The United Arab Emirates has exposed huge loopholes in international criminal law by announcing a $529 million contract with the Reflex Responses company for an 800-strong force of foreign mercenaries, which could be expanded to several thousand men. The firm was founded by Erik Prince, former owner of the notorious U.S. mercenary firm Blackwater. Within the Emirates, the mercenaries will defend oil installations and important buildings, and quell internal rebellions. They could also be used to repress dissent by foreign workers who form the bulk of the UAE's workforce. Nearly all of them work in conditions that have been widely criticised. As for the involvement of the mercenaries outside UAE territory, the relevant documents reportedly name one task as the destruction of “enemy personnel and equipment.” No enemy is specified, and neither are any rules of engagement.

The deal raises major problems for regional relations. Mr. Prince moved to the Emirates after five Blackwater executives were indicted in the U.S. on charges that include bribery, lying to federal officials, and weapons offences. His earlier businesses got 90 per cent of their income from government contracts; his new venture is no different, and will operate in the tax-free Emirates. In April, U.S. federal prosecutors reopened a case against four Blackwater agents accused of killing 17 civilians in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in 2007. Colombian staff left Blackwater as they were paid less and treated worse than their Bulgarian colleagues; once home, they killed the recruiting agent. Colombians now working for Mr. Prince are reported to be virtual captives in their compound. His firm operates entirely in a legal grey area. Based in the Emirates, it is free of U.S. legal requirements for a licence to train foreign troops, and as a company it is not covered by the 1989 United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. The real agenda seems to be driven by the fear of Iran, which Washington, the Gulf rulers, and Mr. Prince share. The UAE may intend to retake Gulf islands that are disputed with Iran, and the Obama administration has said it would “make sense” for the Emirates to look for outside help. In a highly volatile region, both the U.S. and the UAE are using a crusader with an appalling record to outsource not security but war itself. International law and the related institutions seem powerless in the face of this outrage.

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