Africa's (Modern) Slavery Problem

From rubies in Mozambique to emeralds in Zambia, opals in Australia, and Jade in Myanmar, the mining industry is undergoing an extraction renaissance that is as profitable as it is contentious. While concerns over environmental degradation, population displacement, employment of slave and child labor contribute to the fracturing of communities and exacerbate internal rifts and vulnerabilities of already fragile states, questions of whether or not mining is good for social and economic development grow in proportion and relevance. Africa alone hosts inordinate amounts of mineral, gold, cobalt, palladium and platinum deposits enticing foreign interests and heavy Chinese investment. Often, however, such vast resource wealth in the hands of foreign corporate entities combined with poor regulation and state corruption raises grave concerns over equitable revenue sharing, land ownership rights, and respect for fundamental human rights. The world’s rapacious appetite for natural resources, metallic, and mineral goods necessary to fuel the digital lives of western societies and quench the ever-deepening thirst of Chinese industrialists has once again turned the continent into a modern epicenter of slavery.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery. Women and girls made up 71 percent of victims. Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, where 9.2 million live in servitude, followed by Asia and the Pacific region.  State-imposed forced labor and forced marriages constitute the primary culprits of enslavement, which are compounded by recurrent or protracted bouts of armed conflict, especially in fragile and grossly underdeveloped states, such as Burundi, Eritrea, or Mauritania. Slavery or enslavement is a distinct legal concept. It is defined in Article 7(2)(c) of the Rome Statute  as “the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in person, in particular women and children.” The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery regards slavery as being constituted by four states of servitude, among them debt bondage, servile marriage, exploitation of children, and serfdom. Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on the other hand, in Article 8 prohibits the use of forced or compulsory labor and provides for the opportunity to freely choose the means of one’s gainful employment. Forced labor must not entail an element of ownership to constitute slavery but many forms of slavery often involve forced labor which can take many forms, including forced labor exploitation, forced sexual exploitation, and state-imposed slavery, which persists in contravention of Article 4 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In Mauritania, for instance, individuals become property of their masters, who exercise total ownership over their human ‘property’ and over their descendants. It is not uncommon for slaves, which account for an estimated 155,000 of population, to be inherited by family, to be bought, sold or rented out, and be given away as gifts.

Children are especially prone to various forms of enslavement and become particularly vulnerable to conditions involving forced labor. “Worldwide, 218 million children between ages 4 and 17 are in employment. Among them 152 million are victims of child labor; almost half of them, 73 million, work in hazardous child labor.” One in four victims of modern slavery is a child.

Africa's (Modern) Slavery Problem
Source: The 2018 Modern Slavery Index

The resurgence of widespread and pervasive forms of modern slavery on the African continent coincides with the reinvigoration of the mining industry, which in turn, benefits from an amalgamation of human vulnerabilities. Poverty and civil conflict, fragile peace, debilitated post-conflict economy, low income, poor health and education of the general population increase opportunities for debt-bondage and resource depletion through unauthorized, poorly monitored and rudimentary illicit digging. Economies of fragile or underdeveloped states remain subservient to governmental fiat whose monopoly on the means of production open prospects for graft and political corruption. Military rule and state ownership of key resource extraction industries on the continent, on the other hand, contributes to the prolongation of civil wars and rebellions, growth of the black market and rise in organized criminal activity. Resource-rich African countries like Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to name but a few, have long suffered from the consequences of internal skirmishes, conflicts and outbursts of unstable peace, while also being home to substantial mineral, gem and diamond deposits. This paradox of plenty combined with poor growth and anemic developmental outcomes has been dubbed by scholars as the resource curse, which does not go unnoticed by enterprising Western as well as also increasingly Chinese resource extraction entities.

