The answer is that the private security market continues to change, and the rules haven’t kept pace.
In the 2000s, private security stakeholders tried to get their act together
The market for private security expanded in the 1990s. Shadowy networks of former military operatives incorporated as private military and security companies (PMSCs) to meet new security demands from governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations. Some of the clients and providers of these services weren’t notably fussy about ethics. Worries about incidents in Africa (including coup attempts in São Tomé and Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea) and America’s unprecedented use of these companies for security protection in Iraq and Afghanistan led observers to worry that the industry was racing toward the bottom, sowing disorder rather than order.
Between 2006 and 2013 this market became a little better regulated. As I described in 2016, convenings organized by the Swiss government and International Committee for the Red Cross combined with pressures from the U.S. Congress to create regulatory guidelines.
This regulatory system, outlined in the 2008 Montreux Document, builds on humanitarian and human rights law to govern the relationships between governments and PMSCs. In addition, the International Code of Conduct (ICoC) for private security providers spells out obligations consistent with international humanitarian law and human rights and is implemented by a variety of multi-stakeholder standard-making organizations, providing requirements that can be written into contracts.
Nonetheless, the system had obvious gaps. The ICoC only applies to security services, such as armed or unarmed guarding and protection of people, and objects like convoys, buildings and other places. But the Montreux Document notes many other areas of PMSC activity, including maintenance and operation of weapons systems; prisoner detention, and advice to or training of local forces and security personnel. Regulators expected the ICoC would expand to cover guidelines for the other services — especially the ever-growing supply of advice and training — but that hasn’t yet happened.
Furthermore, implementation of the initiatives, even by the U.S. and other supportive governments, has been spotty and inconsistent. We know little about how signatory countries like China have implemented this system — and Russia has effectively ignored it.
Many private security operators are dodging the rules
An increasing number of clients and providers in the market aren’t complying with the rules. Most famously, Russia’s Wagner Group was behind the “little green men” that aided the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Wagner has also operated in Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic and, perhaps, Libya. According to political scientist Kimberly Marten and others, Wagner is less a company than a clientelist network that Vladimir Putin can control with plausible deniability and little regard for the people carrying out these missions.
These moves are model for those who seek to take action outside the regulations. The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, left that company (now Academi, part of Constellis) to form other businesses. In the Middle East, one of these companies allegedly was involved in a 2010 deal where the UAE sent Colombian fighters to Yemen. Prince’s companies reportedly have done business in China (the Frontier Services Group signed a deal to build training facilities in China’s Xinjiang province, where repression of ethnic Uyghurs has gained widespread condemnation) and many parts of Africa. Amnesty International has alleged wrongdoings by Dyck’s Advisory Group, a private South African firm reportedly working with Mozambique forces in Cabo Delgado.
Even Montreux Document signatories, while not flouting regulation, have skirted it. The Chinese government has vastly increased its use of Chinese private forces in both maritime security and to protect Belt and Road projects in Africa and beyond with little connection to the Montreux system. While he was president, Donald Trump reportedly met with Prince over plans that appeared likely to violate elements of the Montreux Document. U.S. support for the Montreux system’s transnational coordination stalled and even retreated during Trump’s tenure.
Some are using the market for regime change
Moïse’s assassination follows others where private security companies have been involved in attempted regime change, including the 2019 failed coup attempt in Venezuela where the former Florida-based Silvercorp USA contracted with Juan Guaidó — Venezuela’s self-declared president in exile recognized by the United States and others — to oust President Nicolás Maduro. Later revelations from Silvercorp owner and former green beret Jordan Goudreau and others suggest members of the Trump administration knew of the plan and supported it. Though U.S. law requires the export of military services to gain a State Department license, Goudreau has not been publicly sanctioned.
The Biden administration might be more supportive of regulation than its predecessor and the new Congress wants to crack down on security exports from the United States. It is unlikely Russia and Wagner can be drawn into the regulatory fold, but their activities are prompting Western nations to coordinate around regulation and could boost compliance. Researchers have also argued that greater engagement with China could strengthen the Montreux system. However, there still is little sign of extending a code of conduct or standards to other services, making it more likely that the market will contribute to disorder, as it apparently has in Haiti.
Deborah Avant (@DeborahAvant1) is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author, most recently, of “Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence” (Oxford University Press, 2019).