Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)



Sir John Stanley

  1. Colonel Spicer, welcome back to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Our Chairman, Donald Anderson is unavoidably absent this morning and that is why I am going to chair this particular session. You will remember that when you were in front of this Committee four years ago in 1998 at the time of this Committee's inquiry into the arms to Sierra Leone affair, you set out to the Committee and also in your article in The Sunday Times of 24 May 1998, which was headed "Why we can help where governments fear to tread", the case you felt there was for national governments and possibly international organisations making use of private military companies (PMCs) for military training and indeed combat purposes and why you felt there was a role for reputable companies in this field. You will also remember, no doubt fairly vividly, that your views at that time, that there was a legitimate role for such organisations, were treated with a very considerable degree of scepticism and indeed some degree of derision in some quarters. Four years on we have the Government's Green Paper which certainly sets out the disadvantages of using private military companies but also sets out in one paragraph after another the possible advantages of governments using private military companies where those companies are reputable. I should like to ask whether you consider that there has indeed been something of a sea change in the British Government's approach and language and tenor in relation to private military companies since four years ago. If you do feel that there has been something of a sea change, why do you think that sea change has occurred?

  (Lt Colonel Spicer) There has certainly been a sea change and the whole tone of this Green Paper would support that. The reason I think it has changed is that at the time I was in front of this Committee before, as you quite rightly pointed out, some of my ideas and the ideas of others who supported the use of private military companies were pretty new and fairly radical. In the time it has taken to produce the Green Paper, because I believe it was promised shortly after this Committee's investigation into Arms to Africa, a wide spectrum of people has been consulted and a realisation of the complexities and dangers of the international situation has become clearer. If you combine that with the lack of resolve of some countries to become involved internationally, the difficulties that the United Nations sometimes finds itself in and other factors, finance perhaps being one of them, then people in government, certainly in this Government, have come to realise that there is a role providing that you can separate the good from the bad, you can identify what is acceptable and how it can be employed and find a mechanism for regulation which is acceptable across the board, both to industry, to government and to the public at large.

  2. In your own memorandum to the Committee[1] you have set out the roles which you see private military companies being able to perform. It is clear that you envisaged them forming not merely non-combat training and logistical support roles but also in certain circumstances combat roles. I should like to put this point to you. Would it not be the case that as far as any British Government are concerned, there would always be a very substantial disadvantage and risk attaching to a British Government using private military companies in a combat role by virtue of the fact that when the British Government use members of our armed services in that role the Armed Forces Acts apply and the full basis of statutory discipline applies. The Armed Forces Acts will not apply to private military companies and therefore that must always, from a human rights standpoint, put private military companies at potentially a much greater risk as far as usage by British Government is concerned, than members of our armed forces.

  (Lt Colonel Spicer) I would not disagree with the fact that there is a level of risk, neither would I accept nor suggest that the use of a private military company is in any way a substitute for the use of national sovereign forces or indeed the forces of an organisation under the umbrella of an organisation like the United Nations. However, I think that in certain circumstances—and I am setting aside a contract with an overseas government in addressing the use of private military companies by British Government—where the Government of the day might feel that it did not wish to deploy British troops or did not have the capacity to do so, for whatever reasons, overstretch and the like, there is a case for some form of intervention force, purely and simply to stabilise the situation, prevent loss of life and the examples of genocide that we have seen relatively recently, both in Europe and in Africa and elsewhere. With regard to human rights and therefore the regulation and discipline of these types of operation that we are talking about, I would respond by saying that if one accepts that there is a role for private military companies, one has also to accept that there is a requirement for regulation, which is after all the thrust of the Green Paper. Part of that regulatory process must address the question of the standards of human rights awareness and behaviour and the sanctions which could be applied in the event of those standards of behaviour being breached. Certainly in my response to the Green Paper, I have addressed that. If you superimpose national regulation and in some way perhaps as a second step link it to regulation within the United Nations or within the international community, if you take the principles of international law, national law, regulation, media scrutiny, contractual obligations, there are enough checks and balances to ensure that having sorted the wheat from the chaff in terms of who is allowed to conduct these operations, there is enough weight of law to address that particular issue. I accept that there is nothing like the sanction of the Armed Forces Acts or at a much lower level the manual of military law and other legal balances one has when deploying national forces. It would have to be addressed as part of the regulatory process, if the principles contained in this paper are to be moved forward.