Africa’s wealth…

Africa “hosts 30% of the earth’s mineral reserves, including 40% of gold, 60% of cobalt, and 70% of platinum deposits, and produces about 30% of the world’s gold, 70% of the world’s platinum, 28% of the world’s palladium, and 16% of the world’s bauxite … and 595,507 kg of gold-bearing ores.” The Democratic Republic of Congo, alone, according to Forbes, is endowed with over $24 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits, including copper, diamonds, and coltan. The promise of high earnings potential combined with an unquenchable hunger for key mineral resources by China boosts foreign direct investment on the continent, stimulating an export economy, encouraging large-scale labor migration, and feeding irregular smuggling industries. Employment of child labor in mining is not uncommon and the involvement of political classes in resource extraction profiteering – by legal and illegal means – contributes to an exacerbation of already anomalous patterns in income and wealth distribution in fragile, poverty-stricken yet resource-rich African states. Even the established agrarian economies and subsistence farming become prone to major shifts in output as mining relocates workforce, supplants food production, and contributes to noticeable market declines in the agricultural sector of the economy. Poor man’s hopes of sharing in the wealth of gem, diamond and mineral deposits become dashed by revenue capture by large multinational corporations and political and organized criminal enterprises, polluting the local environment and depleting the land, while amplifying opportunities for civil unrest.

… and its inglorious colonial past

Today, the African continent faces its own peculiar set of especially difficult problems, split between a colonial past and a Chinese-dominated future. The cycles of boom and bust in the global supply chains of valuable minerals, coal, copper, uranium, gold, gems and diamonds have played an especially prominent role in Africa’s economic (under)development. Historical exploitation of the continent’s natural resources over the years put a cumulative stress on the traditional agricultural prowess of Central and Southern African states, straining familial and tribal relations and deeply affecting the moral and social fabric of its traditional orders. “Between 1867 and 1935, more than £1,200 million of public and private capital was invested in Africa.” Infusion of capital resulted in high demand for land and labor which caused “a massive decline in rural productivity” and “destroyed the economic, social, and political structures which had held African society together.” Colonial administration of African lands attracted French, German, Belgian, British, and German interests, which invested heavily in the mining industry, “whose dominant units [were] the major international corporations, that cause[d] and reproduce[d] the continent’s underdevelopment.”

The period of decolonization brought with it the globalization of the mining industry, which introduced American and Japanese stakeholders and developed new deposits in Australia and Canada, financed by the profits from Africa. Foreign interests brought capital resources, financial finesse, and technological innovation, yet profits have been one-sided and have disproportionately accrued to Western companies and their financial sponsors – large banking institutions such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank, or First National City Bank of New York – who upon entering into agreements with African governments were guaranteed unobstructed market access and little to none opposition to their projects, while Africa descended into  poverty, civil conflict, and war. Between 1868 and 1928, the South African diamond- and gold-mining industry alone generated “£340 million worth of diamonds, while the total amount of foreign capital invested in the diamond industry was probably no more than £20 million. The dividends of the diamond-producing companies, excluding the profits made by the individual diggers, exceeded £80 million.” Any foreign investments made around the African mineral resource economy were made to ensure the infrastructurally sound and reliable access and export of the mined goods. Investments in transportation links – railways and river barges – had been made to link Africa’s mineral wealth to the main trading routes that fed into the global economy; they had not been made to equip the continent with suitable standards of living and a sure path to development and independence.

The world’s ferocious demand for Africa’s resources, over decades of Western domination and exploitation, only exacerbated the continent’s underdevelopment and increased its dependence. The scramble for Africa’s wealth encompassed material and human goods leaving the continent’s men, women and children at the mercy of the supply and demand chains of the global economy. Mining in Zaire by near-monopolistic power of international capital, for example, “distorted the country’s social structure” through land expropriation leading to the pauperization of the peasantry and blocking the emergence of national bourgeoisie. The need for “cheap black labor” in Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and the desire to stabilize the supply of labor force resulted in the colonial imposition of a land tax on the African population with an aim of preventing lucrative yields from land cultivation and forcing the local population into industrial mining. Despite Liberia’s position as “a country exceptionally well endowed with natural resources, of iron ore as well as diamonds and other minerals, with good soil, a huge potential in forestry and a booming export trade” the serious budgetary deficits which the country faced in 1968 were largely due to the generous concession agreements, relaxed government supervision of accounting and financial reports, and the inevitable “enormous outflow of resources to the mining companies.” Nearly a third of the country’s GNP of the monetary sector of the economy was consumed by the outflow of cash to foreign interests. Similarly, parasitic practices repeated many times over across the continent – from Zambian copper, South African gold, Namibian and Gabonese uranium, to Togolese phosphates – produced thriving Belgian, British, German, French, and American economies while sentencing Africa to the distressing Third World status. The seizure of land and deliberate suppression of indigenous industries and agricultural development is known to have been replicated by European colonial powers in French North Africa, Anglo-Dutch East and South Africa as well as India. As Shashi Tharoor has shown in Inglorious Empire: What the British Did in India (2017), when the East India Company was established in 1600, Britain accounted for a mere 1.8 percent of global GDP and India for the impressive 23 percent. In 1750, India and China together accounted for three-quarters of the global industrial output. However, by the time of India’s independence in 1947, after decades of systematic plunder and transformation by British imperial rule, India’s contribution to world GDP decreased to 3%, while Britain’s was three times as high, reversing the large imbalances of wealth and political leverage which have lasted well into the 21st century.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes

