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Ulrich Petersohn
Oct 24 2023

When the headlines spotlight the negative actions of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), it’s easy to assume that their practices universally embody brutality and human rights violations. Recent media coverage of Russian PMSC ‘Wagner Group’ has reinforced such perceptions. However, while these atrocities grab attention, they don’t define the entire PMSC landscape.

By looking at primary data, Ulrich Petersohn, Professor in International Politics at the University of Liverpool, shows how PMSCs as a whole aren’t disproportionately violent. The article also delves into the differences between types of companies, examining their impact on conflict severity, and highlighting the divergent outcomes within the legitimate and illegitimate market segments therefore trying to understand their impact on different contexts.


When Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) make the news, the headlines are rarely good. In particular, in the past months, the Russian PMSC ‘Wagner’ and its brutal practices, dominated reporting on the private security industry. At first sight, Wagner’s atrocities in Africa and Ukraine seem to be the continuation of a long history of incidents of excessive violence and gross human rights violations on the market for force. Unsurprisingly, recent events have rekindled such (old) concerns about the entire market. However, while PMSC atrocities dominate headlines, such practices do not represent the market for force in general. Overall, there is no evidence that PMSCs are, on average, excessively violent. This is not to say that excessive use of force and civilian victimisation does not take place; however, the majority of such transgressions are committed by a small segment of PMSCs that have built their business model around carrying out the dirty work for clients. 

PMSCs are deployed in conflict zones to provide force and force-related services to a variety of clients, ranging from governments to international organisations, and, at times, even rebel groups. Research has shown that the presence of government-hired PMSCs in civil wars, on average, increases conflict severity, compared to when PMSCs are absent. More precisely, the type of service makes a substantial difference when it comes to conflict severity. Combat services increase the number of battle-related deaths to a much larger extent than training or intelligence. However, it is important to note that an increase in conflict severity does not necessarily indicate excessive use of force or increased civilian victimisation. After all, PMSCs are contracted to increase the military effectiveness of the client by providing additional manpower, expertise, and resources. These new capabilities may, in turn, lead to a higher tempo of operations, and more intense battles. To assess whether PMSCs are merely increasing effectiveness or are excessively violent, their behavior needs to be compared to other violent actors in the warzone. 

To be specific, if PMSCs are more frequently involved in violent incidents or produce an excessive number of casualties than other actors under similar circumstances, this would suggest the excessive use of force. Such fine-grained data, however, is difficult to obtain; yet it is available for Iraq. The data allows for a comparison of friendly fire incidents, i.e. accidental violence between friendly forces such as PMSCs, the Iraqi Army, and the US Army. The results show that US troops experienced one incident per 420 troops; Iraqi forces were involved in one incident per 347 troops; and PMSCs recorded one friendly fire incident per 453 troops. This suggests that PMSCs are, on average, no more aggressive than other violent actors, as they were involved in fewer friendly fire incidents per troop than their military peers. Moreover, if the number of casualties in such occurrences is considered, PMSC-related incidents yielded on average 0.86 casualties, whereas casualties involving Iraqi troops totaled on average 1.19, and US incidents 0.25. According to these numbers, the PMSC casualty rate is higher than that of the US but lower than that of the Iraqi armed forces. Again, these numbers suggest that PMSCs are, on average, not excessively violent. 

While these results provide a general sense of the behavior of PMSCs, they neglect the heterogeneity among the group. It is, therefore, fruitful to investigate whether different types of PMSCs have a different propensity towards excessive force, instead of looking at all PMSCs as a homogeneous group. While PMSCs can be differentiated in various ways, the most crucial differentiation in regards to excessive use of force and civilian victimisation is the professional vs. non-professional, and publicly traded vs. privately owned. In regards to the former, professional companies are characterised by high vetting standards, high levels of personnel training, and rather tight operational procedures. Less professional firms lack these characteristics. The argument given is that professional companies demonstrate more restraint than less professional companies. Indeed, there is some tentative evidence that supports the conclusion that more professional PMSCs are less harmful than those who are less professional. Based on the Iraq data, incidents involving professional companies have, on average, caused 0.18 casualties per incident, while incidents with less professional firms have a casualty rate of 0.52 per incident. However, the available data has gaps, and, hence, the results need to be treated with caution. 

