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The activities of the Wagner Group in Africa have reignited worries that the presence of  PMSCs in conflict zones harms the security of humanitarian aid workers. In this post, Deborah Avant, Anne Lauder, and Kara Neu use several recent datasets to look for statistical evidence that PMSC presence matters for the safety of humanitarian aid workers. Looking at PMSCs working for various clients as well as before and after the development of the Montreux/ICoC governance tools, they find few stable regularities. They then look at particular examples in the data to offer a picture of the heterogeneity of the industry and the intention of its clients to better understand why PMSCs can have such varied impacts on the security of aid workers.


Before the hoopla around the Wagner Group’s action in Ukraine and then Russia, it had generated allegations of abuse against civilians, journalists, and aid workers in the Central African Republic. Discussion of these often linked concerns with the Wagner Group to those about private forces diminishing humanitarian security more generally.

PMSCs increasingly work for and/or proximate to aid workers. The Private Security Events Database (PSED) records a steady increase in the amount of PMSC activity. In 1990, just over 20 incidents occurred compared to over 120 incidents in 2012. At the same time, humanitarians also experience more violence today than in years past, with 35 attacks recorded in 1997 relative to over 200 attacks recorded every year between 2018 and 2022. While this uptick may be related – at least in part – to increasing levels of humanitarian activity, frequent attacks on aid workers and pressure to improve the delivery of aid have led some to question the efficacy of humanitarian neutrality and urge the militarization of humanitarian spaces counter to the logic of “acceptance” for humanitarian security. Even humanitarians who don’t hire security often operate around both military forces and PMSCs. The complications posed to humanitarians by operating around forces is not limited to private companies, nor is it new. But many analysts have directed particular scrutiny toward PMSCs. 

We set out to understand whether these concerns were warranted. Using a variety of new databases – the PSED, the Commercial Military Actor Database (CMAD), and the Aid Worker Security Database – we looked for general patterns around the relationship between PMSC activity and humanitarians’ safety. We did not find many. We take this to be partly a function of the difficulties of collecting data on this industry, but it is also partly related to the heterogeneity of forces lumped under the PMSC umbrella, heterogeneity of the clients that hire PMSCs, and heterogeneity in what PMSCs do. 

While our failure to find general patterns leaves us unable to say much about the worthiness of the special scrutiny directed toward PMSCs, it does offer lessons on this heterogeneity that are critical to understanding the industry’s varied effects on the safety of humanitarians and beyond. Ultimately, our analysis suggests that to assess their impact on aid worker security, we should focus less on who PMSCs (or their clients) are, and more on what they do.

Who are PMSCs?

Definitional disputes have long plagued research on mercenaries and their PMSC successors. The term mercenary can refer to a foreign fighter, a fighter who is hired commercially, or both. As the market for force grew in the 1990s, some analysts referred to this new industry as private military companies (PMCs) while others continued to call them mercenaries – even if they were hired for only logistics services. Using the term “mercenary” was often a way to indicate the lack of legitimacy surrounding this mode of mobilization. Other analysts called the companies Privatized Military Firms (PMFs) or Private Security Companies (PSCs)

Thanks to the Montreux Document, a soft law agreement reached among governments in 2008, there is now agreement on a name and definition. Private military and security companies, or PMSCs, “are private business entities that provide military and/or security services, irrespective of how they describe themselves. Military and security services include, in particular, armed guarding and protection of persons and objects, such as convoys, buildings, and other places; maintenance and operation of weapons systems; prisoner detention; and advice to or training of local forces and security personnel.”

Many analysts have adopted the Montreux Document language even as they have continued to include services, such as logistics and intelligence, that fall outside the definition. Others have rejected its merging of military and security services and continued to differentiate between PMCs and PSCs even though companies often provide services that blur this boundary. 

The rise of the Wagner Group has complicated this picture further. Kimberly Marten argues that the Wagner designation applies less to a particular group or company and more to a style of action. The forces are separate from the official Russian military but very much tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their remuneration is often connected to resources and/or plunder. And there appears to be no restriction on what they can do. They were first noted in Ukraine during the 2014 Russian attack and have since appeared in Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic, among others before they resurfaced in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

These definitional disputes complicate efforts to gather data about the actors. People call similar forces different things and group different forces under the same umbrella. A common strategy is to collect data on the whole array. The PSED, for instance, searched news sources for “private security”, “private military”, and “mercenary/ies” to compile its events. It thus casts a broad net to include actors described in various ways. PSED coding also provides additional details to contextualize what forces were doing, for whom, and with what effect. The CMAD has taken a similar approach to the breadth of the definition, including what they refer to as PMSCs and mercenaries, organized by their contracts during civil wars. The CMAD primarily compiles information from a newspaper repository as well, but also supplements these with government, UN, and NGO reports as well as scholarly and industry publications. 