Today, Africa’s developmental path is heavily influenced by Chinese mining and resource extraction interests, substantial investments in agriculture, infrastructure, peacekeeping, and formal and informal security arrangements, which once again, set the continent firmly on the path of protracted material dependence. According to Brookings, between 2000 and 2017, China provided $143 billion in loans to African governments and their state-owned enterprises in the form of concession loans, credit lines, and development financing and pledged additional $60 billion at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).1 The Export-Import Bank of China loan guarantees involve confiscation of resource-rich lands in the event of default. The world’s second largest economy imports $100 billion worth of base metals every year and its interests in Sub-Saharan Africa’s natural wealth in cobalt, chromium, iron ore, copper, gold, manganese, among others, will undoubtedly change the social-economic trajectory of Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. Mining alone, however, implicates cognate conflicts over land ownership, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation on the continent. The impact of mining on the environment has already caused much disaffection and concern. Harmful levels of radioactivity and poor corporate social responsibility paired with inadequate state oversight and corruption of state and local elites threaten to further exaggerate Africa’s vulnerabilities and accelerate social and economic inequalities of already disempowered local populations. In exchange for African countries’ symbolic political support in global institutions and multilateral fora, China – in substantially instrumental yet strategic ways – is gobbling up Africa’s vast natural resource wealth in order to ensure its own global dominance by 2049, the centennial of China’s Communist Revolution.

The many temptations of Chinese direct foreign investment in largely acquiescent Africa are bound to overlook the substantial human cost of forced or state-sanctioned labor, which all-too-frequently assist in the states’ rapid industrialization and upward economic growth.

Despite great legal strides being made in the form of the 1926 Slavery Convention, the 1956 United Nations’ Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1957 Convention of the Abolition of Forced Labor, states and corporate entities are often complicit in the crime which maintains and perpetuates a system of political and economic domination and sustains structural inequalities inherent in the global economy. The illicit labor landscape is further complicated by mass population movements resulting from conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East. Vulnerable and at-risk populations turn to organized networks of smugglers and traffickers, who profit from human tragedy. Fresh supply of labor of forced and unforced nature creates opportunities for exploitation which often falls under the definitional category of ‘modern slavery’ or other forms of ‘consensual exploitation’ stemming from economic desperation offered in exchange for inhumane treatment and substandard working conditions. According to the 2005 A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour report “80 percent of forced labor is found in the private economy, mainly in the rural and informal sectors in developing countries, but also penetrating the supply chain of major companies in the developing and industrialized world alike.” Yet, the enforcement and criminalization of such practices remains elusive due in large measure to the architecture of modern demand and supply chains. Scholars even suggest that

“…the majority of victims of forced labour are not slaves of brutal war lords, dictatorial regimes or mafia-type criminal networks. They are subjected to coercion in the informal economy and in mainstream economic sectors, tied to their workplaces by subtle means of coercion and control… their exploitation is part and parcel of labour relations in certain parts of the economy.”2

Can international criminal law be an effective instrument against modern slavery?

