Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 113 - 119)




  113. Minister, may I welcome you on behalf of the Committee to what is your first meeting with our Foreign Affairs Committee. We are looking at the Green Paper which was published on 12 February. In his foreword to that Green Paper, the Secretary of State accurately and generously stated that it originated in a request from our predecessor committee in our report on Sierra Leone, what he referred to as both a timely and useful suggestion and called for a wide debate and it is really on that I would like to begin with you, Minister, the wide debate. Can you indicate now the number and quality of the submissions which have thus far been received before the end date of 12 August.
  (Dr MacShane) We have had three submissions from companies, we have had one from the NGO International Alert; we have had two from members of the public plus some MPs' letters and we have had four submissions from academic institutions with interests in this matter.

  114. With respect, it does not sound very much. Perhaps people are waiting until the deadline before putting forward their submissions.
  (Dr MacShane) I myself, I am afraid, am a deadline paper producer; without the whiplash of a deadline I often leave these things to stack up. As the Foreign Secretary said in his introduction and you quoted it, a wide debate on the options is needed. I suspect that those directly interested are also looking forward to the 24 June conference in Birmingham, to which a large number of the people interested in this issue have been invited and will attend, and I would like to extend an invitation to any Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee or any Member of this House who would like to attend that conference to do so because we do need the widest possible debate.

  115. This conference is a Government initiative which will bring together both companies and non-Government organisations.
  (Dr MacShane) A large number of NGOs ranging from Oxfam to International Alert and professors of peace studies from our academic institutions; so, it is very much a conference which covers all the possible ranges of opinion on this matter.

  116. Is it intended to publish both the submissions received by the Government and the statements before this Birmingham conference?
  (Dr MacShane) All the submissions that the Government receive are available for public consultation unless the person or organisation so submitting asks for them to be kept confidential.

  117. Could you give the Committee some indication of the way forward. Presumably, if the Government were to opt for some form of licensing scheme, there would have then to be a White Paper and then it would depend on the priorities of Government as to whether this would be included in the Bill to be put before Parliament.
  (Dr MacShane) I think, Mr Chairman, you are slightly ahead of me in the process. We need to await the outcome of the consultation period based on the Green Paper. I myself would welcome an adjournment debate on this, perhaps when the House comes back in the autumn, to test the feeling of the House in a formal debate and then see whether legislation is indeed needed. If the collective answer—and the Government's mind remains open—is that legislation is needed, then the process you describe is obviously the way that I would imagine we would take things forward.

  118. Can you give an assurance to the Committee that the Government's mind is not closed in any way and does not currently favour any of the options which are set out in the Green Paper?
  (Dr MacShane) Absolutely.

  119. Starting more substantively in respect of the Green Paper, clearly an initial problem which is mentioned is that of definition, which is the definition of the private military company and this of course has bedevilled the debate of the adherence to the UN Convention in this area. Are you convinced that the Government will be able to find a workable definition of private military companies which distinguishes the current phenomenon from the unsavoury individuals and groups that one learnt about in the immediate post-colonial period?
  (Dr MacShane) This indeed has been a problem for the Government ever since the 1870 Enlistment of Foreign Powers Act under which no successful prosecution has been brought because it does become very difficult to identify a citizen committing a crime in this area. Indeed, the European Union countries, save Italy, have found it impossible to adhere to the UN Convention because there are six conditions, all of which have to be satisfied, not just one or two of them, before somebody is identified as a "mercenary" and all the European Union countries and a number of other countries around the world have not been able to translate this into enforceable domestic law. I can pursue this matter because I have thought about it and I think that the question of definition is going to be a major stumbling block if you want to write a law that is enforceable in the courts of this land.

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