These data represent important efforts to track private forces around the world, regardless of their labels. Both PSED and CMAD struggled with finding accurate and representative data about PMSCs. Because the PSED relies on news reports, it probably misses the many actions that do not make the news. The CMAD acknowledges that a lack of information on some armed conflicts and countries is due to a problem with reporting rather than an absence of contracts.

Beyond that, however, just scrolling through examples in each database reveals that the events cover a very heterogeneous set of actors. This variety likely complicated our effort to unpack general trends in humanitarian security. We examined data on 54 African countries between 1997 and 2016, using the PSED and CMAD measures of PMSC activity and the Aid Worker Security Database for attacks against aid workers. Our statistical analyses revealed mixed findings regarding the association between PMSCs and humanitarian security.

At the most general level, when we ran models considering all country years, the presence of PMSCs (measured by either CMAD or PSED) was associated with a small, but statistically significant increase in attacks against aid workers. As we tried to unpack this finding, however, it began to shift.

When we focused on conflict years only, which should intensify the risk from PMSCs, different data sets produced different results. Models with the CMAD data showed no association between PMSCs and aid worker security while those ran with the PSED continued to show an association between the presence of PMSCs with humanitarian harm. 

We also ran regressions examining different time periods (1997-2008 and 2009-2016), anticipating that the agreement on best practices surrounding PMSCs in the Montreux Document and International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers could have spurred less harmful behavior. In this set of analyses, measurements of PMSC presence using the CMAD were related to an increase in aid worker insecurity in both time periods. Using the PSED, though, PMSCs’ presence was only associated with an increase in attacks against aid workers after 2008. Limiting our analysis to conflict years, CMAD indicated that PMSCs had no association with aid worker security in either direction or in either time period. The PSED, though, suggested that PMSCs were only linked to increasing levels of humanitarian insecurity after 2008. 

Who are PMSCs’ clients?

Continuing to try and make sense of this relationship, we hypothesized that different client types could matter for whether PMSCs were related to humanitarian security. Governments are a key client base for PMSCs but they are also hired by corporations, NGOs, and even citizens.  

According to the PSED, it was mostly these non-governmental clients that used PMSCs in Africa between 1990 and 2016. Less than a quarter (24.39%) of the recorded incidents were related to private forces hired by local or national governments. PMSCs hired by commercial firms accounted for the plurality (34.07%) of incidents. Rebels were another important client, accounting for 11.79% of activity. The remaining 29.57% of incidents involved private forces working for NGOs, IGOs, foreign governments, and even individuals.

Pessimists have stipulated reasons to believe that PMSCs hired by each of these client types may worsen humanitarian security. Governments could cause problems for humanitarians if they use PMSCs in ways that shirk their international commitments or evade domestic controls. Commercial firms might threaten humanitarians in their quest to maximize profit, as many have alleged.  Some might expect that PMSCS working for rebel groups would be especially likely to generate harm. Rebels have less connection to these governance initiatives and aim to overthrow existing institutions. Because humanitarians often work in ways that foster stability, rebels may target aid workers as part of a strategy to unseat the status quo.  And one might expect that PMSCs concerned with their reputation would shy away from working for rebels. Those companies that do work for rebel clients probably do not respect international norms or face competition that some argue can reduce negligent behavior.

Optimists, however, point to logic by which each client type would seek to avoid harm towards humanitarians. Governments have committed to protecting human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL).  Commercial firms have also shown increasing concern with the reputational cost of being implicated in violations of human rights. Many have participated in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and pledged to respect the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  In other words, these clients have made public commitments that should lead them to both refrain from intentionally using PMSCs to harm humanitarians and to oversee the PMSCs they hire to reduce any rogue behavior. Even rebels can commit to respect for IHL. Groups like Geneva Call have worked to encourage rebels to commit to such respect as a means for gaining legitimacy. And many have. Hyeran Jo finds that rebels seeking international legitimacy make these commitments and follow through on them.

Our statistical analyses of the relationship between PMSCs working for different client types and humanitarian security suggest that both pessimists and optimists capture some truth and one is not more generally accurate than the other. We do not find consistently statistically significant results for PMSCs working for any of the client types. 

Across many different specifications, we were unable to find evidence that PMSCs hired by governments, commercial firms, or rebel groups had a consistent effect (positive or negative) on aid worker security. We also ran regressions that considered PMSCs (in general and disaggregated by client type) in the pre- versus post-2009 era, to account for the aforementioned normative shift after the implementation of the Montreux Document. But again, we found no evidence of a general change in PMSCs’ behavior – as a whole or when working for different clients.  The results underscored a wide range of PMSC associations with humanitarian security. 

