Privatization of conflicts only brings further misery
Three foreign men were last week sentenced to death by firing squad by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. The court accused them of being mercenaries and terrorists seeking to violently overthrow the government.
Prosecutors claimed that the men were guilty of “training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” and undertook their activities “for a fee.” Meanwhile, their defense stressed that the two Britons and one Moroccan citizen had emigrated to Ukraine and were defending their adopted country by fighting in its armed forces.
The court’s harsh verdict provoked outrage from the British government and the international community. “Prisoners of war shouldn’t be exploited for political purposes,” said a spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss posted on Twitter that the court verdict was a “sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy.”
The UN Human Rights Office condemned the death sentences, with spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani pointing out that “such trials against prisoners of war amount to a war crime.” She added: “According to the chief command of Ukraine, all the men were part of the Ukrainian armed forces and, if that is the case, they should not be considered as mercenaries.”
Following the launch of Russia’s invasion in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign volunteers to join his country’s armed forces, inspiring thousands of international veterans to join the fight to free Ukraine.
This brought the debate of mercenaries versus legitimate foreign fighters back to the fore. A mercenary — also known as a soldier of fortune or hired gun — is a private civilian paid to carry out military operations for personal profit. They are not members of any official military.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a new justification for the use of mercenaries emerged, as governments sought to conceal their interference, hide their ambitions and avoid embarrassment or having to bear responsibility for any human rights violations on the international level. Back then, mercenaries were limited to states and governments, but they are now available to everyone, including militias, political groups and terrorist organizations.
Mercenaries and their inhumane acts, which are challenging to prosecute legally, are not unusual in the Middle East. Several regional governments and terrorist groups have used mercenaries on their own troubled soil or in other conflict zones in order to support one party over another for political or ideological reasons.
Even worse, some do not fight for a specific wage but, in return for their services, they are allowed to loot, destroy and rape as they please. The attacks on Iraqi Christians in the city of Mosul and Yazidis in the Sinjar district are among the most horrific examples. In Mosul, Daesh deployed its mercenaries from the Syrian regime, including trained and experienced soldiers and militias. The group also succeeded in luring the countryside’s poor and simple-minded men and women, in addition to the city’s unemployed residents, recruiting them to locate, kidnap or assassinate those who refused the terrorists’ guardianship.
As for the bloody Iranian regime, it is still recruiting, arming and financing multinational organizations and militias as mercenaries to fight on its behalf so that it can avoid Arab and international accusations that it is directly involved in shaking the stability and security of the region. Looking at the map, the Iranian hand starts in Iraq and passes through Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, ending in Yemen.
Along with mentioning Tehran and the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there is also the danger and threats of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Backed by none other than Iran, the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened to use 100,000 battle-ready Lebanese mercenaries in any area on the pretext of protecting Jerusalem and fighting Israel. However, these cold-blooded terrorists assassinate their own people before what they call “enemies” and get paid for it.
In 2014, the name of the Russian Wagner Group began to spread around the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, after the group’s units first appeared in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. They also showed up in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and the Central African Republic. There is a long list of accusations and evidence that the group has committed war crimes and human rights violations.
But Russia was not the only outside entity in Libya — Turkey also used thousands of mercenaries in the war-torn country. Ankara sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya to support the forces of the former Government of National Accord against the army led by Khalifa Haftar. According to The New York Times, members of the Turkish-backed militias in northern Syria who previously fought with Al-Qaeda, Daesh and other armed groups — and who committed atrocities against Kurdish groups and Syrian civilians — were sent to Libya.
A strong international stance is required to stop these unaccountable fighters committing crimes.
Even though the UN’s International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries came into effect in 2001, this market continues to grow. A strong international stance is required to stop these unaccountable fighters committing crimes and to bring those responsible to justice.
One should expect that the inevitable result of this phenomenon will be fighters returning to their hometowns after years of enjoying their outlaw behavior, beginning a new wave of terrorism and violence in other regions.
Responsible governments and international organizations should identify and monitor these paid fighters to understand their personalities, regions, intellectual backgrounds and motives.
Privatizing conflicts brings nothing but destruction, misery and more wars — it should be confronted and defeated.
- Dalia Al-Aqidi is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. Twitter: @DaliaAlAqidi