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private military company (PMC), independent corporation that offers military services to national governments, international organizations, and substate actors. Private military companies (PMCs) constitute an important and deeply controversial element of the privatized military industry. PMCs specialize in providing combat and protection forces. Their work ranges from running small-scale training missions to providing combat units composed of up to several hundred highly trained soldiers equipped with powerful weapons platforms, including tanks and attack helicopters.
The use of military force by private-sector organizations is not new. The East India Company, for example, had at its disposal a large army during the 18th and 19th centuries. Private-sector actors also have long helped to maintain the hardware of armies. Yet, for much of the 20th century, the outsourcing of combat functions was disparaged, and the employment of military power was restricted largely to the agencies of the state. This began to change in the post-Cold War era. At the end of the Cold War, the market was flooded with military specialists and surplus equipment. The Cold War also was followed by the eruption of numerous small wars, especially in Africa. It was in such conflicts that a number of PMCs, including Sandline International (United Kingdom) and Executive Outcomes (South Africa), made their name.
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Nonetheless, PMCs are highly controversial. Since 2001, for instance, the United Nations Mercenary Convention has banned the use of mercenaries (individuals who engage in conflict on behalf of any state without regard to political interests or issues) in armed conflict, with the services provided by PMCs considered mercenary activity. The United States, however, rejected the notion of PMC activities as mercenary, and along with other countries with sizeable military forces, including China and Russia, did not ratify the convention. Adding to the controversy was the fact that PMC personnel and support services were not easily distinguished from state or national military forces. As a result, the use of PMCs provided an opportunity for deniability, allowing states or countries to carry out otherwise criminal warfare activities while holding PMCs accountable for those crimes. PMCs, especially those operating in Africa, had been held responsible for abuses of human rights.