The three-year old Darfur crisis in western Sudan shows few signs of abating. NGOs estimate that approximately 400,000 have died so far in the conflict between the Janjaweed militia group, largely made up of Baggara tribesmen, and tribes of non-Baggara small farmers. Moreover, several hundred thousand non-Baggara refugees living in camps remain at risk of starvation or violent death at the hands of the Janjaweed. As the situation currently stands, international aid agencies are unable to offer sufficient care to the burgeoning refugee population in the camps because of the constant threat posed by the Janjaweed, who operate with impunity in the region.

The conflict has been described variously as ethnic cleansing’, ‘a humanitarian disaster’, and ‘genocide’ by the mass media, UN officials, and Western governments. Despite this, Western states, including Canada, have declined to offer combat personnel to help address the threat posed by the Janjaweed. Instead, responsibility for the security of Darfur has fallen to a poorly trained, funded, and equipped force of 7,000 African Union (AU) troops who, thus far, have proven completely unable to protect civilian refugees from militia attacks.

Canada’s reluctance to deploy combat troops to Darfur is justifiable given its long-term commitment to a large-scale mission in Afghanistan. However, in the modern market for security, deploying the Canadian Forces is no longer Canada’s sole option. Indeed, the Government of Canada can make a significant contribution to resolving the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa by funding, in whole or in part, a robust counter-insurgency campaign against the Janjaweed militia conducted by a private military company (PMC).

Why contract out?
Two factors favour the use of PMCs to address the Darfur crisis: PMCs have the capacity to engage and defeat insurgent groups and have considerable commitment to the success of their operations.

The most important issue is whether a PMC could mount a sufficiently robust resistance against the militias to greatly reduce the number of civilian deaths in Darfur and provide a secure environment for the distribution of humanitarian aid. If an intervention force cannot meet this requirement, then their presence in the region would be largely ornamental.

Traditional Western peace enforcement doctrine maintains that a very large, heavy, and armoured intervention force would be required to address a Darfur-like crisis; however, this is a gross overestimation. By all accounts, the Janjaweed possess no tanks, only a handful of lightly armoured vehicles, no helicopters, and no combat aircraft. Indeed, the militia groups operating in Darfur are primarily equipped with machetes, knives, small arms, camels and horses. Beyond this, it is universally accepted that the militias are poorly trained and led, which further undermines their combat capabilities.

In comparison to the opponents defeated by a South African-based PMC, Executive Outcomes (EO), in Angola and Sierra Leone during the 1990s, the Sudanese militias are barely armed at all. Taking EO’s experiences into account, utilizing forces numbering less than 600 personnel to defeat much larger insurgent groups, it is wholly conceivable that a relatively small PMC force, say 1,000 to 1,500 operators, equipped with readily available PMC-operated helicopters, could coerce the militias into curtailing their attacks on the Darfur refugee camps and adhere to a peace settlement.

A relatively small PMC force could be successful in Darfur because of the considerable tactical prowess exhibited by these groups, many of whom are staffed with veterans of elite and special operations units in the Canadian, American and European armed forces, and their tendency to utilize capable, though low cost, equipment.

Indeed, EO proved through its peacemaking operations in the 1990s that even a small PMC deployment can serve as a robust counter-insurgency force. This translates to the use of spotter aircraft and helicopters to locate groups of belligerent militia members and relentlessly pursuing and engaging them with air and helicopter mobile ground assets. In effect, a PMC force in Darfur could apply some of the same tactics utilized by coalition forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

It is important to highlight that a PMC’s focus on counter-insurgency in Darfur would be complementary though very different from the site protection duties currently assigned to African Union troops. A PMC’s primary focus would be to seek out and pacify belligerents. The task of guarding large groups of refugees would remain the responsibility of the AU or any follow-on UN force. However, this task could be rendered much easier if PMC troops were employed to curtail attacks on the camps.

PMCs’ past experience working for beleaguered governments suggests they tend to be highly committed to the success of their operations. Modern PMCs are not the fly-by-night operations some of their predecessors were in the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, Executive Outcomes remained in Sierra Leone and Angola after taking casualties that were, relative to the size of its forces, far greater than those suffered in most major UN operations. Despite the inherent risks associated with operating within full-scale civil wars, EO’s risk tolerant forces refused to violate the terms of their contracts with the Sierra Leonean and Angolan governments. Similarly, dozens of PMCs have operated continuously in Iraq and Afghanistan for years while many national armed forces have pulled out.

