For a Fistful of Dollars: It Is a Fact That No One Has Been Denying: The United Nations Interacts with Mercenaries, Although They Are Carefully Re-Named "Private Military Companies" So as Not to Upset Diplomatic Susceptibilities

By de Lavarene, Celhia | New African, November 2013 | Go to article overview

For a Fistful of Dollars: It Is a Fact That No One Has Been Denying: The United Nations Interacts with Mercenaries, Although They Are Carefully Re-Named "Private Military Companies" So as Not to Upset Diplomatic Susceptibilities


de Lavarene, Celhia, New African


When the "Working group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination" held a press conference at the UN in August, New African tried to figure out the difference, if any, between a mandate to protect or to respect sovereignty.

It is no secret that over the years, the UN has been forced to use the services of "private military companies" or to deal with armed groups to protect its own people, even though it should be the host country's duty to protect UN staff. Yet, in post-conflict countries where infrastructure is nonexistent, it is impossible to rely on governmental security forces.

Having observed that international stability does not come automatically from the nation state, the UN concluded that peace and security were endangered by intra-state conflicts and that victims of conflicts were predominantly civilian populations.

While the UN came to realise that the idea of collective security should no longer be limited to protection by nation states, Western private sector companies were making the case for the use of "outsourcing" to private military companies for UN peacekeeping operations. In 2002, the British House of Commons noted that "the notion that private military forces might be used for politically sensitive and high-profile areas of UN operations such as peacekeeping and peace enforcement is problematic.

In fact, during the past decade and more, the UN has had a shifting position towards mercenaries. In his 1999 report to the UN Human Rights Commission, the UN Special Rapporteur, Enrique Bernales Ballestero, wrote "private military companies are developing their strategies and offers in a very aggressive way, putting forward arguments to get some legitimacy based on military efficiency, [and] cheaper operations as well as on their 'personnel's proven experience." He urged the Human Rights Commission to remember that "mercenaries base their comparative advantages and efficiency on acts. They are not bound to a respect of human rights or to the rules of international humanitarian law.

"Greater disdains for human dignity and greater cruelty are considered efficient instruments for winning the fight," explained Ballestero.

In 2003, in his final report to the Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur sounded the alarm: "Activities linked to mercenaries have not disappeared no matter how hard the UN has tried. Updating the UN 1989 convention on mercenaries is needed," he wrote, adding that private companies offering military assistance, consultancy and security services on the international market should, at the very least, be regulated and placed under international supervision, and that crimes and offences committed by employees of such companies should not go unpunished.

In 2004, Shaista Shameem, the newly appointed Special Rapporteur, addressed two reports to the Human Rights Commission in which she adopted a pragmatic approach, sharply contrasting with her predecessor's positions and asking for "a fundamental rethinking of the issue of mercenaries and its relation to the promotion and protection of human rights" as well as "a fundamental reconsideration of the responsibility of nation states and the UN, with respect to the activities of actors currently legally defined as mercenaries."

She cautioned against confusing mercenaries with other actors supplying security services in the world's troubled hot-spots. Thus, as far as the private military companies were concerned, she considered that in the absence of a clear definition of mercenaries and adequate legislation, the UN should be encouraging company self-regulation to promote a sense of ownership and sustainability. …

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