Mr Pope

  3. At the height of the Rwandan crisis no national government was prepared to intervene. Kofi Annan said that he considered engaging private firms at that point, but he concluded that the world was not ready to privatise peace. Do you think he is wrong? If he is wrong, could you give the Committee some examples where private companies could be used to enhance the role of the UN in enforcing Security Council resolutions?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) I would not argue with his reading of the temperature at the time because I have direct experience of that myself. His point was well made. If you have a situation in a country where there is lack of state control, lack of a sovereign army and police force which is going to maintain law and order in that country and elements of the population of a country are being victimised, to use the example of Rwanda, and there is a move not just towards murder and mayhem but downright genocide, then whatever the circumstances and whatever the temperature is, there is always a case for somebody trying to stop it. If that is not going to be done by a sovereign nation or by an international organisation, then there is a role. Part of the problem, if I may address the question generally, is the complexity of how the UN has to operate. I am not intending this as a criticism, but it is really just a statement of fact. In recent years the intervention and peace enforcement as opposed to peacekeeping role of the United Nations does not have a particularly glorious track record. The problem is the bureaucracy under which it has to labour and procedures for putting together an intervention force, the canvassing of Member States and contributing nations, gearing that up, organising it, producing a headquarters to get into technical detail, how it is going to communicate, how it gets there, what it does when it gets there, what its mission is and then it works under a number of military constraints like its inability to gather and develop intelligence. If that procedure and complication were addressed, perhaps by the creation of a United Nations standing military force, or, a more radical example, by the creation of a database or register of private companies, who could either work in the first instance on behalf of the United Nations—whether they wear blue berets or not is a moot point, the purpose being to deploy a force which could stabilise and stop what was going on in a particular country—in order to allow an organisation like the United Nations a breathing space to follow its necessary procedures before it can deploy a United Nations force, which one would hope by that stage would be a peacekeeping force rather than a peace enforcement force, there is still a problem within the United Nations amongst contributing nations about the precise role of what their troops are going to do and their vulnerability. Peacekeeping is more attractive than peace enforcement. Quite often the terms are muddled and the role of peace enforcement is glossed over. The best example of this I can think of, of which I have personal experience, was the question of Sierra Leone. It was quite clear that the Government was ousted by a military coup backed by a pretty unpleasant rebel movement. There was no immediate rush to go and sort the situation out and in fact having then gone through the diplomatic and administrative process, it took some considerable time before a United Nations force was deployed. It was extremely large and extremely expensive and one could argue that it did not actually achieve its aim in a short space of time.

  4. I am interested by that. It strikes me that there is a good case for private military companies. Some countries which are providing troops for UN peacekeeping are sending fully equipped, highly trained troops and, let us face it, some of these countries are doing it because of the money they can get back from the UN. Compared with that, what we could be talking about are highly trained, very professional forces who could do a good job for the United Nations; cheaper, more specific, highly focused. The worry we all have is about accountability of those companies. The Green Paper argues—and I am not sure this is convincing—that those companies would behave well, their troops would behave well, simply because they wanted to have their contract with the UN renewed and it would be an ongoing process in which it would be in the interests of private military companies to behave well in terms of human rights because they would want their contract renewed. Do you think that is enough incentive? Is the marketplace the right amount of accountability? Is there not a moral distinction to be drawn between private military companies and forces of a sovereign nation?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) I am quite often asked a similar question. There is an assumption that people who run private military companies do not subscribe to a good moral standpoint or the law of armed conflict or respect for human rights, which I think is probably unjustified. If you start from a basic point of view that those people who wish to contribute to peace and stability in the world, albeit as a commercial enterprise, are starting from the same viewpoint as everybody else, in other words bad is bad and good is good and the bad has to be stopped, the development of that attitude through the law, which I referred to earlier on, and some form of regulation and oversight, as well as commercial common sense, would be the way I would answer that particular question.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  5. You said "in certain circumstances" and you slightly amplified that by your references to Rwanda and Sierra Leone. What conflicts and what situations where a great deal of blood has been shed in recent years, could have been made different, or could have been avoided if there had been a sensible use of private military companies, in your opinion and under whose authority would they have had to operate?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) Scale is quite important in this because there needs to be an understanding of the true capabilities of private military companies. Any small-scale conflict, primarily within the boundaries of a sovereign state rather than interstate conflict, where the legitimate forces of law and order could not cope and there was no desire to intervene. I suppose Rwanda and Sierra Leone and other conflicts in Africa are the best examples but one could have argued that perhaps in the case of some of the problems in the Balkans, Kosovo possibly, where there was a lot of hesitation about the right course of action and it was quite clear that regardless of some of the less desirable attributes of some of the protagonists, genocide was going on, particularly in the case of Kosovo, there might have been a case, but that is a complicated one. It is much easier in other less militarily sophisticated environments. Any small-scale conflict would be my general answer. Under whose auspices? That would depend on who was taking an interest. It could be a national government but we have heard the concerns about the British Government using it and it could be the United Nations. In any of the examples I have given you, the United Nations was not ready for it. It may be in the future. I do not know.