The present-day landscape of corporate- and government- level initiatives attempting to address and redress the transnational nature of modern slavery has been gradually populated by a set of guidelines and good practices across industries and continents. Since the enactment of International Labour Organization’s 1977 Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, the UN Global Compact, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises – which call for elimination of forced and child labor – governments and businesses alike have been forced to reckon with human rights abuses within their supply chains. Additionally, the Athens Ethical Principles adopted by business companies in 2006 to combat human trafficking worldwide, have espoused seven main values:

“(1)  Demonstrate the position of zero tolerance towards trafficking in human beings, especially women and children for sexual exploitation (Policy Setting); (2) Contribute to prevention of trafficking in human beings including awareness-raising campaigns and education (Public Awareness-Raising); (3) Develop a corporate strategy for an anti-trafficking policy which will permeate all our activities (Strategic Planning); (4) Ensure that our personnel fully comply with our anti-trafficking policy (Personnel Policy Enforcement); (5)  Encourage business partners, including suppliers, to apply ethical principles against human trafficking (Supply Chain Tracing); (6) In an effort to increase enforcement it is necessary to call on governments to initiate a process of revision of laws and regulations that are directly or indirectly related to enhancing anti-trafficking policies (Government Advocacy); (7) Report and share information on best practices (Transparency).”3

The identification, prevention, and mitigation of human trafficking, forced labor, and human rights abuses propelled by sporadic intensification of stakeholder pressures and generalized public boycotts, could benefit, however, from the assistance of regulators and law enforcement entities. By criminalizing behavior of companies and governments and holding them accountable for falling short on their commitments to the minimization of opportunities for human exploitation are severely overdue steps in the corporate responsibility and state liability discourse and practice. Domestic and international legal and criminal liability might be an effective last resort in incentivizing human rights compliance in both mainstream and informal sectors of the economy and broader state development schemes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) with its comprehensive transnational legal mandate can be a powerful institutional weapon in the fight against modern forms of slavery, which can ensure a modicum of accountability and just satisfaction as it prospectively endeavors to redress the all-too-prevalent abrogation of human, civil, and political rights. Strategic litigation that draws on international criminal law – be it through the ICC or other international judicial mechanisms – can provide a requisite roadmap to future prosecution of offenses of universally objectionable nature and issue an authoritative statement on crimes shocking to the human conscience.

1 Y. Sun. 2020. “China and Africa’s debt: Yes to relief, no to blanket forgiveness” https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/20/china-and-africas-debt-yes-to-relief-no-to-blanket-forgiveness/[1]

2 B. Andrees, “Defending Rights, Security Justice: The International Labor Organization’s Work on Forced Labor” JICJ. 343-362.

3 Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. “The Athens Ethical Principles” https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/pdf-athens-ethical-principles[2]

Joanna Rozpedowski

Dr. Joanna Rozpedowski is a Policy Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George
Mason University. She can be found on Twitter @JKRozpedowski[3].

Paid to Kill: An Examination of the Evolution of Combatants for Hire

Paid to Kill: An Examination of the Evolution of Combatants for Hire

Throughout world history, as long as there has been conflict among people, there have been people willing to pay others to carry out violence. From assassins and mercenaries to bounty markers and paramilitary organizations, humans have found limitless ways to pay for their dirty work to be carried out by others. This process is one of the most common threads in human history and has been used by people in every position, of every origin, and in every location on the planet for thousands of years. The issue of pay for violence has entered the spotlight again in the modern age, as humanity moves closer together through information and technology proliferation. The world is growing smaller, and conduct unbecoming of a civilized society is finding fewer and fewer places to hide. This article examines, in part, the historical evolution of the roles of paid actors in the business of war and violence. A complete examination is not presented, as it would require detailing a complete history of humankind. The author instead focuses on the primary themes and points throughout history that explain the origin, necessity, and permanence of paid-for violence, framed by supporting historical and modern-day references to illustrate the concept of combatants for hire and their impact on human society.

Point of Order

Payment comes in many forms, not just money, and over time violence has always been paid for by the cheapest means possible, sometimes even just by allowing life to continue or through advancing promises of ideological or moral philosophies. Jihad, for example, is a direct bounty from Allah on the heads of all infidels, the reward being not financial at all, but promises of luxurious life after death. The most common form of payment is, of course, money and has been used widely for thousands of years to incentivize the public into helping catch or kill criminals or declared criminals of various forms. From wanted posters in the wild west to the modern-day Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) most wanted list, American law enforcement has continuously been a significant end-user of various types of bounty systems. Technically, all modern military forces are also a party to the payment-for-violence system as well, as the primary function of all militaries is either offensive or defensive killing operations, and they all receive payment from participating. Assassins, since humanity’s early days, have often performed their art for a variety of forms of payment, including revenge, land, influence, or positions in leadership, and of course, money. Some assassins and mercenaries have proven this point to the extreme by conducting operations for opposing factions of a single conflict, sometimes even simultaneously working for both. No matter which way the issue is framed, payment for death is a long-standing human tradition, and it is here to stay until the concept of violent conflict is eliminated.


