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Jamie Williamson
Sep 13 2023

In this opinion piece, Jamie Williamson, Executive Director of ICoCA, underlines the importance of separating malign private military actors from those companies that act in compliance with the law. The visibility of Wagner should not hide recent progress in the regulation of the security industry at large and the work of those private security actors that strive to respect human rights. However much remains to be done to increase the accountability of organizations like the Wagner Group.    


Not since the heydays of Executive Outcomes and Blackwater has so much attention been given to the activities of private military contractors, mercenaries, and other guns for hire. Today, it is the so-called Wagner Group/Wagner network that is grabbing all the headlines.  Set up in 2014, and with activities in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine, the growth and influence of the Wagner Group are generating major military, political and humanitarian concerns. The recent death of its leader, Evegeni Prigozhin, may lead to some changes in the leadership or the organization of the group but is unlikely to mark the end of the activities of such private military actors in conflicts and other complex environments.

The ability of the Wagner Group to keep operating with impunity is troubling Western nations as they look to develop the appropriate responses, including through targeted sanctions, to rein in the group and its leadership. The recently published report of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee entitled Guns for Gold: The Wagner network exposed, sheds light on many of these concerns and offers some solid recommendations on how the UK should manage its own response to the Wagner Group, in cooperation with international partners, which should include the United States and the European Union. 

It is understandable that governments are treating the Wagner Group, and other malign private military companies, as a unique phenomenon, requiring specific responses. These actors do represent real threats to democracy, economic development and security in countries already prone to cycles of violence and poor governance, with fragile or weak regimes. However, they are rarely alone in these contexts. There will often be other, albeit legitimate military and private security companies, not involved in combat or proxy warfare, also active in the same area.  

The growing client base of private military and security contractors now includes humanitarian agencies, the media, and private corporations

As the international community determines its strategy to deal with the Wagner Group and similar entities, it would be well advised to take stock of the current regulatory state of affairs within the legitimate military and security contracting industry. There is in fact a recognition by many countries that private contractors play a critical role in aiding military and civilian agencies in hostile environments. The growing client base of private military and security contractors, which includes humanitarian agencies, the media and private corporations, reflects this reliance on the industry. 

Similarly, and it may be dawning on the industry, greater transparency and oversight may be inevitable. Even though legitimate security and military companies are quite distinct from the Wagner Group and other malign contractors, they are likely to be tarred with the same brush as the Wagner Group and mercenaries.  An obvious misnomer but one that sticks in the court of public opinion.  

This call for action should not detract from the fact that much has been done by the UK and other governments over the last 15 years to strengthen the regulation of private military and security contractors. For instance, following the Iraq war, an international process initiated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss Government, led to the adoption in Montreux of a blueprint for governments to effectively regulate private military and security companies. The UK, US, France, Canada, Iraq, and South Africa were among the 17 initial signatories to the document in 2008, which recalled preexisting obligations of states under the Geneva Conventions and certain human rights treaties.  

Progress is undeniable and we are seeing positive change in the industry

Governments, Civil Society Organizations, and the Private Security Industry cooperated to develop in 2010 a human rights and humanitarian law-based Code of Conduct for private security companies. Subsequently, ICoCA, a multi-stakeholder association,  was established in Switzerland to oversee its implementation. The 2011 United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and legislative initiatives to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence are collectively elevating standards within the security industry.     

Progress is undeniable and we are seeing positive change in the industry. But more still needs to be done. A concerted approach is required by States to fully meet their pre-existing international legal obligations. International efforts must be redoubled to strengthen accountability for abuses of human rights by private military and security companies. Further transparency is required from the industry. Verification and monitoring by third-party organisations should be viewed not with suspicion but as a means to raise standards and as a complement to regulatory requirements.  

Finally, the apparition of the Wagner Group offers the opportunity for Governments to assess whether existing international legal frameworks on mercenaries are fit for purpose. If not, the tougher question is, what new approaches are needed?  



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).