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The privatization of warfare means that principles of wartime conduct which are enshrined in internationally-recognized treaties stand to be violated more frequently and comprehensively. It makes both oversight problematic, and justice in the event of malpractice more improbable. Generally, it muddies the waters of already murky and bloody situations across the world.
Yet the employment of former child soldiers at cut-price salaries is a new low even for this most sinister of industries.
Step forward Aegis Defence Services, a company which did just that.
Founded in Britain by former soldier and arms dealer Tim Spicer, Aegis constitutes one of the world’s largest private armies, having been estimated during the height of the Iraq war to have been employing 20,000 mercenary soldiers. Another cog in the vast wheel that is the military-industrial complex, the company secured several contracts with the Pentagon worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the years after 2004 to protect US military bases in Iraq.
Aegis’s chair is Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and grandson of Winston Churchill. Churchill’s notorious beliefs regarding the eventual triumph of ‘the Aryan stock’, and his repeated use of racially-charged language (that once saw him suggest that the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans and Aboriginal peoples in Australia was justifiable because they would be replaced by ‘a stronger race, a higher-grade race’), are, seemingly, racial philosophies his grandson shares. Dehumanizing treatment of other ethnic groups – in which they are treated as nothing more than expendable commodities – is a stance Aegis has no qualms with, according to the company’s former director, James Ellery:
You probably would have a better force if you recruited entirely from the Midlands of England, but it can’t be afforded. So you go … Asians, and then at some point you say I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans.
Whilst Ellery’s comments strike a vile tone, the basic forces of capitalism – which drive large corporations and companies such as Aegis – dictate that labour is outsourced to keep profit margins high. Just as companies founded in Western countries such as Apple and Nike have transferred their manufacturing workforce eastward, so must Aegis search for willing fighters in countries where hours and wages are less well-regulated and workers rights groups and unions are far weaker. Aegis paid their mercenaries the equivalent of just £11 per day.
Also, there is currently no effective legal framework or regulatory body for Private Military Companies (PMCs), as they are often hard to distinguish from states. This means that atrocities carried out by PMC mercenaries are harder to trace, and often being impossible to bring about prosecution of those responsible. And it is an increasing prevalent trend. American political scientist PW Singer suggests that the ratio between private military contractors and US soldiers has increased tenfold since the 1991 Gulf War.
A stalwart of the organisation from 2005-15, Ellery characterizes the amorality at the heart of Aegis’s operation. Speaking about the physical health requirements that the company demands of their employees, Ellery says:
The moment they [recruitment agents] start sending us people who are blind in one eye or have Aids, that’s it. Contract over… you don’t want people dying after you’ve put them through expensive training…
It is not a surprise, therefore, that the kind of profit-driven callousness that fuels this particular private military organisation was extended to its logical extremity, and employing traumatized former child soldiers was not seen as particularly problematic.
However, it is the economics that underlie the privatization of war which needs addressing. The employment of child soldiers in war zones on behalf of British companies is merely symptomatic of the freedom enjoyed by transnational corporations which operate outside the laws of individual states.
Only strong enforcement of international law can begin to reign in these freedoms. Yet the United Nations Mercenary Convention, which prohibits the employment of mercenary soldiers, is legislature the UK, the US, Russia and China still refuse to sign.
And whilst they refuse to do so, atrocious practices such as those of Aegis Defence Services are sure to continue.