Assassination has commonly been used as a form of political terrorism. From a historical context, assassinations have been used to instigate larger movements, such as insurrections, rebellions, revolutions, and other events over time designed to conquer a social system or ideology of an era or region on Earth. In 1933, the attack on President-elect Roosevelt by an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Zangara, was an attack on the concept of leadership itself. Zangara professed that it didn’t matter who held the office and that his target was the symbol of the Head of State—any Head of State—as he admitted to considering other U.S. Presidents and the King of Italy as targets as well.1 The modern term ‘character assassination’ is based on this historical and persistent type of motivation for actual assassinations, where the ultimate goal is to target a public figure in a way that moves the public ideology surrounding the target in the desired way, which has become common in today’s political environment.

More to the point of payment for death, assassinations have been one of the most effective and persistent tools of ruling bodies, always. The first known writing describing methods of assassination is Kautilya’s Arthashastra (1915), an ancient text from India dated to somewhere between 300 BC and 300 AD. The text encompasses many areas of governing, including chapters concerning war strategy, poisons, spy techniques, and strategies for assassination-style killings.2 While payment is not explicitly discussed, the text is clear that the persons used in these operations are employed as a form of combatants. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (1910), believed to be written in the 5th century BC, also briefly mentions assassination as a type of mission assigned to paid spies.3 Echoing the ancient Indian Arthashastra(1915), a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) file, A Study of Assassination (1953), that was declassified in 1997, likewise details modern versions of assassination techniques, potential weapon ideas, and methods to be used for killing,4 and presumably was used as a training doctrine for paid employees of the Agency from its estimated publication in 1953 until the assassination ban encompassed in Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Impacts achieved from assassinations, or other forms of paid-for violence, can vary from insignificant, like the Italian who failed to assassinate President-elect Roosevelt, to toppling governments or starting a major war. World War I, for example, was initiated by just such an act. Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence and leader of The Black Hand organization, Dragutin Dimitrijević, was the head of the snake that took a bite out of the Habsburg Monarchy by orchestrating the assassination of the heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914. The same Dragutin Dimitrijević had led an overthrow of the Serbian Monarchy just a decade prior, in 1903, to install a puppet on the throne to enhance his power and political relations with Russia.5 The Black Hand, a unified “Serbian nationalist organization,” also known as “Unification or Death,”6 was recognized as an arm of the Serbian military, acting as an early twentieth-century clandestine organization much like modern Private Military Companies (PMC), with civilian members who could offer plausible deniability to the government when necessary.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an advocate for peace,7 and at the time, most Serbians wanted to retaliate against Austria-Hungary for annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The Archduke was; therefore, the primary obstacle preventing a war that Dimitrijević and many Serbians wanted to start. Ferdinand was also the heir to the throne, and the Emperor was dying, which provided Russia an opportunity to eliminate a Monarchy standing in the way of Russian expansionist ideas as well. This opportunity incentivized Russian approval of the assassination, even if it meant going to war as Serbia’s ally. War could not be achieved with the Archduke constantly advocating for peace and preventing any Austro-Hungarian aggression, so The Black Hand assassins, controlled by Dimitrijević, launched their operation. Ferdinand was attacked in his motorcade on his way to give a speech in Sarajevo, but the attack did not go as planned. The first assassin shot at Franz from a distance and missed; the second threw an explosive that ricocheted off the Archduke’s car and exploded under the vehicle following behind.8 This first attack failed, and the Archduke survived to give his speech, only to be targeted on the next leg of his journey through the city by the remaining assassins. As the motorcade came to a halt, Gavrilo Princip walked up to the vehicle and shot Franz in the neck, and his wife in the gut.9 Both died of their wounds shortly thereafter.

