Swiss security companies active in North Africa and Middle East

Pilatus was one of the few companies to be questioned for its activities in Saudi Arabia. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

Private military and security contractors based in Switzerland were involved in almost 500 activities abroad last year. Almost a third of the reported activities related to personal protection and more than half of all missions took place in North Africa or the Middle East.

This content was published on August 12, 2020 - 14:29

Operators of so-called mercenaries are obliged by law to report their activities to the Swiss foreign ministry, which makes them public. In 2019, a total of 31 companies reported 478 missions – all of them legal. The numbers of activities were largely the same as 2018.

The foreign ministry department responsible for monitoring mercenary activity said it did not impose any sanctions last year. Some 26 missions were more closely examined before 23 were given the go-ahead. Two missions, dating from 2018, were banned and another proposal was withdrawn by the company involved.

The two bans related to aircraft manufacturer Pilatus in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This was because the company offered technical support after selling training planes, an activity deemed tantamount to providing support for military action. Saudi Arabia is involved in the conflict with Yemen.

The company is appealing the bans, but a criminal case into its activities in Saudi Arabia was dropped by prosecutors last year.

The government is currently reviewing Switzerland’s Mercenary Act that sets the ground rules for such companies operating out of the country. It is considering changes that would make it clearer when a company can provide technical service support on equipment that has been approved for export. 

The foreign ministry report says that the private security sector is booming as new forms of services emerge using modern technologies. Following a lengthy political debate on the operations, private security companies, Switzerland introduced the mandatory reporting process in 2013.

The law prohibits security firms based in Switzerland from any direct involvement in hostilities abroad on the scale of an armed conflict and from any service that might lead to human rights violations.

The ban includes recruiting, training, providing personnel directly or as an intermediary, and the control (by holding companies) of other companies carrying out such activities.

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