Case Study Pin

Alleged abuse of anti-piracy trainees by Sterling Corporate Services.

The company Sterling Corporate Services which was responsible for training the anti-piracy force Puntland Maritime Force was accused of beating and killing participants of training sessions.

Key words: piracy, poor training, termination of contract


From 1969-1991, Somalia was under the rule of a socialist military dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, who seized power through a coup d’état. Following years of corruption and economic mismanagement, when Barre’s regime came to an end Somalia was plunged into a prolonged and devastating civil war that had repercussions throughout East Africa. Within this turmoil, different regions within Somalia sought greater independence from Mogadishu, with Somaliland declaring itself an independent state in the northwest, and Puntland asserting autonomy in the northeast.

This region became increasingly lawless, and this was exacerbated by the disbandment of the Somali Navy. This vacuum of authority facilitated the intrusion of illegal foreign fishing and the dumping of waste in Somali territorial waters. This and other factors ultimately led to the emergence of piracy as a pervasive issue.

From around 2005 to 2012, Puntland was a hub of burgeoning piracy operation around the Gulf of Aden. To combat this, the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) was established in 2011. Sterling Corporate Services, a company based in Dubai, was hired to create and train this force. The company was accused of violating the arms embargo placed on Somalia.

Initially, a private military firm called Saracen International was contracted by the government of Puntland to train the PMPF. The PMPF project was being financed by the UAE as the country’s business operations were being threatened by Somali pirates. Later it was rebranded and a new company, Sterling Corporate Services was established in Dubai to oversee the training of the anti-piracy operation. Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide and Michael Shanklin, a former CIA station chief in Mogadishu, was also involved in this project. According to a confidential report by the African Union, Erik Prince was “at the top of the management chain of Saracen and provided the seed money for the Saracen contract”.  Michael Shanklin served as an advisor to the then Somali government and helped broker the negotiations between Saracen, the Somali government and the UAE.

The Incidents

International organizations raised concerns about the techniques and approach employed by Sterling Corporate Services in training and working with Somali anti-piracy trainees. They were accused of beating and even killing Somali trainees during the training sessions. The UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG) found that one of the trainees was “hogtied with his arms and feet bound behind his back and beaten”. While the UN group claimed that the trainee died due to his injuries, Sterling Corporate Services denied the accusation. In one incident, one of the South African trainers was shot dead by a Somali trainee. According to Sterling, this was an isolated incident and the trainee accused was arrested.

In 2012, the SEMG stated that Saracen International had neglected to seek or obtain authorization from the international body to function as a private military contractor in Somalia. Saracen’s continuance with military training and deployment was in defiance of the UN’s general arms embargo.  The same year, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries stated that Sterling/Saracen’s operations went beyond training. A flight chartered by Saracen, which was grounded by Somaliland authorities, was found to be carrying unauthorized cargo of combat uniforms, military webbing and other materials.

The International Code of Conduct

The International Code of Conduct requires that Personnel of Member and Affiliate companies take all reasonable steps to avoid the use of force, and if force is used, it should be proportionate to the threat and appropriate to the situation. (Rules for the Use of Force: paragraph 29, Use of Force: paragraph 30-32)

Resources on Use of Force

The Code requires stringent selection and vetting of personnel, assessment of performance and duties (paragraphs 45 to 49), and training of personnel of the Code and relevant international law, including human rights and international criminal law (paragraph 55).

Resources on working conditions

The Code also requires that incident reports are to be made for any incident involving its personnel and the use of weapons, criminal acts, injury to persons, etc. (paragraph 63). It also mandates the establishment of a Grievance, Whistleblowing and related procedures to address claims brought by personnel or of third parties regarding the failure of the Company to respect the principles mentioned in the Code (paragraph 66-67).

Meeting the requirements of the Code of Conduct can help private security companies and their clients ensure that private security personnel are qualified, trained, supported, informed, and responsible.

See also: The Montreux Document On pertinent international legal obligations and good practices for States related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict


In September 2012, Sterling Corporate Services lost the contract to train paramilitary Puntland Maritime Police Force for fighting piracy amidst criticism by the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG). Concerns were raised over the fact that Sterling Corporate Services would be leaving behind an unpaid but well-armed security force in Puntland and how this could lead to further destabilisation of this area. Bancroft Global Development, a US based private military security contractor, was asked to assess whether these officers could be assimilated into the other security forces in Somalia, that were approved by both the US and the African Union. Bancroft trained soldiers from Uganda and Burundi for counterinsurgency missions in Somalia, under the African Union’s banner. It stated that it would not be taking over Sterling’s counterpiracy mission.


What are the implications of leaving behind an unpaid force trained to use arms in an already unstable region?

Related incidents




This case was prepared by Shilpa Suresh, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. 

Descargo de responsabilidad

De acuerdo con la cláusula de exención de responsabilidad de la página de inicio, ni la Asociación del Código de Conducta Internacional ni ninguno de los autores pueden identificarse con las opiniones expresadas en el texto o las fuentes incluidas en «Defender la Seguridad Responsable: El Mapa de Casos del Código Internacional de Conducta».