Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. What is the current thinking of the Government? Is it possible to circumvent this obstacle of definition or are the Government working towards a particular proposal for a definition?
  (Dr MacShane) Clearly there are activities that are illegal either in this country or in most other countries of the world and may indeed now be illegal under the statutes of the International Criminal Court. The problem of course arises well before we get to that stage. Many of these companies are involved in issues like advice, logistical support, training, personnel for monitoring, anti-piracy of fisheries operations in the high seas, de-mining and transport logistics, and it is sometimes difficult to say that these are logistical operations and this is entering directly into combat activities that can result in death.

Mr Illsley

  121. Do we have any information or figures as to how many private military companies operate in the UK?
  (Dr MacShane) The ones we know about are actually quite few in number. Most of them have been invited to participate in the conference in Birmingham and the British Armed Forces, like armed forces in other countries and the United Nations, now rely on private companies to provide training, logistics and security support. One British company, for example, was involved in providing Princess Diana's security for the landmine campaign that she was running in Angola. One advantage is that if we can find a regime that makes all of these activities fully transparent, it is precisely how one would actually get to know in detail who is doing what, where, when and with what people.

  122. I think this is one of the difficulties that we have here. In terms of definition—and I mentioned this the other day—we were right with the situation from the recommendation announced in the Sierra Leone report which arose under private military companies threatening to breach a UN powers embargo and all that that entailed, and we have gone from that to a private company providing security for Princess Diana which perhaps nobody would criticise. In the Green Paper, there is a suggestion that this demand for private military companies is likely to grow and you have just outlined one or two instances there in terms of logistics and training. What are the circumstances in which this demand is likely to increase? Is it likely to be peace-keeping or just other logistical support that you have just mentioned?
  (Dr MacShane) Principally I think that, with the end of the Cold War, one no longer has the giant stasis, if I may use that word, around the world in which the two armed blocks directly or indirectly ensured stability or absence of violent activity in their respective spheres of influence. There are a number of countries whose governments in particular want to restore the state monopoly of violence and I think we would all agree that it is selected democratic states who have a preference that they should have the exclusive monopoly on the use of violence, but there are regions in the world where states, democratic states—and Sierra Leone, which you mentioned, was an example—face very serious armed opposition and if there is not the willingness from other states or from the United Nations or from regional organisations to lend effective timely assistance, then those states have the right to appeal for professional help to train up their own soldiers to provide the logistical and some other support to ensure that the state itself can exercise law and order and an absence of violence over its territory.

  123. Do you envisage NATO or the United Nations employing private individuals to carry out actions on behalf of those organisations?
  (Dr MacShane) Both the UN and NATO member states use private military companies for training purposes, for some logistical purposes and for security purposes. The Secretary General of the United Nations did say that, when facing the crisis in Rwanda some years ago, he considered calling on a private military company to restore order very rapidly but, as he correctly said, the UN was not ready at that stage to engage private military companies and there may be an argument that says waiting to assemble an international force—and if you recall the Rwandan experience, that really was not on offer—meant that many thousands of people suffered because—


  124. Many millions of people: 800,000 killed, it was claimed
  (Dr MacShane) I am not saying that there is direct causal effect but, had one been able to stop the violence suddenly effectively, then perhaps many more people who are now dead would be alive.

Mr Illsley

  125. Could I turn to the economics of private military companies. There is a reference in the Green Paper to mineral concessions being used as a way of payment for private military companies and yet Colonel Spicer said in his memorandum to the Committee that a mineral concession is worthless to a PMC despite the fact that, in Sierra Leone, it appeared that that is how they were likely to be paid for their activities there. Do you consider payment by means of mineral concessions or other similar concessions to be an acceptable format of payment?
  (Dr MacShane) I would say it is an illogical format of payment because you have to pay your men and other staff day by day on a cashflow and to get a mineral concession of any sort means that you will start to make money in years to come if you successfully extract whatever the mineral in question is. What I would say—and we have seen this over the conflict diamonds question—is that some minerals, diamonds in particular, can fuel conflict, but a legitimate security company providing logistical training support for an army overseas wants to be paid there and then, not a pledge against getting some mineral in the future which may of course lose its value as commodity prices fluctuate.