After the assassination of the Archduke, there was a military escalation of forces between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and all of their allies. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, one month after the assassination of the Archduke, after Serbia refused extraordinary terms offered by Austria-Hungary, which were not expected to be met anyway. Russia, allied with Serbia, mobilized its military upon this declaration of war, and Germany responded by declaring war on Russia, which caused Russia’s ally, France, to declare war on Germany. Then Germany invaded Belgium to get to Paris, instigating Britain, allied to Belgium and France, to declare war on Germany, followed a few weeks later by Japan, bound by a military treaty with Britain – Voila, World War I.10 While this is a unique assassination in the history of assassination because the goal was achieved, this is not an unprecedented success in the theme of payment for death, or of payment for death in war, as the history of mercenaries changing the tides of battle clearly shows.


Mercenaries have been participating in violence for likely the same amount of time as assassins, though generally on a more public and destructive scale, without much in the ways of stealth and treachery. Before countries began fielding standing armies, mercenaries were the primary method of large-scale combat. Being a mercenary was a regular job. Groups of mercenaries would sell their services to the highest bidder, always aware that nations would continue to find reasons to use their services. When problems became scarce, and nobody wanted to pay them, they would create problems of their own, extorting their hosts in the process. Throughout most of history up to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648, which were the origin of the modern-day nation-state with recognized national borders, mercenaries were the primary forces used for war.11 Mercenaries grew primarily to fill a skill void in the area of combat expertise. Before the creation of standing armies, the duties of war were rotated among individuals too often to retain the necessary experience and skill to achieve efficiency, which led to the rise of experienced warriors willing to sell their services to the highest bidder.

Eventually, mercenaries became a global industry, attracting violent, greedy people with the sole motive of money as their driving purpose. The only logical outcome of this scenario is chaos and tyranny, if for no other reason than that the existence of a large permanent mercenary population creates a strong incentive for constant war. In peace, mercenaries posed a threat to the general population, often resorting to extortion for protection to continue their livelihood when their services were not required, as happened in France in the late 15th century following the end of the Hundred Years War.12 Despite the drawbacks associated with mercenaries, the industry itself survived long after the Peace of Westphalia, and even into the modern world, as supplemental forces to a standing national army have often been seen as desirable for several reasons, from bolstering force size to match an enemy force to bending the rules of national militaries to provide plausible deniability.

Force size has been a constant issue in war, often leading to hiring mercenaries to supplement militaries. This method is not always successful, however, as Great Britain learned during the American Revolutionary War. Unable to maintain security throughout the British Empire around the world and quell the American uprising simultaneously with available military forces, Britain hired approximately 10,000 Native Americans and 30,000 German mercenaries to help fight the American Continental Army.13 The Revolutionary War highlights the fact that mercenaries are only as good as the money they are paid, illustrated by the fact that the American Congress instigated the distribution of “leaflets offering the Germans land and livestock” to switch sides.14 The nature of the Revolutionary war itself also highlights a more general flaw in the use of mercenaries, in that the Revolutionary war, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, had “no cause but malice against liberty.”15 This stance points out that the cause of a war, if not properly sold to the participants, can cause a severe undermining within the ranks of the combatants, in turn hurting morale, fostering dissent, and decreasing efficiency, which was experienced significantly on the side of the British. Ultimately, the British use of mercenaries failed to win the war; however, the resulting Constitutional debate was greatly informed by the use of paid actors in warfare, strengthening the Constitutional guidelines for military force regulation in America.

As America grew throughout the transition of the world from mercenary warfare to national militaries, mercenaries became less and less acceptable to the international community. Mercenaries became used primarily to provide plausible deniability to governments and avoid regulations, in much the same way assassins have been used to further objectives of leaders over time. The controversy over the use of mercenaries in warfare grew so extensively that the United Nations decided to institute a new international law, in the form of a treaty titled the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, signed in 1989.16 The treaty is interesting in that while signed by many countries, neither the United States nor Russia, the two primary superpowers at the time, has signed onto it since its creation, and the language used in the treaty leaves significant room for interpretation, specifically with regards to the treaty’s definition of a mercenary.17 These flaws have led to the continuation of non-military payment for violence, both with the continued use of bounties and bounty hunters and in the case of carefully labeled paramilitary forces that don’t fit within the legal parameters of the treaty definition for mercenaries.

