The Return of the Mercenary
The conflict in Mali is a symptom of a broader trend in international relations: the return of mercenaries. Originally hired by autocratic regimes in Africa and the Middle East to crack down on popular unrest, mercenaries can easily turn into rebel groups, spreading out to other countries and creating instability. The transatlantic community has to react to this new threat by tightening legal regulations on mercenary activities.
Before France's intervention in Mali began, the French Defence Minister called upon the European community. He claimed that the situation in Mali poses a threat not just to the immediate region but to European security. Why has Mali, the former textbook example for democratic development in Africa, turned into a threat to Europe's security? To explain the conflict in Mali comprehensively, one has to look back to Libya in 2011.
Muammar el-Qaddafi employed African foreign fighters against his opposition from the beginning of the Libyan uprising. He distrusted his own forces as they refused to carry out particularly controversial orders, such as attacks on civilians. The Libyan regime placed advertisements in newspapers in Guinea, Nigeria, and Ghana, and reports suggest that up to 6,000 foreign fighters travelled to Libya from Sudan, Mali, Chad, Niger, Liberia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. In the end, this did not help, as Qaddafi's regime collapsed. Mali, however, paid a high price for the downfall of Qaddafi's regime: A large number of well-armed and well-trained Tuareg tribesmen – who fought as mercenaries for Qaddafi – returned home to Mali with stockpiles of weapons and, together with Islamist fighters, re-energized a long-simmering insurgency against the Malian government.
In 2011, a UN expert group warned about the ‘alarming resurgence' in the use of mercenaries. In Côte d'Ivoire, former president Laurent Gbagbo employed some 4,500 Liberian mercenaries in order to avoid leaving office after losing the 2010 election. In Bahrain, it was reported that thousands of Sunni Pakistanis have been recruited to serve in the Bahrain National Guard, tasked with suppressing the majority Shia protesters. And in Syria, President Bashar al Assad relies heavily on a group of Alawite mercenaries known as the Shabiha. The crucial question is, what do the mercenaries do if their employing regime is not able to pay them anymore? Mercenaries can easily turn into rebel groups and vice versa, producing the war they need if there is no war on the market, and creating instability in neighbouring countries. This is what has happened in Mali. Against this backdrop, it is in the core interest of Western states to tighten regulations on mercenarism.
Regulations on mercenaries are ambiguous. International treaties established to control the use of mercenaries include: the Additional Protocol I and II to Article 47 of the Geneva Convention; the Organisation of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa; and the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. These treaties are far from perfect and reflect international tension between the West and, notably, Africa over the definition of mercenary activities. In particular, Western governments have resisted attaching the mercenary label to Private Military Companies (PMCs). These vague definitions provide a legal loophole not only for PMCs, but also for traditional mercenarism.
Both, Europe and the United States have to take the lead in tightening regulations on mercenary activities and bring them into accordance with regulations on PMCs. The return of the mercenaries and the risk they pose to areas of fragile statehood is a challenge which the transatlantic community has to tackle together – Europe, because many of the areas of fragile statehood are in its backyard; and the US, because it possesses the crucial diplomatic and military clout to enforce the regulations and exercise pressure on countries which might go down a similar path of recruiting mercenaries for the purpose of internal security.
Mercenarism currently poses a significant threat to the stability and security of the Sahel and, as long as there is enough demand on the market, mercenarism will continue to thrive, both here and elsewhere in the world. Mercenaries do not need an exit strategy and conflict and insecurity are at the very core of their economic interest. Therefore, the combined efforts of the transatlantic community are necessary to provide a strong legal framework for the prohibition of mercenarism, in order to prevent a repetition of the Libya-Mali scenario in the future.
Liana Fix is a Mercator Fellow on International Affairs. Her research interests include Strategic Studies and Russian foreign and security policy. She has been working with Chatham House and the German Federal Foreign Ministry.