An alternative argument suggests that it is less the level of professionalism, but rather the corporate structure that makes a difference in PMSC behavior. A study by Seden Akcinaroglu and Elizabeth Radziszewski focusing on Iraq, investigated the difference between publicly traded and privately-owned PMSCs. It found that, on average, publicly traded companies had a better human rights record than privately owned companies. This is attributed to increased oversight and transparency associated with being publicly traded. Excessive use of force and human rights abuses simply do not pay off for the companies as they harm the company’s reputation and prospects for future business. 

However, one needs to be careful not to overgeneralise the Iraqi case. Most importantly, the Iraq case is located in a specific segment of the market for force. Market segments are characterised by a variance in the way business is conducted. To be specific, there is a legitimate and an illegitimate segment, i.e. whether actors pursue their interests by adhering (mostly) to international standards in their business practices, or whether the market interaction disregards such rules and rather, provides a means to circumvent them. 

A crucial document summarising appropriate practices for clients in the legitimate segment is the 2008
Montreux Document. Most importantly, the Document only deems defensive tasks by PMSCs as legitimate and emphasises the protection of human rights. As a consequence, in this market segment, it is a competitive advantage for companies to maintain a good reputation for compliance with international standards. To date, 54 state and international organisations have joined the agreement, including major international actors that are home to the largest PMSC markets, e.g. the US, the UK, Canada, France, South Africa, and Germany, as well as states that have been significantly affected by armed security providers, e.g. Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Angola. However, not all clients subscribe to the normative restrictions.

A subset of clients, e.g. the UAE and Russia, appreciate their ability to draw on the market to contract out their dirty work and to circumvent international norms. This demand creates business opportunities for PMSCs. This market segment offers a competitive advantage for companies that do not comply tightly with international standards, provide combat services, and do not shy away from excessive use of force. Wagner provides combat services, solving issues with unwanted opposition by using excessive force toward civilians with little accountability. This is a prime example of such companies. 

Unsurprisingly, PMSCs that operate on the legitimate market are associated to a substantially lesser extent with civilian victimisation than companies on the illegitimate market. For instance, if government clients that are involved in the Montreux Document contract PMSCs, the incidence rate of civilian victimisation decreases by 72 percent. Similarly, the larger the proportion of PMSCs headquartered in countries with high human rights standards, the more civilian victimisation is reduced. In turn, the involvement of clients not engaged in the Montreux Document or companies headquartered in countries with lesser human rights standards increases the incident rate substantially.  

In sum, it seems clear that headlines about PMSC atrocities are an incomplete depiction and are not representative of the market for force. While PMSCs increase conflict severity, they are, on average, no more violent than regular armed forces. However, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that different types of PMSCs are more prone to excessive force than others. For one, less professional firms seem to have a worse record than those that are more professional. Alternatively, the corporate structure seems to play a role with publicly traded companies offering more restraint. While this is certainly enlightening, these arguments pertain to a specific segment of the market for force: the legitimate segment.

The main argument here is that the segmentation between the legitimate and illegitimate markets is crucial to understanding the excessive use of force and civilian victimisation by PMSCs. The latter is an entire segment built on the business model to carry out the dirty work for clients, where overly aggressive actions are considered a competitive advantage. This segment is, predictably, more strongly associated with civilian victimisation. This has important implications for the regulation and reduction of excessive force and civilian victimisation in this segment. There is no lack of international governance initiatives, e.g. the Montreux Document, seeking to regulate the market. However, these are voluntary frameworks, which bring together actors that already agree (or are at least willing to be convinced) that following international norms and reducing excessive use of force and civilian victimisation is valuable. However, these tools are unsuited to curb problematic behavior on the illegitimate market. 

Given that the clients in this segment, such as Russia, have little interest in playing by the rules, and one of the advantages is that it can outsource dirty work to PMSCs, such as Wagner, makes it unlikely that they will become members of any voluntary agreement any time soon. This applies to other clients in the illegitimate market as well. This rather pessimistic conclusion is supported by the available data. Evidence suggests that, despite the numerous governance initiatives in the 1990s and early 2000s, the exchange of combat services on the market for force has been more or less constant since the 1980s – albeit on a low level. Regulations have, therefore, had little to no effect on this segment. One possible route to get hold of norm-violating PMSCs and clients may be to prosecute individuals before the International Criminal Court. However, given the complexity of the task, this is far from being a short-term solution.



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).