PMCs choose to endure in harsh conflict zones, even when national armed forces do not, because of their inherent desire for payment and to secure their long-term reputation as competent and reliable firms. Therefore, so long as payment were contractually tied to meeting an objective target level of stability and security in Darfur, a PMC would likely be very committed to accomplishing the mission objectives, even in the face of deadly resistance from belligerents.

Risks of a private force
Utilizing PMCs is not without risk. However, the alarmist fear of these actors expressed by some quarters is misguided.

Lack of Accountability
A common criticism of PMCs alleges that these actors are subject to comparatively lower accountability than state-based armed forces. Anti-PMC advocates, such as Colonel David Smith of the US Army, argue plainly that, “mercenaries are not accountable for their actions the way that the troops of a national army would be.” However, this argument confuses the actions of modern incorporated PMCs, such as MPRI or Blackwater, and traditional mercenary groups. PMCs have not proven less accountable for their actions than state-based militaries.

In contrast to the traditional mercenary groups that plagued Africa during the 1960s and 70s, PMCs take the long-view toward corporate survival, and prioritize accountability to their clients and home government. PMCs operate from established offices, maintain defined corporate management structures, and actively promote their existence. Moreover, PMCs enjoy no special legal status exempting them from being held accountable to either international legal bodies or the domestic legal system of the contracting state. So long as states choose to use the legal and regulatory tools available to them, PMCs can be as accountable as any Western military.

Human Rights Abuses and Neocolonial Behavior
A second common allegation made against the use of PMCs in peace operations is that they are more inclined than state-based military forces to commit war crimes while deployed in a conflict zone. Despite these claims, the threat of modern PMCs abusing human rights or taking over states is grossly exaggerated. PMCs and their employees simply have too much to lose by becoming international criminals. If a particular PMC performs poorly or in any way abuses the trust of a client, whether by abusing human rights, shirking their contractually-based accountability, or threatening state sovereignty, the company and its principals would, at minimum, find that their forward order book decidedly thin.

The notion that the tail can wag the dog could, therefore, only be a one-time occurrence because a rebellious company’s prospects for future employment would instantly disappear and criminal charges could be leveled against them. Once again, taking the long view is part of what differentiates PMCs from traditional, single-operation mercenary groups.

The Canadian role in Darfur
In the absence of a robust UN or EU force backed by Western soldiers and equipment, private military companies are uniquely positioned to provide the ‘teeth’ necessary to enforce peace and stability in Darfur. As P.W. Singer argues, “used judiciously as part of longer-term conflict management efforts, (PMCs) might provide the short-term force necessary to stabilize situations at critical junctions in the operation.”

Indeed, given Canada’s prior commitment of the bulk of its expeditionary capacity to Afghanistan for at least the next three years, funding a PMC operation is Canada’s best option for addressing this humanitarian crisis. Depending on duration of the deployment, a PMC operation in Darfur would plausibly cost between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. However, due to the relatively small size of the mission and the potential for sharing the financial burden with other traditional financiers of peacekeeping operations, the cost to Canada would likely be considerably lower than either a major deployment of Canadian Forces personnel and equipment or a much larger UN operation.

Although this scenario may appear implausible to some, the use of PMCs for security operations is now widely accepted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States, two of Canada’s closest allies and permanent UN Security Council members. Several private firms employ tens of thousands of ex-soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan where they collectively form one of the largest members of the US-led coalitions in both countries.

Moreover, PMCs have successfully assisted UN operations in the past. For example, before British forces took over responsibility for Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, Sandline International successfully rescued UN soldiers operating in that country on several occasions with its fleet of combat and transport helicopters. Therefore, despite the radical appearance of this proposal, the political seeds for legitimate privately run peace operations have already been sewn in the international community.

Canada can undertake this challenge unilaterally or through the UN. The organization’s extensive experience contracting with PMCs for non-combat tasks, coupled with the brief though rich history of PMC use by permanent members of the Security Council, makes it ideally suited to assist in managing this policy option.

At the time of writing, Darfur stands on the brink of a second wave of mass killings. As the Harper government considers its foreign policy objectives, it should seize the opportunity to take a leadership role in resolving this longstanding humanitarian crisis.

Allocating sufficient resources to this proposal may require sacrificing other foreign and domestic commitments. Due to the relative novelty of this proposal, trends in public opinion cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, pursuing this proposal would certainly require concerted leadership on the part of the Harper government to educate the public about the mission objectives and the rationale for using a private force to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

Difficult choices loom, both on the direction of the Canadian response to Darfur and on the provision of finite governmental resources.

Scott Fitzsimmons is a graduate of the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University where he conducted research on private military companies. He is currently a PhD candidate in the University of Calgary’s Department of Political Science (