  126. Does the UK derive any benefit from private military companies? That is an awkward question. First of all, do we use private military companies? Do we employ them or—
  (Dr MacShane) We employ them, as I said, for training. Both the Navy and the Army use private companies for training purposes just as indeed the Police Force uses private companies for training and examination preparation purposes, usually staffed of course by former policemen in the latter case and former officers and men in the former case.

  127. Would we consider employing any other company on a combat basis?
  (Dr MacShane) I would find that very hard to envisage. I gather that no minister should ever say "never", but I think the state should control the monopoly of violence. Where there is some advantage to Britain is that we have a robust, successful and professional defence sector. That depends on a lot of support from an arms industry, a trainings industry and contacts around the world. I would be reluctant to see either our defence industry whittle away and disappear or security in these private military companies be driven off-shore, which is why the Green Paper does discuss options for, as it were, making them transparent and making sure that anything they do is wholly accountable and visible to the public.

  128. I have one question on the basic economics which is, who would pay for any licensing regime that we impose in the future? Would that be a cost imposed on the companies themselves or would this Government stand the cost of that?
  (Dr MacShane) There is the famous RIA, the Regulatory Impact Assessment, that is obligatory in all legislation and you are taking me far beyond where I think we are now in discussing how it should be paid for. I myself tend to think that industries themselves should accept the cost of ensuring that they have the status to do what they want to do.

Sir John Stanley

  129. Minister, like you, I do not have the benefit of a transcript of Tuesday's session, but I want to put to you, as best I can in the same terms, the two questions which I put to Colonel Spicer, formerly of Sandline. The first question is this: at the time of our predecessor committee's extensive inquiries into arms to Sierra Leone, Foreign Office Ministers, including the former Foreign Secretary, came in front of this Committee—and indeed there was much debate, as you will remember, on the floor of the House—and they spoke of private military companies in terms that were at best extremely dismissive of the role of such organisations and in many cases they spoke of them in highly critical, indeed on some occasions almost vitriolic, terms. Today, four years later, we have the Government's Green Paper which, as our Chairman says, our Committee has pressed for, in which the Government, in a very, in my view, balanced and fair way, have set out certainly the disadvantages of using private military companies but, in paragraph after paragraph, have referred to circumstances and conditions in which private military companies behaving respectably may be of value to the prosecution of the Government's foreign policy and security interests. The question that I would grateful if you would answer is, what is it over the last four years which has produced a really striking sea-change in the terms in which Ministers refer to the private military companies and what has really produced a very, very different Government perspective as to the potential use of such companies providing, in the Government's own terms, they are respectable?
  (Dr MacShane) I do not think there has been a sea-change. I have the Foreign Affairs Committee's Second Report from 1999 and, in the main evidence which was actually given by the then Permanent Under-Secretary, but of course he was reflecting the view of Ministers, it says that he seemed more positive about the possibility of establishing a regulatory structure and the Committee accepted that there were a number of new questions which would need careful work. The careful work has taken place and has produced this and the discussions we are having now and the Committee's recommendation talked about the need for the Government to outline legislative options for the control of private military companies and some of those options and alternatives are discussed there. I think that what has happened is spurred very much by the Sierra Leone report; the Government have thought about this, have taken counsel, have examined what is happening in other countries and have perhaps seen that what at the time was a very open and shut case is more complicated. We do not feel that we can legislate to shut down companies that provide training logistics advice, fisheries help and the rest of it. So, that is why we have launched the discussion in which we are taking part today which will be followed up by the 24 June conference and, as I said, I look forward, perhaps spurred by some publicity from the hearings this week, to many more members of the public writing in with their views.

  130. I think what you are saying to us is that these four years have been a period of mature and considered reflection because I and the Members of the present Committee who were also Members of the previous Committee, will most certainly remember Ministers and indeed the former Foreign Secretary coming in front of us and expressing grave doubts about the integrity, honesty and truthfulness of some of those associated with private military companies. Certainly it would seem to me that there has been a striking change in tenor, but I take what you have said and that the Government have reflected long and hard and certainly my view is that the Government are now following a very, very different tenor in terms of their approach to private military companies.
  (Dr MacShane) I did not attend every discussion by previous Ministers on this issue but my view is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should take what the Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommends very seriously and read out of that recommendation the request for a paper outlining possible legislative alternatives. I think we have satisfied that demand in a responsible way and the debate now is open and I very much welcome it because, as I say again, I have no fixed view on this and I want to listen to the debate and read all the evidence and positions. I will be attending the meeting on 24 June myself and we will continue these discussions thereafter.

  131. My second question, which again I put to Colonel Spicer and again I will put to you, is that, somewhat to my surprise, there is no direct reference and only I think the most oblique of references in the Green Paper to one factor which to me is a compelling factor when one is considering trying to protect the Government against human rights abuses by the use of members of the Armed Forces rather than those employed by private military companies and that is the fact that all the members of our Armed Forces, as, Minister, you will be totally familiar, are subject to the Armed Forces Act passed by Parliament and subject to the discipline and provisions of that legislation. Would you agree or not that, if there is going to be a choice between using members of our own Armed Forces compared to those who are employees of a private company, there is always going to be a substantially greater human rights abuse risk of employing people who are civilians employed under the terms of a contract compared to using members of our own Armed Forces who are subject to the provisions of the Armed Forces Act?

  (Dr MacShane) What I would say is that I think it would be preferable if states or-inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations or regional associations took responsibility for the use of force that ultimate ends in a classic military conflict and then we know exactly who is responsible and one hopes that the soldiers are trained and professionally led, though one also has to note that most of the most egregious human rights violations that have occurred in recent years have occurred by state forces led by, at least nominally, professionally trained and accountable officers. So, you are inviting me to leap straight, as it were, to combat activity at which point human rights violations do sometimes occur. The issue that this Green Paper has to address is the wide range of security and military related activities that happen well before one gets to combat activity. You are also assuming, if I may say so, that one would approve of companies doing that which they want to do once they had some kind of a tick from the Government, but one of the proposals is a licensing regime which would license specific contracts and it may well be—and here we are really very hypothetical—that contracts or licences would not be awarded for activity that in any way could place the company concerned in a position of being likely to commit human rights violations. There is a final point on that—and it is a very important issue—and that is that of course any firm of any sort that was accused of committing human rights violations, if those allegations were shown to be true, would never receive any future contract of any sort. So, it would be signing its own business death warrant.


  132. Or indeed the specific licence could be withdrawn.
  (Dr MacShane) Indeed.

Sir John Stanley

  133. My question was not posed most emphatically solely in a combat situation, I was posing it in the generality because, as you will be aware, Minister, the Armed Forces Act would be relevant for any member of the Armed Forces who was engaged in any form of personal intimidation or unnecessary personal violence which might arise on a guardian security role; it is a protection against corruption et cetera. I would like to ask you directly—and we are only talking about British service personally—whether you would agree or not agree that there will always be a greater degree of risk of misbehaviour for the Government to be employing members of private military companies, even though licensed and registered, who are not subject to the Armed Forces Act compared with using our own service personnel subject to the Armed Forces legislation.
  (Dr MacShane) You use the term "Government employing" as if the Government, again hypothetically, envisage using companies to carry out activity currently carried out by the British Army. I do not see that as being a likely development. What is under examination in the Green Paper are states far away from Britain that do not have an adequately trained, professionally led and equipped military force who face the need to restore law and order in their own country turning to some outside body. If the outside body cannot be provided by friendly governments or by the UN, should they be allowed to use a private military company and under what terms and that is part of this debate. I think the point you are making about the legislation that governs what soldiers can do would later down this process be criteria that I imagine would bear heavily on the shaping of any legislation and licensing regime and so forth because it could be of no advantage to the UK or any other country to have any security or military operation which is operated from within these shores facing allegations of any kind of improper behaviour.

Mr Olner

  134. Private military company is a rather nice sanitised term; it is a long way from what used to be called mercenaries who, quite frankly, have been open to abusing human rights. Can you comment on whether it is sufficient to rely on commercial companies who tend to abuse human rights?
  (Dr MacShane) Under the UN definition, the Gurkhas would fall foul of the UN definition, so would the Swiss Guard in the Vatican and so would people who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. I completely agree with you, Mr Olner, and my preference would be that it would be states that would organise the necessary lending of support to countries that faced violent assaults on their democratic systems or on law and order. The problem simply arises when states are unwilling or unable and the UN are unwilling and unable to provide that help. It seems to me that there is in any case well before we reach that point a role for non-state organisations and private companies, if you like, to provide training and logistics.. We accept that in this country. If you train to become one of Her Majesty's officers in the services, you will go off and have part of your training carried out by private companies.

  135. I do not think there is any real difficulty in people accepting that, but surely it is the excesses that this Green Paper is wanting to address as a result of what the predecessor to this Committee said in the first instance.
  (Dr MacShane) Quite and that is why there are proposals, different licensing regimes are suggested. It seems to me that the problem arises when these companies operate overseas and a problem then arises when a company moves from logistic training, transport and providing security for personalities into a role, to put it crudely, when they start shooting at other people and it is how one legislates, if that is the final decision as a result of this process, to ensure that the use of violence is constrained and is accountable. I stress again, the main point is that it is democratic governments of other countries who are likely to use private military companies, or private security companies because they do not have the wherewithal within their own nation state boundaries to provide the necessary level of security or guarantees of law and order.

  136. Using the same scenario to which you just referred, would you then say that the official who licenses the private military company would be deemed to be responsible for any human rights violations that that company may well commit at a later stage?
  (Dr MacShane) I think that we are getting into seriously hypothetical waters. I think that the company itself or the individuals within the company would accept responsibility. In this country, we do not follow the doctrine of, "we were only obeying orders." People who do bad things have to accept responsibility at whatever level decisions are made for having done bad things.

  137. Can you possibly envisage the British Armed Forces being deployed to rescue a British based PMC when everything has gone horribly wrong and when they have been overtaken by events?

  (Dr MacShane) That is a tough question upon which I would like to reflect. It is hypothetical—just as the NHS so often has to save botched up operations of private hospitals and we have had some grave scandals recently. As I say, my own preference remains that legitimately accountable states, either individually or coalitions that are willing or through the UN or through regional organisations, take responsibility for these kind of operations. In order to get, in some regions of the world, the required level of training, logistical supplies, transport and leadership development, I can see that private military companies could actually have a beneficial role.

Mr Pope

  138. Like you, I am a great admirer of the free market but it seems to me that you are placing an awful lot of faith on the free market being the primary constraint on the private military company to not engage in human rights abuses. If the argument is that a PMC would not commit an abuse because it knows that its contract, say with the United Nations peace-keeping, would not be renewed, it seems to me that we are placing a great deal of faith in that market philosopy and should there not be other mechanisms in place which will hold the companies to account in terms of abuse of human rights?
  (Dr MacShane) Yes, I very much agree with you. I am a great believer in government but there are many human rights violations around the world carried out by the agents and troops of legitimate, even often democratic governments. I think you are right to say that, if we go down the road, after the consultation Green Paper period, of seeking to produce legislation, then the issue of ensuring that companies do not behave in an internationally unacceptable or illegal way has to be considered, but that is of course one advantage of making the whole process transparent, accountable, having criteria, having inspections, if you like, in order that what in the past was carried out under conditions of secrecy—and I draw a distinction between confidentiality and secrecy—and was not available to the public gaze is now transparent and accountable.

  139. I think it is a difficult area because, when we look at the constraint to which I have just referred, we are looking at a constraint that is in place prior to the abuse taking place, "I would not contemplate taking part in an abuse because this could happen to me." What happens after an abuse has taken place? What redress does the international community have against a private military company which has carried out an abuse of human rights?
  (Dr MacShane) The law of the land in which the abuse has taken place and there have been examples mentioned in the Green Paper of soldiers being taken away and executed because of the abuses of human rights; the law of the land in which the private military company is based, in this case we are talking about Britain; and there is international law and the creation of the International Criminal Court would, I think, be a contribution in that regard.

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