Yevgeny Prigozhin, now presumed dead, and his mercenary group Wagner have been accused of war crimes, as well as recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine. Switzerland has been a hub for trying to regulate such groups. An interview with an expert.
By Julia Crawford
The global private military and security industry has been growing exponentially, and private security forces replacing soldiers on the battlefields. What is being done to regulate them?
“There is a feeling nothing is being done, but it’s not true,” says Jean-Michel Rousseau of DCAF, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance which provides support and expertise to efforts promoting security sector good governance. “There are already norms in place. They are not binding, but if they were adequately implemented at national levels, we would already now have a more human rights compliant private military and security sector.”
Rousseau says the discussion around Prigozhin and Wagner should be used to reflect on how to strengthen implementation.
Prigozhin is presumed to have died in a plane crash in Russia on Wednesday, along with his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin. Russia has confirmed his death, but there is not yet definitive proof, as the UK defence ministry said on Friday. Moscow has denied allegations that it shot down the plane.
International Geneva and Switzerland have played a leading role in pushing for non-binding initiatives on private security companies.
“This year we have the 15 years of the Montreux Document, which is an international text on the responsibility of states to regulate private military and security companies,” Rousseau explains. “We also have ten years of ICOCA, which is an association overseeing implementation of the International Code of Conduct that applies to companies themselves.”
Rousseau stresses that the private military and security sector is very diverse. People tend to think of notorious groups like Wagner, Blackwater or Executive Outcomes, but the sector’s activities range all the way from them “to the guard at the train station in Geneva”. Such companies can make a useful contribution to security, provided they are properly regulated to prevent abuses, monitored and held accountable.
Wagner influence in Africa
Asked what will happen to Wagner after Prigozhin’s presumed death, Rousseau says a distinction should be made between its activities in Russia and Ukraine, and in fragile states in Africa.
“In Russia and Ukraine, Wagner has been very much involved and incorporated now into the Russian state security and armed forces, and is very much part of the power play there. With Prigozhin gone, that might hail the demise of Wagner activities there,” he says.
“I think the situation might be different in Africa, where Wagner has really operated as a commercial actor. There’s demand for Wagner services, and local elites are willing to pay with taxpayers’ money or other means. I don’t see another security provider that could step in, at least in the short term, and offer the same kind of services to countries, particularly in Africa.”
Wagner is known to have a significant presence in fragile states such as the Central African Republic, where it has been accused of plundering mineral resources and abuses against civilians. It is also present in Mali and Burkina Faso which have seen military coups in the recent past. Following the July 26 coup in Niger, some pro-coup demonstrators were openly calling for Wagner to come to the country. This is seen as part of rising anti-Western feeling in parts of Africa which Russia is keen to exploit.
Indeed, Prigozhin, in a video clip on social media shortly before his presumed death, appeared against a desert background, hinting he was in Africa. He spoke of making Russia greater on all continents and Africa more “free”.
“I think particularly in fragile countries, where we see groups like Wagner operating, there are just no capacities in place to regulate, oversee and hold them accountable,” Rousseau says. “I think the discussion around Prigozhin and Wagner should act as a catalyst. Wagner has exploited systemic gaps to pursue its activities, and if we want to prevent a new Wagner from arising, then these gaps should be plugged.”
Rousseau says Switzerland is a hub for developing better regulation. There are discussions around the issue at the United Nations in Geneva, both through an intergovernmental working group and an expert group on mercenaries.
The Swiss government, he says, has also been one of the most active in this domain. It spearheaded development of the Montreux Document, along with the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It led the creation of the Code of Conduct and ICOCA. It also reformed its own legislation to make sure Swiss private security companies respect human rights and international humanitarian law when operating abroad.
“So it’s a mix between International Geneva and Swiss foreign policy priorities that make this discussion really happening here in Geneva,” Rousseau says.