Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 112)



  100. The problem I have here is trying to recognise human nature and imagining what it is like for a highly professional, well-trained member of the armed forces now acting independently rather than a commercial operation. I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be in those situations where it is life or death and you prefer it to be your life and someone else's death and whether the reaction from individuals is going to be somewhat extreme to ensure their self-preservation beyond the levels which they would be permitted to do under the Queen's Regulations, knowing full well that if they had operated like that under the Queen's Regulations they were a deterrent. That is what we are dismissing this morning, the deterrent there upon them, knowing that they are accountable and they could well end up in one of the Army's prisons, perhaps Colchester. A tremendous sense of responsibility and accountability comes with that deterrent effect that they have to work within, which does not apply for a PMC.
  (Mr Howitt) But as such it does apply. The Geneva Convention provides the principle rules of war.

  101. Yes, but it is an awful long way down the line to get that to come into force.
  (Mr Howitt) It is the framework which is accepted and it is the framework to which we operate.

  102. As you yourself said, there have been well documented cases of behaviour by armed forces personnel, working as legitimate professional soldiers in the armed forces, going outside the rules of law and the rules of the Geneva Convention and how long it has taken to bring those to account, though in most cases to account they have been brought. Look how much more difficult it becomes if you are talking about people employed by a PMC, maybe non-British nationals, from anywhere, who could disappear anywhere many months before any inquiry could be launched and carried out.
  (Mr Howitt) Yes; tracking war criminals in the former Yugoslavia is a very good example of that and the complexity.

  103. My point is that the deterrent is missing; the deterrent is missing. I just wanted to get that on the record.
  (Mr Howitt) Yes; absolutely.

  104. May I pick up the question of commercial mineral exploitation, economic exploitation and its relationship to PMCs? We heard this morning from Colonel Spicer that this was of no interest to him. It may have been of interest to other companies which the company he was involved with were also involved with. I should like your views on this. Do you believe that this is never a factor or has never been a factor? Can you give us examples of where you feel that it has been a factor in the way that PMCs have operated in some of these countries?
  (Mr Howitt) Quite clearly the long history of interest in Africa and the mineral and other issues there is no coincidence. I do not think anyone is trying to hide the fact that the economic attraction of that has been a force behind certain PMCs' activities over the last 30 years.

  105. Is it not the case that this sort of barter trade is quite common in international military operations anyway?
  (Mr Howitt) I am not familiar with that myself. It is probably worth taking a step back and looking at the question more broadly. Quite often in environments where the use of PMCs is necessary and in states or entities or in regions, it is because of the absence of effective governance systems that that environment exists. Governance systems can only operate if they have revenue streams through which they can service their citizens. The provision of governance, be it health, education, social welfare and security, is something which needs to be provided in this environment. To make the equation purely between PMCs and a mineral concession is to be slightly missing the point. Where the most effective and constructive use of PMCs potentially lies is in assisting entities, polities and states, in stabilising environments so that stable revenue streams and effective governance structures can be established. That is increasingly becoming the case. The decade of the 1990s was like all the rivets popping on the ship: quite a violent and fast reaction. In a way it does provide a framework of how governance has failed and where the void in security leaves opportunity for people to abuse these circumstances. The experiences of that decade should demonstrate to us where some of the future difficulties will lie. As such the key link in this—and we draw it out—is between the provision of governance and a secure environment in order to be able to do that. In our opinion there is certainly a role to be provided there for PMCs.

  106. That is a very interesting point. I think what you are talking about is institutional strengthening, those institutions of governance having been weakened in the last decade, possibly because of actions within the countries themselves. If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that that will only be done by PMCs providing some sort of military of peacekeeping, some sort of policing role, to provide the framework with which these institutions can be strengthened. This seems to me therefore an ideal role to be done under the umbrella of the United Nations, not individual countries.
  (Mr Howitt) Absolutely, but the United Nations is unable to contract PMCs. Theoretically it is; in practical terms it is an impossibility because of, dare I say it, vested interests. The processing and the bureaucracy of the institution is such that it would not be feasible to do so, certainly not without a very prolonged process of discussion and negotiation.