Mr Illsley

  6. May I refer back to a comment you made earlier about having military companies contributing to peace and stability? The thrust of our discussions so far this morning tends to suggest that private military companies could be used in peacekeeping operations on behalf of the United Nations, perhaps on behalf of national governments. By definition, private military companies are private companies, they will exist to make a profit and will have to seek out ways of generating their income. What happens in areas where it is not a peacekeeping situation and there is some doubt as to the definition of the conflict? You mentioned Kosovo a few moments ago. Some of the combatants operating on behalf of the Serbian Government were also private military companies themselves. What happens in those situations where there is less definition about the morality of the conflict which these companies could be involved in?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) That sort of distinction and the desire for clarity is really what this Green Paper is about or an attempt to produce a set of circumstances whereby that confusion would not exist because there would be oversight and there would be a requirement to discuss under certain either general or specific principles what, in the case of a British company, it was going to get up to. I come back to the point I made when Mr Pope was asking me his question. There really is in most what I would perhaps define as honourable and the good side of private military companies an understanding of what is right and wrong and which side they should work on. Quite often the whole business of the private security sector, whether it is private military companies, private security companies and others, is criticised because there is a feeling that they will work for anybody. In the example of Kosovo, you referred to Serb paramilitary units. I would disagree with you in trying to equate them to private military companies because they were quite clearly elements of the Serb Government and the military machine. They may have been dressed up in some other way, but that is what they were and their paymasters were the Government of Serbia. It is somewhat different and they were put in to carry out a military task which everybody knew was going to be illegal and they were going to conduct abuses of human rights and mass murder. You would not find a private military company in there and if it were, it would not last five minutes. As to the question of working for the highest bidder or switching sides, again I would say that is precisely the sort of thing that the Government is trying to produce a methodology to prevent. I cannot think of a properly constituted private military company or private security company or any other of the variants of the security industry which would actually do that. You may find individuals—and this is where there is a distinction between what I would describe as mercenaries as opposed to private companies—who may choose to have a different view and may operate outside the law, both national and international and outside regulations. Certainly my reading of the Foreign Secretary's foreword to this is that is precisely what he is trying to stop.

  7. You do not see any situation where the British Government some years down the line could have a licensing regime for private military companies and be in a position where we as a government have licensed a company which is operating perhaps in conflict to British Government policy. I suppose it comes down to the definition of what a conflict is and whose side you are on, but national governments are notorious themselves for backing the wrong horse one time and then changing. Iran/Iraq is an obvious example where we back one regime one year and then a few years down the line we are backing another.
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) It is a complication and nobody who is involved in the business or in government would think that this is an easy process. I should like to think that situation would not exist because there would be a much closer understanding and working relationship between national governments or international bodies and the private security sector; those situations should not happen. I am not saying they would not happen. There are two angles to your question. One is: could a government find a company registered and licensed in its own country working against its national interests? Or: have those national interests changed and the contractual obligation not caught up with it? I do not have an answer to that. That is something which would have to be worked out if and when this develops.