Bounty Systems

In the late 19th century, after the American civil war, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a precursor to the American FBI, established what amounts to the first criminal database in history, with mug shots, wanted posters, and descriptions of criminals and their crimes, all circulating in newspapers across the country and filed with the agency until the death of the criminal.18 Bounties have also been used extensively since the signing of the 1989 UN treaty as an incentive for individual citizens to assist law enforcement and governments in capturing or killing wanted persons, from criminals to terrorists. The most widely known examples of this in America are the FBI’s most-wanted lists, which are updated regularly, and put price tags on fugitives at large in the United States and around the world. Among the lists, the FBI provides a top ten list of fugitives and a top ten list of terrorists, with price tags ranging from thousands to millions of dollars in rewards for information leading to capture.19 While the FBI’s bounty lists today are generally for capture, not killing, some infamous outlaws in American history, like Frank and Jesse James, were the targets of wanted posters that promised a reward whether the criminals were brought in dead or alive.20

The American justice system outlined in the U.S. Constitution eventually eliminated the use of dead or alive wanted posters, as they are illegal under the Constitutional Bill of Rights that provides for a fair trial before sentencing. Still, the bounty system remained intact for capture. During the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, another bounty-style system was used to target the most important members of the Iraqi forces and government, in the form of a deck of cards. The Defense Intelligence Agency, after years of research, developed a target/value identification system based on the standard value system assigned to a deck of cards in poker games to assist ground forces in identifying targets of value in Iraq.21 Saddam Hussein occupied the highest value position, the ace of spades, with consecutively lower-valued individuals identified in succession throughout the deck, aces first, then kings down to twos. While money was not directly associated with this example, prestige was undoubtedly a motivating factor for ground forces capturing high-value targets, and the system set the stage for non-government paramilitary forces to participate directly in ongoing military operations during an active war.

Private Military Companies (PMC)

Blackwater quickly emerged as one of the first major controversies of the 21st century, as a PMC working for the United States government in active military combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, without oversight from Congress equal to that of U.S. military forces, but with missions encompassing the same areas as the American military.22 Acting independently of the military, the organization participated in defensive and offensive combat operations to help accomplish military missions of the United States. Without military oversight, and acting directly on behalf of the Executive Branch of government, PMCs like Blackwater are nearly identical to historical mercenary organizations working for pay in combat environments. The United States is not the only country with PMCs. The practice has become widespread since the signing of the 1989 UN treaty banning mercenaries and includes the Russian PMC, The Wagner Group, which is essentially the Russian version of Blackwater. The authoritarian government of Russia, however, has resulted in a much more dangerous version of a PMC than Blackwater and has included domestic operations within Russia as well as foreign operations.23

Iranian governing practices have given rise to a very different type of PMC. Iran’s military, paramilitary, and intelligence organs are all essentially PMCs in the way that they operate due to the nature of Iran’s government structure, and they are all directly controlled by the Supreme Leader. The primary arms of these enterprises are the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These organizations work together in directing and supporting the PMC-like Quds Force operatives around the world in support of collection efforts, intelligence operations, paramilitary operations, assassinations, and terrorist activities. While the Quds Force advances Iranian efforts to export revolution around the world, their local PMC-like organization, known as the Basij, works to subvert independence within Iran, assisting in tyrannical oppression of free speech and liberty within the country and violently suppressing any attempt to cause disturbances against the Supreme Leader. Iran targets enemies abroad using a decentralized system of third-party actions and efforts, combining the principles of the bounty system and PMC architecture instead of engaging directly in combat efforts. In 2006, for example, when the Islamic State terror organization was still called Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I),24 the MOIS provided “financial, material, technological, and other support” to their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, directly supporting the terrorist’s war against U.S. personnel in Iraq.25

The contrast between Blackwater and the Iranian Quds Force is extreme, but the core issue inherent in their existence is nearly identical. With the rise in popularity of PMCs around the world after their successful use by the United States in the War on Terror, the core issue of their existence needs attention from the world. The international community recognized that even though Blackwater was targeted for their deeds, their success in achieving mission goals was undeniable. China, Pakistan, Great Britain, Australia, India, and many other countries have worked to develop similar types of organizations in their countries to take advantage of the gray area of contractor combat operations. These organizations are primarily in the employ of the Executive Branch of government or its national equivalent. They are generally not under the structure of the national military for legal purposes or oversight. They are mercenaries, being used in the modern-day to bolster force size that otherwise cannot grow and to skirt existing national and international laws with regards to combat operations and security. While the attention drawn to Blackwater caused them to change their name to Academi, the core issue of the existence of PMCs, in general, has not been significantly addressed in the international community.


