The United Nations Mercenary Convention Bans Killing For Money. So Why Has the UK Refused To Sign It?

"The use of mercenaries is a dangerous relic from the past which unfortunately continues to be propped up by policymakers"

Thirty-five countries have ratified the United Nations Mercenary Convention which prohibits the use and financing of mercenaries in armed conflicts. Britain has, alongside the United States, Russia, France, China, India and Japan, so far declined to sign up to the convention. It is high time we thought about confining mercenarism to the past by ratifying the convention and by banning the use of mercenaries in armed conflicts worldwide.

The use of mercenaries in warfare dates back to antiquity; the term mercenary derives from the Latin mercenarius, literally meaning “hired for money”. Hired soldiers were used extensively throughout the Middle Ages, and in the 17th and 18th century privateers issued with Letters of Marque conducted ‘legalised piracy’ on the seas.  Modern mercenaries generally appear under the label of private security firms and military contractors, but beneath their legal guises mercenaries are often used by governments for less-than-legitimate means. For example, governments may employ mercenaries to maintain plausible deniability and evade international law, while mercenary groups may often impede international peace efforts or are used to defend unethical private enterprises in third-world countries, such as oil refineries and mines, or to prop-up illegal governments.

While mercenaries were used prior to 2000 (in West Africa and the Balkans for example during the 1990s), the United States set a new precedent through its extensive use of private military companies (PMCs) during their occupation of Iraq. Over 100,000 PMCs operated in Iraq throughout the occupation, with some of the largest being the now-infamous Blackwater Security Company and Aegis Defence Services. The use of private military companies in Iraq was approved by U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and, following the “Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17”, contractors were granted immunity from Iraqi law.

Several scandals came to light regarding the treatment of Iraqi civilians by private contractors in Iraq between 2003 and 2007: an investigation was launched into ‘trophy’ videos linked to Aegis Defence Services prior to 2005, with employees seemingly opening fire on random Iraqi vehicles, and, also in 2005, four Blackwater guards fired 70 rounds into an Iraqi car which failed to stop; an investigation found that the shooting was not justified and that false statements had been provided to investigators. On both of these occasions, no charges were brought. In 2014, four Blackwater employees were convicted of murder or manslaughter for killing 14 Iraqi civilians. The U.S. contractors L-3 Services Inc, CACI and Titan Corp have also been implicated, and individuals found as being culpable, in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2003 and 2004, though once again – no private contractors have been prosecuted in relation to the treatment of prisoners there. There is also evidence that further crimes in Iraq may have gone unchallenged. The New York Times described evidence of many abuses by contractors – including the killing of civilians – in the Iraq War Logs released by Wikileaks in 2010, with Blackwater Security once again referred to within the leaked documents.

The United States are not the only country to use private military forces. Russian mercenaries are widely reported to be engaging in the Syrian conflict alongside the forces of Bashar Al-Assad, including one group, the Wagner Private Military Company, which was sanctioned by the United States due to their involvement in fighting alongside separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Wagner is estimated to have as many as 2,500 fighters in Syria, earning up to £3,800 per month for their role in supporting the Assad regime. In 2014, Wagner PMC helped facilitate the Russian takeover of Crimea, known at the time as “little green men” due to their lack of military insignia. It is alleged that Wagner were involved in shooting down a Ukrainian military transport in Luhansk in June 2014, as well as participating in the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015, which led to Ukraine withdrawing from the city, and resulted in as many as 3,000 deaths. As recently as November 2017, Wagner has been reported to be operating in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine in order to further Russia’s interests. In the case of Russia, the use of private military forces has been advantageous in maintaining plausible deniability whilst under the media spotlight. Throughout their takeover of Crimea, Russia denied stationing military units within Sevastopol, and in Syria in 2018, Russia denied that Russian forces had been killed by U.S. airstrikes near the Syrian town of Khasham, with Russian groups later admitting to the loss of 20-30 contractors from Wagner PMC.

According to the Geneva Convention Protocol 1, mercenaries are defined as “unlawful combatants” and do not, therefore, have the right to be considered combatants or to be taken as prisoners of war. This means, however, that they are considered as ‘civilians’ under the Geneva Convention; an absurd situation which further benefits governments specialising in their use. Consider, for example, the fact that you would be allowed to shoot at a foreign soldier in a situation of war, but to shoot at a foreign mercenary could be considered illegal due to their classification as civilians. The United Nations stated in 2007 that it believes the use of contractors such as Blackwater to be a “new form of mercenary activity” which it considers illegal under international law, an accusation which has been strongly denied by the United States, and in 2001, the U.N. voted to pass a law outlawing the use of mercenaries in armed conflict. The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries 2001 has been ratified by 35 countries including Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium and Poland. Yet, due to the benefits conferred on governments by using easily deniable hired forces which can also be used to  evade international law, major powers including the United Kingdom, the U.S., Russia and China have refused to sign it.

The use of mercenaries is a dangerous relic from the past which unfortunately continues to be propped up by policymakers. Private security companies are used predominantly by wealthy nations during their conquest (economic or physical) of smaller, poorer nations, and whenever they are used private contractors appear to be unregulated and chaotic, resulted in the commission of illegal acts including the murder of civilians. It is time that the United Kingdom set an example by voting to outlaw the use of mercenaries and to separate itself from the illegal precedent set during the U.S. occupation of Iraq from 2003-2011. After all, private security contractors owe their existence to a chaotic and violent world. Why would they ever want that to change?


Bryan Blears is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanBlears

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