Mr Chidgey

  8. I am quite intrigued by your description of the circumstances which could or could not have arisen in the Balkans conflict. I am reminded that only recently it has been revealed that our own armed forces and the SAS in particular were training a group of Albanians in the arts of their particular military operations only to find that they had previously been rebels or whatever and there was quite an outcry about that. I can see a situation here where a company such as the ones you have been involved with could take on just such a mission; particularly as you quote in your paper that many of your personnel are former SAS or intelligence service personnel, they could well be involved in that sort of operation which would clearly be against British interests. I link that with your comment earlier that you felt that one of the most important attributes of private military companies was the speed with which you could act. Knowing how the legislative process works, or does not, as we like to say, particularly with the licensing of strategic exports, do you not think that in fact a private military company could be into that situation and out of it before any regulatory process could even be brought to bear upon them?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) It depends on how the regulatory process is structured. If it is a general licence to operate, I could see that situation happening. In the same way that government forces have found themselves doing something at the Government's behest at the moment but six months ago it may have had a very different colouring, that would apply to the private sector as well because of the speed perhaps of the requirement to operate in order to intervene. Training is slightly different. I could see it becoming a complication in intervention scenarios, but I believe that the example you gave was a question of training people who were former—

  9. My point was that that particular type of training is the sort of training you would not want to be spread around liberally without knowing who was getting it.
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) Yes, I can understand that, but there are plenty of examples—and I am putting my ex British military hat on here—of the training of former rebels after a peace agreement or a change in circumstances in a country; Zimbabwe being a case in point. There are circumstances where the political scene changes and there may be a desire by Government to go and assist those who were formerly in opposition either to them or to their own government. I am talking very generally. In the question of training, one would have to be careful in the same way that sovereign forces ought to be careful, as to how these contracts are brought about, where that knowledge is going and to whom it is being imparted. There is always a danger, whatever you do in the military or security arena, when you impart skills and capabilities to people in other countries that at some stage in the future they could be used against you.

  10. Is it not the case therefore that the risk would be greater if this were in the hands of private military companies rather than our own armed forces?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) I started my answer by saying it rather depends on how they are regulated and what legislation emerges as a result of this debate. I personally favour a general licence, for the very reasons you alluded to, the complications and the time frame for a bureaucratic process to take place on a case by case basis. One of the options is a general licence and a licensing of each particular project. That is not going to be attractive in my view in general terms to private military companies and probably not to their clients, if their clients were overseas governments. In the case of a UK sponsored contract or a United Nations sponsored contract, I do not think that would arise because the requirement to move as rapidly, as in the case of an intervention force or stabilisation force, would not be there. Nevertheless, of course there would be mistakes.

  11. I now want to question you a little further on accountability and start with the theme we have been pursuing. Earlier you particularly made the point that a British company would be very much concerned about its reputation with the British Government. In your paper to us, you talk about the need for confidentiality and a number of issues arise there. One of those relates to ownership. I can foresee a situation where it might not be clear whether the company we were dealing with was British, or a multinational or an international company outside any regulatory process which we may have introduced in this country. Those of us who have been involved in commerce know just how flexible one can be in these matters about which company, registered in which country does what and where. I do not honestly see how you can keep that accountability process flowing when you have a sensitive area you want to operate in outside the gaze of your sponsoring country, which in this case would be the UK.
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) What I said in my response to the Green Paper about accountability is that I believe that the registration process, which I chopped up into various phases of how a company gets the final seal of approval, should be two-tiered. There is the requirement for public accountability, which would apply to any commercial organisation registered and based in this country. Then there should be a further more detailed examination of the company, its personnel, its ownership, its finances and how it conducts its business which is not necessarily available in the public domain, but is a government requirement and is treated in a confidential manner somewhat akin to the government vetting process, which used to be called positive vetting process in my day but is called something else now where you are really given a thorough going over. In my view, if you wanted to practise and operate here and you followed the guidelines and had received a thorough vetting process, that should ensure that the less scrupulous companies or those who wished to hide their true ownership or their financial arrangements did not get a licence. It would be a pretty good catchall.

