Fears mount on mercenaries' 'abuse'

23 September 2008 - 1:00am
Press release

'Pact threatens bid for tough curbs'

The charity War on Want today expressed concern that the British government would use a new international agreement to avoid strict legal controls on UK private military and security companies, despite many cases of abuse.

Representatives from 17 states, including the UK and the US, agreed a document in talks organised by the Swiss government in Montreux together with the humanitarian organisation the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The document outlines rules and good practice on private military and security firms’ operations in armed conflict.

But War on Want says the accord lacks any binding status and only reaffirms current international law, which has so far brought no prosecutions after hundreds of examples of abuse by mercenaries.

The charity issued this warning in the run-up to next month’s first anniversary of the wounding of two Iraqi civilians by mercenaries with the British firm Erinys International who fired on a cab near Kirkuk.

It also came just over a year since mercenaries working for the US private military company Blackwater randomly shot at and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

War on Want is calling for legislation, including a ban on private military and security companies’ use in combat and combat support.

Ruth Tanner, its campaigns and policy director, said: “This Montreux agreement must not be seen as a substitute to proper binding legislation on private military companies. There can be no more excuse for inaction. We call on the British government to start the process towards a new law as a matter of urgency.”

War on Want in July claimed that the UK government has mounted a political block against moves to regulate UK private military firms.

The charity announced that a government document acquired under freedom of information laws reveals ministers were close to launching pre-legislative consultation earlier this year. The government document listed issues for public consultation with parliamentarians, industry, non-governmental organisations and academics on proposals for a “twin-track regulatory system” for private military firms. The system would combine a register of authorised companies with contract licences.

This revelation followed a report by British MPs on the influential foreign affairs select committee that branded foreign secretary David Miliband’s failure to act “unacceptable”.

In a response to the Foreign Office’s annual human rights report, MPs expressed dismay that the government’s draft legislative programme for next year made no reference to private military and security firms. The committee urged the government to use the forthcoming Queen’s Speech to announce plans to introduce legislation. The MPs called for strict curbs on private security companies, with provision for firms to face prosecution in British courts for serious human rights abuse committed abroad.

CONTACT: Paul Collins, War on Want media officer (+44) (0)207 549 0584 or (+44) (0)7983 550728

NOTE TO EDITORS

In 2002 the UK government acknowledged the problems over private armies in a green paper which listed options for regulation. In its response to the paper later that year, the Commons foreign affairs committee recommended that “private companies be expressly prohibited from direct participation in armed combat operations, and that firearms should only be carried... by company employees for purposes of training or self-defence”. The committee also proposed that the government consider “a complete ban on recruitment for such activities of United Kingdom citizens by overseas-based or offshore PMCs”, while remaining activities be subject to licence. But since then the British government has failed to move towards regulation despite the United Nations, the British parliament and the industry itself calling on it to take decisive action.

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