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Mercenary activities in UN focus Print
Dr Shaister Shameem - 28/02/2006

The rapid growth of private military contractors and their role in conflicts worldwide is blurring the definition of what constitutes mercenary activities. The United Nations is so concerned that it's now overhauling the definitions and conventions, and considering laws to make guns for hire more accountable for their actions.
There are five Fijian ex-soldiers allegedly training a private army in Bougainville. Would you call them 'mercenaries', and does this give you cause for concern?
Whatever allegations have been made, the working group receives those allegations and the next step is to ask the governments concerned or the states concerned to respond with whatever explanations they can provide, if they have any at all.

And in this case, what the working group, or the chairperson of the working group, did was write a letter to the government of Fiji and also one to the government of Papua New Guinea.

Unfortunately, neither of those governments have yet responded. The first letter went out well before Christmas and I understand there will be a follow-up letter soon. But certainly there has been no replies whatsoever from either of those two governments.

And it becomes very difficult, therefore, for the working group to make an assessment of the situation, because they can only rely on media reports or secondary reports derived from other sources.

Is there a reluctance to confront this problem? Neither country has signed the UN convention on mercenaries and the Fijian foreign minister has said that the country can't afford to. Is there just too much money to be made for the economy through remittances?
I'm not sure that Fiji is specifically saying that it will not be able to afford to ratify the UN convention against mercenaries.

I think it's a sort of a general reluctance to ratify conventions, given the reasons given they are expensive, and it's an onerous task to actually go through all the reporting obligations and so on. But the convention has only been ratified by 25 countries.

And I think one of the most important issues facing states right now is whether they agree with the definition of 'mercenary' that is in the current convention, in the current UN convention. There is a kind of a lacuna in the law with respect to how you may define private military and private security companies.

Are they, in fact, mercenaries within the terms of the Geneva Convention or the United Nations Convention, or should they be analysed from a completely different legal perspective?

And this is something that the working group is actually studying at the moment.

How much has the nature of warfare changed since the September 11 attacks, to warrant a complete overhaul of the definition and convention?
Not just since September 11, but in fact from the 1980s onwards, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more or less. You've had skirmishes taking place in various countries, you've had internal warfare rather than international warfare taking place.

And so the whole nature of warfare has actually changed. And some of the conventions and some of the international law has unfortunately not kept up with the reality on the ground.

And, of course, another problem is that private military companies and private security companies are being used by not only the United Nations but also by states for humanitarian purposes.

So it's very difficult to include private military companies and private security companies within the general definition of 'mercenaries' because, you know, it may be that they're probably operating in a completely different environment, in a completely different security environment.

Is it also more convenient for states to outsource and have the contractors do their dirty work for them? In Afghanistan, for example, a former Green Beret, Jonathan Jack Idema, and his colleagues were caught interrogating suspected terrorists - he claims, with the knowledge of the United States.
I think it's very important that states should be held to account for the extent of their outsourcing.

Basically, the United States is denying that it outsourced that particular function or employed that particular person to run a private prison where people were interrogated. Given that there are two sides to the story, obviously.

Some people allege that people like Jonathan Idema are just bounty hunters and they might have kept the United States informed about what they were doing, but they weren't employed by the United States to do that.

The United States is definitely denying that it had anything to do with the establishment of these private prisons and anything to do with this particular person who's alleging that the Pentagon was not only kept informed, but had something to do with his employment in that area.

So that investigation, actually, is not complete. I, myself, as former Special Rapporteur on the Use of Mercenaries, had written to the United States Government about that, but had received no satisfactory response.

With so many unemployed soldiers around, and such good money being offered, are you concerned that some of them might be tempted to sign up for terrorist activities?
The very fact that these people are armed, and are taking part in hostilities in whichever country of the world - there is absolutely no guarantee that you would know about the movements of these people - means they can be used for whatever ends.

There's absolutely no control in terms of what they are able to do. I mean, it's money that drives it, not ideology. And that's really the difference sometimes, that is not appreciated, between a mercenary and other types of operators in the field, which is why it's really important for states to set up mechanisms to control these activities.
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