Magazine article The World Today

Licence to Kill

Magazine article The World Today

Licence to Kill

Article excerpt

Private military companies became notorious when it appeared that they may be doing governments' dirty work for them. But even the UN has considered using them and there are fresh suggestions that Gurkha soldiers could be employed in Africa. With British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently warning against recruiting mercenaries for the Ivory Coast, regulation seems essential. Yet the British government has put off such a move for more consultation.

SINCE THE PRETORIA-BASED private military company Executive Outcomes (EO) first emerged publicly almost ten years ago, international attention has focused on the role and influence of such firms in securing, stabilising, or destabilising security worldwide.

In Britain, the 1997 Sandline and 1999 Arms to Africa affairs, in which British private military company Sandline International was involved in shipping arms to the Papua New Guinea government and providing training in Sierra Leone, demonstrated that many of these firms operate with at least the acquiescence of major western governments and their security services. This raises the question of just what government policy is towards them.

The perception that many such companies operate on behalf of western mining and oil firms in various parts of the developing world, with little regard for national wcllbeing and standards of living in the countries concerned - an extremely valid, if not always correct assumption - has further tarnished their image, painting them as neo-colonial exploiters in Africa and elsewhere.

With a few exceptions, British private military companies (PMCs) have played a strong but quietly positive role in supporting the country's interests abroad. In a number of cases they have helped terminate foreign wars and provide post-conflict stabilisation, while helping defend British and other citizens abroad.

The history of these firms and their operations has been widely documented and discussed, but the British government still has to decide how to regulate their activities nationally and internationally.


In February last year - largely in response to the Arms to Africa affair - the government released its Green Paper on Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation. It laid out a number of options based on Foreign and Commonwealth Office thinking. Consultation and two reports of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee followed, but last November the government opted to 'continue to consult', rather than deciding on a course of action.

For years, warnings have been voiced against private security and military companies becoming supplementary wings of national armed forces. The US State and Defense Departments' use of MPRI training forces in Croatia and Bosnia appeared to support this concern. However, these worries have slipped further into the background, particularly because of the response, or lack of, by the international community and national military forces to developing world humanitarian catastrophes and other so-called complex emergencies.

There is also a burgeoning view that western military forces arc short of resources. Now Britain, in demonstrating a clear willingness to look at options for such private actors to support national objectives, needs to offer stronger international leadership on the regulation issue.


The Green Paper recognises one of the greatest challenges for policy and law enforcement in this area: defining the activities and actors. It emphasises the distinction between mercenaries and private security/military companies: the options outlined aim at regulating fully-constituted companies, not individuals selling their military skills on an ad hoc basis.

The definition of mercenary in Article 47 of the First Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions is generally unworkable as a legal instrument, as it defines the actor, not the activity. Ib be a mercenary, all six elements of the definition must apply. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.