Sir John Stanley

  107. Could you just clarify that? Surely the United Nations as a matter of course enters into contracts with private companies over a whole range of issues. I do not understand the answer. Could you clarify it?
  (Mr Howitt) The UN does contract companies but I think that the emotive nature of PMCs would almost certainly preclude any contracts with them.

  108. So you are judging the impediment is purely a political one, not a constitutional one.
  (Mr Howitt) Absolutely; entirely.

Andrew Mackinlay

  109. I do not know whether you can help on this but what is the legal status of soldiers with PMCs internationally? There is this new concept which the Americans have found, dreamed up, call it what you like, of unlawful combatants. It seems to me one of the things we ought to be addressing ourselves to and which we have not spoken about this morning is the status of these people in international law. Presumably there is a big flaw, is there not, because they are not always going to be hired by a sovereign government, are they?
  (Mr Howitt) No, conceivably not. I am not qualified to help on that.

Sir John Stanley

  110. You heard the exchange I had with Colonel Spicer on the monitoring issue and you will have heard me expressing some considerable doubts as to whether his proposal for using Defence Attachés would be one which would be at all practical. I should like to turn to your own proposal for a monitoring and evaluation unit. In your paper you have certainly set out a very impressive and very reasonable job specification for the people involved. You said of your monitoring and evaluation unit, "It should be staffed by sectoral and regional experts with the appropriate knowledge to scrutinize the activities and conduct of any contracted PMC. Staff would also need to be conversant with internationally-recognised security best practices and qualified in such fields as Human Rights, political and economic development, environment, etc"[8]. The point I want to put to you is that the employment of such very highly multi-skilled people does not come cheap. The cost of your monitoring and evaluation unit, which I can see is highly desirable in principle, is going to be very considerable. May I ask under your scheme for coupling a general licensing system with a monitoring and evaluation unit who is going to pick up the bill for the monitoring and evaluation unit?
  (Mr Howitt) The Government.

  111. Would you agree therefore that if the Government are going to pick up that bill, that must substantially narrow any claimed cost differential between the cost of employing private military companies and the cost of employing regular service personnel?

   (Mr Howitt) No; if I might. The reason I say that clearly is that in order adequately to address some of the questions of accountability which have been talked about earlier a third party body is an essential component of that. Also, as we drew out earlier, there is a concentration of skills and best practices within the UK and within a regulatory framework I should expect certainly that in order to be contracted the company would have to be domiciled in the UK and to disclose full company structures and ownerships to the Government. Therefore within that framework there would be a cost benefit to the Government for contracts. The use of British personnel for these tasks abroad over a long period of time would in fact end up being a revenue generator, which would offset the cost of the monitoring and evaluation unit[9].

  112. I have taken careful note of what you said, but I must put it to you that if you are going to set up a monitoring and evaluation unit where the cost is going to fall on the Government, that surely must reduce any cost advantage of employing private military companies because by definition it must be an extra cost to the taxpayer.
  (Mr Howitt) The figures in your own paper indicate a very substantial difference. Using the Sierra Leone case, and maybe it is not a particularly good one to be illustrative, the difference in costs are fairly substantial between the deployment of UK national assets, as was the case, and the contracts which Sandline were engaged in. The cost difference between those is fairly substantial.

  Sir John Stanley: Thank you very much for your evidence and for your paper. We are most grateful.

8   See Evidence, pp Ev 22, paragraph 21. Back

9   Note by Witness: The establishment and operating of an effective Monitoring and Evaluations Unit will serve to act as a deterrent for bad practises. This is a primary function of the unit, to ensure compliance by any given PMC to the terms of reference in any given contract (specifying international norms) and the employment of best practices. Back

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