In the early 1960s, the attempted secession of Katanga, a province in the southern part of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, dominated the headlines. The fighting there was perhaps the first expression of a new form of conflict, as it was not a conventional war between states or an independence movement pitting local insurgents against colonial powers, but rather an internal conflict featuring a multitude of nonstate actors. Foreign soldiers and military advisers seconded by Belgium as well as a stream of European mercenaries descended into Katanga. A multinational peacekeeping force deployed to Katanga under a United Nations mandate was also a novel ingredient in the evolving chemistry of warfare.
The forerunners of private military companies or contractors (PMCs) subsequently started to make their presence felt elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, with the first PMCs as we know them emerging in the decade following the end of the Cold War. The advent of the global war on terrorism in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and particularly the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, marked another milestone in the growing use of PMCs since the Cold War. However, parallel efforts to regulate the use of PMCs have been uneven, with some advances but also many regressions and transgressions.
The postcolonial wars of the 1960s and 1970s, of which the Katanga secession is an example, did spur the U.N. and the Organization of African Unity -- now the African Union -- to formulate conventions outlawing the use of mercenaries. However, fundamental flaws render these instruments ineffective to prosecute even ragtag mercenary bands. Meanwhile, at the national level, very few states have endeavored to regulate their domestic private military industries, and alternative avenues of regulation, primarily through the use of codes of conduct, have so far yielded only partial results. As a result, national and international authorities will need to develop the political will to amend, adapt and expand existing avenues of regulation in order to bring PMCs out of the shadows of legal ambiguity that they currently occupy.