The practice of paying people to kill has been around for a long time and is likely to stay, absent total world peace. The question that comes to mind isn’t whether or not this process exists, or even how to eliminate it, but rather, what the best way forward is for the United States and the international community, knowing that this process is an inherent part of world politics and international relationships. Attention, publicization, and regulation are likely the most effective weapons against barbarity in warfare, as has been shown throughout history. Attention drawn to assassins led to a ban on the practice of assassination. Attention drawn to mercenaries led to a ban on mercenaries. Attention drawn to the American Constitutional justice system led to the elimination of dead or alive bounties. Attention drawn to PMCs led to a restructuring of the relationship between the United States government and third-party contractors and continues to shape the potential future of PMCs. When the people of the world pay attention, publicize rights and wrongs perpetrated by governments and leaders, and work to create effective regulations to ensure that human dignity and individual liberty are the primary goals of such regulations, freedom succeeds, and tyranny fails.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency, including but not limited to the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, or the Marine Corps. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any U.S. government entity.


1 William Crotty, “Presidential Assassinations,” Society 35, no. 2 (1998): 102-103.

2 Kautilya, Arthashastra, Translated by R. Shamasastry, (Bangalore: Government Press, 1915), 461-474.

3 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Lionel Giles, (London, UK: Luzac and Co., 1910), 34.

4 Central Intelligence Agency, “A Study of Assassination,” Central Intelligence Agency (1953), Accessed on July 2, 2020, https://archive.org/details/CIAAStudyOfAssassination1953/mode/2up.

5 Donald Yerxa, “July 1914: An Interview with Sean McMeekin,” Historically Speaking 14, no. 3 (2013): 12-16.

6 Elena Kosmach, “Serbs and Russians,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 43, no. 1 (2001): 109-114.

7 Ian Beckett, “Franz Ferdinand,” Historian no. 120 (2014): 18-22.

8 Geoffrey Wawro, Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, (Boulder, CO, USA: Basic Books, 2014), 104-106.

9 Wawro, Mad Catastrophe, 106.

10 Martin Levinson, “Mapping the Causes of World War I to Avoid Armageddon Today,” Et Cetera 62, no. 2 (2005): 157-164.

11 Matthew Underwood, “Jealousies of a Standing Army: The Use of Mercenaries in the American Revolution and its Implications for Congress’s Role in Regulating Private Military Firms,” Northwestern University Law Review 106, no. 1 (2012): 317-349.




15 Benjamin Franklin, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin, (Eau Claire: E.M. Hale & Company, nd), 253.

16 United Nations, “International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries,” United Nations (1989).


18 Pinkerton, “Our History,” Pinkerton (2020), Accessed on July 6, 2020, www.Pinkerton.com/our-story/history.

19 FBI, “Most Wanted,” FBI (2020), Accessed on July 6, 2020, www.FBI.gov/wanted.

20 Sophie Tanno, “$5,000 for Jesse James ‘Dead or Alive’ and $100,000 for Lincoln’s Three Killers: The Fascinating Wanted Posters for America’s Biggest 19th Century Criminals,” Daily Mail (2019), Accessed on July 8, 2020, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7280265/the-fascinating-wanted-posters-americas-biggest-19th-century-criminals.html.

21 Doug Sample, “The Faces Behind the Faces on the ‘Most Wanted’ Deck,” American Forces Press Service (2003), Accessed on July 6, 2020, archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=29017.

22 Underwood, “Jealousies of a Standing Army.”

23 Kimberly Marten, “Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group,” Post-Soviet Affairs 35, no. 3 (2019): 181-204.

24 Kenneth Katzman, “Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights,” Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East 5, no. 4 (2014): 415-476.

25 Library of Congress, “Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security: A Profile,” Federal Research Division (2012), 37.

Joshua Duke

Joshua Duke served as a military intelligence analyst, including 24 months in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I, II, III, and IV. He holds a B.A. in Intelligence Studies with a Concentration in Counterintelligence from American Military University, and is now serving in his second branch of the military. Joshua focuses on several national security and intelligence related subjects, including new approaches to counterterrorism using counterintelligence-based models, autonomous weaponry developments and their applications to international law and United States national security, and the future impacts of the space domain on global economics and security.