  12. You mentioned earlier a number of reasons why legitimate or reputable companies would behave responsibly. You talked in terms of human rights: I would prefer to talk in terms of the Geneva Convention as it applies to warfare. You said that you felt the commercial pressures on a legitimate and reputable company would be strong enough to ensure that the company was properly run and its personnel behaved in a proper manner. I can well understand from the perspective of the people who owned the company that is exactly what they would wish to happen, of course it is the case, because otherwise you would be out of business. We are talking here about very highly trained fighting men, operating in very extreme circumstances often, without of course the security and backup of their country, their sovereign state and the ability to reinforce their activities should the need arise. We are talking about people with all those skills and with that attitude and ability operating outside the Armed Forces Act. I find it hard to imagine how the commercial pressures which you as the owners of the company might feel would carry on down to the level of the guy who is holding the weapon, faced with a difficult situation, being prepared to add greater risk to their lives by operating within army regulations, as you would obviously well know, when in the circumstances they also know that army regulations do not apply to them and neither do the Geneva Conventions. I think this is a key point in terms of accepting the viability of licensing and regulating private military companies. At the sharp end how can you, wearing both your hats, your previous career and this one, be sure that the personnel you are employing and deploying literally in the front line behave in the way they behaved when they were trained by you and operated by you under the Armed Forces Act?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) It would be my responsibility to ensure that our own vetting process, not a registration or Government licence vetting process, although that would help, and the type of people we employ, the database of employees, sorted that out. We are very careful to make sure that we are not employing those who might react adversely and carry out those breaches of the Geneva Convention. Just as an aside, we spent a lot of time talking about combat and direct combat. That is not the only business private military companies get up to, it is the controversial area. I would answer that by saying that if there were the situation which exists now where it is my responsibility to ensure that the people I employ behave properly and within the law of armed conflict, I am confident that those I employ would not carry out those breaches.

  13. Do you feel you can do that without the sanctions you would have had as a serving officer to enforce upon your men the sanctions available under the Armed Forces Act? In any circumstances?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) In the majority of circumstances. In the same way I would say, putting my previous experience hat on, yes, of course you have the luxury of the Armed Forces Act, the law of the country, etcetera, but you cannot guarantee it 100 per cent. Something could go wrong.

  14. But at least you have the opportunity of an example under the Act for those who do transgress to encourage the others.
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) Yes.

Mr Hamilton

  15. Do private military companies have a vested interest in conflict?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) It is a question which is often raised and often asked. The implication is that private military companies, because they profit from military services, have a vested interest in conflict. I do not think that is necessarily the case. There are plenty of other things than combat or the direct involvement in conflict that private military companies do, including training, defence consultancy and others. I should like to think they do not; they certainly do not in my case. Having said that, of course the business of private military companies is defence security. Nobody would wish to generate, exacerbate, prolong, any form of conflict because in the case of the people who work for me that is really not what their background is all about. It is about preventing conflict. If private military companies are going to continue to exist and contribute, then it has to be very clearly understood that there is no desire to perpetrate conflict for commercial gain. The fact is that there is plenty of business to be had in the security field which is non-contentious and is protective and passive and defensive and all the other things which people would wish to see in terms of the application of security for the promotion of stability. Conflict is the extreme and the quicker it can be extinguished, the better for everybody.

  16. Would you therefore see any licensing regime, for example under the United Nations auspices, root out those companies which fall outside the parameters which you have just suggested as far as conflict is concerned?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) I would say that would be one of the main principles of any form of regulatory process.

  17. May I move on to something you said about economic exploitation? You suggested that a mineral concession, for example, is worthless to a private military company, yet paragraph 41 of the Green Paper suggests that from their point of view it may be one of the few ways that private military companies can be sure of getting paid. Second, an interest in mineral extraction will give a private military company a vested interest in peace and stability. Who do you think is right?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) My interpretation of the paragraph in the Green Paper which you are referring to is that the sovereign government of the country concerned, who may wish to engage a private military company, has the right to use its natural resources in any way it chooses. If somebody came to me and said they wanted me to help but they could only pay with a piece of paper which is the right to extract minerals or go fishing or harvest dates or whatever, it would be of absolutely no use to me whatsoever because I would have to convert that into commercial reality. I just do not think there is any substance in that argument at all because, as I have said in my response to the Green Paper, I have a business to run, I have payrolls to meet, I have overheads and to turn a piece of paper which is virtually worthless into commercial reality, that is to turn it into a gold mine or an oil well or whatever, takes an awful lot of outlay. It is not just something of value, it is something which may have value once you have spent a lot of money on it in several years time.

  18. And if you have the skills to use it.
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) And if you have the skills to use it. Our skills are not related to any of those particular industries.

Andrew Mackinlay

  19. I think you are here because—we have invited you but I make the supposition—you feel you are the top end of the profession, the market, you have an ethical policy which I think you would want to summarise, help me if I am wrong, but for the good guy, recognise sovereign governments, will always be sensitive to United Kingdom foreign policy interests and also recognise international regional bodies. Would that be correct?
  (Lt Colonel Spicer) That would be fair comment.

1   See evidence, pp EV1 to EV4. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 August 2002