Global Policy Forum

UN Seeks Controls on Private Armies


The UN Working Group on Mercenaries has urged the international community to regulate private military security contractors (PMSCs).  A draft resolution has already been submitted to the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. However, countries that heavily use PMSCs (predominately in the West) are reticent to pass a legally binding resolution. PMSCs have perpetrated armed and sexual violence with impunity. Thus, the lack of accountability mechanisms between PMSCs and governments are disconcerting and urgent action is necessary to ensure that PMSCs are adequately regulated.

By Sunaina Perera

July 12, 2011

With U.S. and Western military forces planning to gradually withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be an increasing demand for private military contractors to provide security in both politically-troubled countries.

As a result, the number of military contractors is set to reach 5,500 in Iraq alone, according to a U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries, prompting demands for a specific international instrument to regulate their activities.

The members of the Working Group have stressed the importance of establishing international guidelines and legislation when dealing with Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs).

Three of the five members of the Working Group on Mercenaries held a press conference Friday to discuss new legislation and the need for an international instrument to regulate PMSCs.

The Working Group has already submitted legislation on the subject, to the General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council. The issue is settling on a set of regulations that countries will agree on in a timely manner.

Established in July 2005, the Working Group keeps track of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities. Its mandate is to make suggestions to protect human rights in the face of such activities.

José Luis Gómez del Prado, chair of the Working Group, spoke of necessary change, and participation of member states.

Currently, there is an International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries which came into force in 2001. This convention, however, was only ratified by 32 member states, few of which were Western.

Asked why, Gómez del Prado told IPS, "They don't find it a priority. They could ratify quite easily."

But he added that discussions were in place so that such nations might "declare it a priority" even if the government has limited involvement with mercenaries.

The difference between the new legislation and the convention against mercenaries is that mercenaries - individuals hired to fight for pay - are criminals while PMSCs are legal organisations hired by governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to perform myriad services.

"It's more efficient for short-term projects. For one-month, two- month, three-month jobs, governments are not going to set up full agencies. The problem is the lack of control," Gómez del Prado told IPS, highlighting the allure of PMSC use.

Similarly, the need for PMSC involvement will increase significantly in Iraq by the end of this year, when U.S. troops are scheduled to exit the country. These private contractors, however, will not leave Iraq in the near future.

Otherwise, the Working Group assured, victims would not receive the justice they deserve. This is supported by a case still pending in United States courts, where contractors working for Blackwater allegedly killed 17 civilians and injured another 20 in Nissour Square, four years ago.

Many countries, however, are not supportive of an international instrument and instead seek a self-regulatory instrument. This would allow companies to control themselves, based on a voluntary code of conduct.

According to Alexander Nikitin, a member of the Working Group, "The issue is not to prohibit PMSCs" but to "draw a red line" between what is allowed and what is prohibited.

Countries may not agree with such legislation for purely economic reasons. Nikitin told IPS, "Contradictions are not always political, they are yet on the level of business - of private sector. Soon they may be political".

Amada Benavides de Perez, a member of the Working Group, stressed how PMSCs are draining projects of their funding, explaining that though 3.2 million dollars was given to fight drug trafficking two weeks ago, 57 percent of that money was put towards hiring PMSCs.

She urged governments and NGOs to ask, "What does the money actually go to?"

Many countries, Nikitin told IPS, "have a vested economic interest" in PMSCs and even mercenaries. Because of this, they may be unwilling to support legislature that confines the rights of PMSCs.

Hesitation may also rest on the issue of control.

"States want entry control," Nikitin added. As an example, he explained how an oil company may hire a guard, but that particular person may not be allowed in the country of operation. In such cases, Nikitin told IPS "countries want rights to expel the company, or the worker".

As an example of such control issues, Gómez del Prado cited an incident involving a general in the British Army who was discharged due to psychological issues, but wanted to go back to Iraq.

According to Gómez del Prado, the general applied to be a mercenary and was passed without a background check. Some 38 hours later, he had killed two civilians and injured another.

To avoid tragic incidents such as this, he said there is a pressing need for an international instrument spelling out self-regulation and codes of conduct.

The binding instrument would include means of licensing and monitoring activities as well as laws to regulate them. Regulation would occur on both national and international levels.


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