Australia’s use of private military and security companies: Options for accountability under international law — Anna John


On 23 February 2016, news emerged that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had renewed its contract with Australian private security company, Unity Resources Group (URG). URG was contracted by DFAT to provide personal security services for embassy staff at the Australian diplomatic mission in Baghdad. URG won this contract after allegedly halving its fees from $101.5 million between 2011 and 2015 to about $51 million for the next five years. The company’s staff have claimed that URG’s cost-cutting has compromised their wages, as well as the quality of weapons, equipment and medical treatment provided to them. As a result, staff have had to buy their own equipment, and many have chosen not to continue with the company.

Why privatise security?

This news raises broader issues about Australia’s use of private security companies. There are, for a start, fundamental moral and ethical concerns. Why aren’t personnel from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) being assigned the task of providing security at the diplomatic mission? The ADF, as a public institution, has been entrusted to act in the interest of the Australian public. On the other hand, private actors are thought to be motivated primarily by profit, which may not necessarily translate to the best interests of the Australian public. URG’s cost-cutting moves do little to assuage this fear. Further, the reliance on such companies is also contentious because of their reputation for excessive force and disregard for human rights. For example, the notorious incidents at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and Nisour Square in Iraq in 2007 both involved gross misconduct by private security contractors employed by the US military.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments for the use of private military and security companies (PMSC). The term ‘PMSC’ is a broad label for companies that undertake a range of security activities including guarding, military training, intelligence gathering, logistical support and combat advice. PMSCs may provide governments with an organised, efficient and cost-effective option to supplement their existing military presence. The UN has used PMSCs in its peacekeeping operations, and it is generally acknowledged that PMSCs have in some cases been able to contribute to a peaceful outcome where a state’s armed forces have not. The classic example of this was in the 1990s conflict in Sierra Leone. Executive Outcomes, a PMSC, was successful in containing a violent uprising by the guerrilla force Revolutionary United Front, negotiating a peace agreement, and regaining control of the diamond fields in the country. Just six months after Executive Outcomes’ contract was terminated in 1997, a military coup ousted the democratically elected civilian government.

Legal issues

There are however a number of legal issues that arise from the Australian Government’s use of PMSCs. While it is not possible to address all of these legal issues (and applicable legal frameworks) in this post, a significant problem area is accountability for the wrongdoing for PMSCs under international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law. The violent and unpredictable circumstances in which PMSC personnel operate places them in positions where they can readily violate human rights laws and other international rules. For example, if the situation in Iraq worsens — which it may, in light of Islamic State activity — URG personnel may be compelled to use force; potentially lethal force. This has occurred in the past: in 2007, an URG security convoy used excessive force, killing two women (including one humanitarian worker) in a car that did not stop for the security convoy despite ‘hand gestures and signal fire’. Similarly, in Baghdad in 2006, URG contractors shot and killed 72 year-old Australian-Iraqi, Professor Kays Juma who also did not stop for security guards.

To date, there has been no criminal prosecution for either of URG’s acts. Problems of jurisdiction have been the major obstacle to the accountability of URG for their conduct. In particular, as PMSC operations may be governed by more than one jurisdiction, the application and enforceability of criminal laws becomes complicated. One might even go so far as to suggest that this is an unspoken reason of why states find the option of private security attractive: it allows them to avoid the risks of deploying the military. Security companies have their own insurance, and DFAT bears no responsibility for the provision of medical aid, evacuation and ongoing rehabilitation (See James Brown, ‘Guns for Hire’, The Monthly (May 2014)).

Accountability under international human rights law

One obvious option for accountability under international law is international human rights law (IHRL). IHRL is an attractive option for victims because it allows for an acknowledgement that there has been a violation of their human rights or those of their loved ones. Under some frameworks, such as the European Convention of Human Rights, wrongdoers can be ordered to compensate victims. It is also an attractive framework because it covers the spectrum of potential wrongdoing by PMSCs. In the two incidents outlined above, URG may have violated the right to life enshrined in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other rights that are susceptible to violations by PMSCs include: the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to health, the right to a private life, the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to the use and enjoyment of property (see Lenzerini and Francioni, ‘The Role of Human Rights in the Regulation of Private Military and Security Companies’ in Francioni and Ronzitti (eds) War by Contract: Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, and Private Contractors (Oxford University Press, 2011)). These human rights are enumerated in human rights treaties that impose enforcement obligations upon states. The obligations upon states to prevent and prosecute abuses by private actors act as an accountability mechanism. However, the extent to which IHRL imposes binding obligations on non-state actors is unclear; while IHRL traditionally addressed only states, customary international law is developing to include non-state actors (see Andrew Clapham, Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford University Press, 2006)).

