The Morality of Private War: The Ethics of Using Private Military & Security Companies

The Morality of Private War: The Ethics of Using Private Military & Security Companies

In late June, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Manchester’s Professor James Pattison. Professor Pattison’s work focuses on ethical questions in international politics. From 2010-2012, he explored The Morality of Private War in a monograph which was funded by the ESRC. This project was accredited as part of the Global Uncertainties Program’s conflict theme.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your background as a researcher, and how you ended up working on the morality of private war?

Professor James Pattison: My background is in political theory and international relations, and I focus on ethical questions around conflicts. Some normative work is highly abstract, but mine is not – I instead ground my work in empirical reality. So, I try to grapple with real world problems and to offer practical solutions.

Earlier in my career, I explored the ethics of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. I was interested in alternatives to military intervention, such as economic sanctions, diplomacy, non-violent resistance and so on; as well as questions of who should intervene. While exploring the ethics of who should intervene, one of the options that I came across was the use of private military security companies (PMSCs). At that time, there was a huge expansion in the use of PMSCs by the United States and the United Kingdom as they waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought that the use of these actors in humanitarian intervention was likely to pose a whole host of complex ethical issues.

What did this work entail?

My work is primarily desk-based and theoretical. As part of this project, I explored existing theories of privatization, thought through the ethical issues by drawing on philosophical literature and just war theory, and spoke informally to a lot of people who were involved in the industry.

My work resulted in a book, The Morality of Private War: The Challenge of Private Military and Security Companies which develops two new normative frameworks. I sent this book to a lot of practitioners in the field, alongside a policy brief. My work is not the sort which tends to immediately translate into policy impact, but I think it’s like what Roland Paris, a Canadian academic and International Relations scholar has said – normative work can help policymakers to order their thinking. So hopefully my book will help order and systematize the ways in which people think about the issues involved in the use of PMSCs.

What were some of your findings?

Some of the previous literature on PMSCs had suggested that their use is not really an issue so long as you sort out the regulation and oversight. However, my key finding was that it is almost always morally problematic to use PMSCs. There are a whole host of deeper ethical issues which arise from their use, even if there was adequate regulation and adequate oversight. For example, private contractors are motivated by financial gain, and select the wars in which they fight which raises issues of democratic control. The use of these private companies also allows governments to circumvent the democratic constraints – such as parliamentary debates – usually used to decide whether to send troops into war. This means that PMSCs can be used to start covert wars or expand participation in a conflict without public debate. PMSCs are also more likely to be reviewed as mercenaries, which decreases their perceived legitimacy among local populations in the context of intervention.

That is not to say that it is completely impermissible to use PMSCs, it is just that the circumstances where you might want to use them are rare. For example, you might be able to use them in the background to assist a UN peacekeeping mission.

How has the private military security industry changed in the years since your project ended?

The industry has changed substantially. The main thing that happened was that the US pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, where it had used thousands of private contractors. That has resulted in big shifts, and the scale of contractors’ operations is now far smaller. Quite a few of the contractors that were in Iraq and Afghanistan went on to work on anti-piracy operations. More recently they have been used by Russia, which has attracted some attention in Syria and in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As the security world has gone online, private military security companies have also begun to get into cybersecurity. I’ve recently published a paper which explores this new trend, examining whether it is ethical to use private firms to engage in cybersecurity operations.

What are you working on now?

I am about to start work on a project examining how states should prioritize their foreign policy agendas. There are a lot of normatively valuable goals that states want to tackle, including atrocities, terrorism, and poverty, but they cannot do everything – particularly in the context of austerity and budgetary cuts. So, when you cannot do everything, which things should be prioritized?

Photo Credit: puuikibeach ‘292/365 The 365 Toys Project: Army Guy’ on Flickr