What do PMSCs do?

To get a sense of what might have been driving these (non-)results, we looked further into the specific incidents in our sample. These incidents suggest that differences in what clients ask PMSCs to do and how they supervise them are also important. Said differently, governments, companies, and NGOs sometimes use PMSCs to intentionally help humanitarians, and other times not. They also demonstrate a wide range of capacities to ensure that the PMSCs they hire act in accordance with their instructions. 

Some governments hire PMSCs to provide services that prevent harm to humanitarians or other civilians, often in accordance with IHL. For instance, one of the events in the PSED captures a PMSC working for the Nigerian government in 2012 that thwarted an attempt by a Boko Haram suicide bomber. But governments also hire companies in ways that violate international norms – like having them participate directly in hostilities. Pilgrims Africa Ltd. and STTEP made headlines for their offensive support to the Nigerian military in 2015. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, too, as many as 12 PMSCs were hired by the government, some of which carried out combat operations in ways that may have harmed humanitarians. These choices can increase conflict intensity in ways that can, at least indirectly, undermine aid worker security. Harm towards humanitarians might also happen intentionally. In the Ivory Coast, the government relied on mercenaries to fight rebels, and some mercenaries murdered aid workers in 2003.

Government-hired PMSCs can also generate security harms due to poor supervision or slack. Analysts have long held that while most governments have institutionalized systems for supervising its military, these systems are often less developed and less well-understood when it comes to PMSCs. Governments that struggle with institutional capacity may both be quick to reach for PMSCs and less able to supervise them. An example from the PSED comes from 2008 when private security guards providing site security for the Liberian legislature were suspected of burglary. 

Similar dynamics unfold among PMSCs hired by companies and the PSED provides details on these incidents, too. Some PMSCs have provided services that support humanitarian goals. In Angola in 1993, for example, Executive Outcomes defended civilians working for and near oil installations from attacks by UNITA. Other PMSCs have violated IHL. Also in Angola, PMSCs contracted by a diamond mining company denied a United Nations (UN) relief team access to an area in 1997. In 2011 guards were accused of abusing local unlicensed miners while working for a diamond company in Zimbabwe. Companies’ failure to monitor and control their PMSCs can also result in harm. A mining firm operating in Angola in 2006 claimed it was unaware of any wrongdoing by its private security firm despite reports of acts of violence against small-scale miners near its concession. 

Finally, some rebels’ actions do harm humanitarians. For instance, in 2014, rebels and mercenaries attacked a hospital where Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was operating in the Central African Republic. Rebel-hired mercenaries also attacked an Ivory Coast town in March 2012, killing peacekeepers, government forces, and civilians. Some of these harms, though, may be due to the same sort of slack that affects government and commercial clients. During the 2002-2003 Ivory Coast conflict, mercenaries robbed and abused the civilian population, seemingly out of the control of their clients. As the New York Times reported, “…rebel leaders seeking a mantle of respectability for their cause are having to confront the disorder in their own ranks.” 

Yet some rebels cooperate with aid workers and align themselves with humanitarian norms, including in their use of PMSCs. In the DRC, humanitarians have successfully negotiated with rebels for access to civilians. And following the UN’s 2020 COVID-19 global ceasefire call, a variety of rebel groups declared ceasefires explicitly in order to facilitate COVID-19 treatment. Through Geneva Call, an organization working to improve non-state actors’ respect for humanitarian norms and principles during armed conflict, about 20% of rebel groups signed commitments between 1974 and 2010

In sum, focusing on what PMSCs (and their clients) do rather than who they are could generate more productive insights about the industry’s impact on humanitarian security – as well as many other important outcomes. 

Our efforts to use existing data to look at the relationships between PMSCs and humanitarian security demonstrate some support for the scrutiny directed at PMSCs. But it also provides a cautionary tale about the worthiness of efforts to make broad generalizations about the industry and its impacts. The patchwork of actors that fall under the PMSC umbrella and the variation in the intentions and capacities of those that hire them have long been noted by analysts of this phenomena and yet many are still quick to jump to broad conclusions on the basis of particular concerns. The heterogeneous nature of the industry and its clients generates divergent interactions with humanitarians, and as such generates inconsistent impacts on aid worker safety. Analysts should not be discouraged from researching the potential harms PMSCs present to humanitarians and others, but should resist the urge to paint the industry’s effects with a broad – and often reductionist – brush. Based on our analysis and examination of differences within the data, humanitarians are more likely to be safe if all clients carefully vet PMSCs, use them with careful attention to international humanitarian law, and focus more on the nuances of PMSC operations and the context in which they occur.



The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).