PMSCs act in a contractual relationship with the hiring state. Their acts are thus considered to be acts of private persons and not acts of the state, despite their services often entailing the carrying weapons and the risk of physical harm to other people (Francioni, ‘Private Military Contractors and International Law: An Introduction’ (2008) 19 European Journal of International Law 961 at 962). Therefore, any human rights violations committed by a private security provider contracted by the Australian Government will not be attributable to the Government prima facie. The exception to this is where PMSCs exercise elements of ‘governmental authority’ or where the state exercises control over the PMSC’s conduct. Even if this threshold is not met, but a state gives a ‘quiet nod’ to PMSC misconduct, state responsibility for a lack of state due diligence can be engaged. Nevertheless, the nature of the relationship between the state and the PMSC renders it difficult to impose and enforce international human rights laws.

Accountability under international humanitarian law and international criminal law

International humanitarian law (IHL) is another framework through which PMSCs could be held to account for their wrongdoing. To an extent, IHL applies automatically during times of armed conflict. The status of PMSC personnel in situations of armed conflict is determined on a case-by-case basis. While PMSC personnel will generally be considered to be civilians under this framework, they can be held to account for their violations of IHL. The enforcement of IHL is through the criminalisation of grave breaches of international law (e.g. war crimes) under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (the ICC Statute) or the instrument of an ad hoc international court or tribunal, or through the suppression of its violations through the use of national legislation.

Here, there is an interplay between IHL, international criminal law (ICL) and domestic criminal law when it comes to the enforcement of IHL. Importantly, ICL does not impose obligations on corporations. Therefore, PMSCs as corporations cannot be held criminally liable for grave violations of ICL (except, for instance, in circumstances where ICL is incorporated into domestic legislation allowing for the criminal prosecution of corporations – this is discussed further below). PMSC contractors can be prosecuted individually for their breaches of IHL either through ICL or through national legislation. However, there are a number of obstacles involved in establishing the individual criminal liability of PMSC personnel.

First, host States are unlikely to prosecute PMSC personnel due to their limited capacity in times of conflict. In armed conflicts, it is not unusual for States to lose control over the own capitals, let alone exercise control over the actions of PMSCs. Second, hiring States are generally reluctant to prosecute their own troops for fear that this will undermine morale (Quirico, ‘The Criminal Responsibility of Private Military and Security Company Personnel under International Humanitarian Law’ in War by Contract, 424). Furthermore, the collection of evidence for the prosecution of war crimes in a national court requires an exceedingly coordinated international effort. Few States are prepared to undertake the efforts required to acquire evidence (Quirico, 424). In addition, PMSC personnel are often granted immunity contractually through agreements that the hiring state has with the host state. The details of the agreements between the Iraqi government and the Australian government are not public, so we do not know for sure whether URG, for example, enjoys immunity. In comparison, US forces deployed in Afghanistan did have immunity from local jurisdiction (Quirico, 444). Moreover, de facto immunity can be granted through judicial approaches. For instance, courts in the US have cited the political-question doctrine while declining to adjudicate upon claims relating to governmental action where discretion is essential to protect constitutional or political interests (Quirico, 443). In Australia, claims against PMSC personnel might fail on the basis of justiciability. Cases such as Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment v. Peko-Wallsend and Hicks v Ruddock demonstrate how justiciability considerations underlie the courts’ decision to review (or not to review) government decisions involving international relations. Finally, if PMSC personnel are prosecuted, they are often charged with ‘street crimes’ under domestic law rather than war crimes. For example, the former Blackwater employees implicated in the Nisour Square massacre were charged with crimes of manslaughter and firearms offences. However, their conduct could potentially have amounted to violations of the War Crimes Act of 1996 (US), for murder of civilians, mutilation or maiming, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury (Quirico, 443).

Importantly, the Australian Criminal Code 1995 (Cth) introduces offences ‘equivalent’ to the ICC Statute offences of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes into domestic federal criminal legislation. This introduction of international crimes confers jurisdiction upon courts to prosecute corporations for war crimes. This is an important and positive step towards the accountability of Australian PMSCs. However, many of the obstacles to accountability outlined above are also likely to prevent PMSC liability under the Australian federal criminal legislation.


Governments all around the world have been taking advantage of the cost-effective and efficient services that PMSCs provide to their armed forces. However, as demonstrated by the case of URG, there is a risk that such companies can violate international law during the course of their operations. Accountability mechanisms under IHL, IHRL and ICL are not yet sufficiently developed to tackle the introduction of a private actor into the military sphere, which has traditionally been reserved exclusively for States. URG’s cost-cutting moves may well have implications for the human rights of the local Iraqi population, but there appears to be no certain corresponding way in which these branches of international law can hold URG criminally responsible if such violations do occur.

Anna John is a final year Law/Arts student at the University of Queensland. She works as a research assistant at the University of Queensland’s T. C. Beirne School of Law. Anna was recently a guest researcher and research assistant at the Max Planck Institute of Comparative Public and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany.