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World: Britain Opens Debate Over Employing 'Soldiers For Hire'

  • Don Hill

National governments have privatized police forces and prisons. They have retained military consulting firms to train the armies of client nations or to remove mines from former battlegrounds. Why not hire private armies, then -- in a word, mercenaries -- to handle unpleasant chores like peacekeeping missions in unstable areas? British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has produced a report discussing just such an option. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill looks at the pros and cons.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has issued a discussion paper, called a "Green Paper," entitled "Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation." He says he is not proposing policy, only opening what he hopes will be a wide debate.

But much of the British press has taken the "Green Paper" to mean Straw is seriously suggesting that Britain consider using mercenaries as UN peacekeepers. In London, for example, a headline in "The Independent" daily reads: "Mercenaries May Be Peacekeeping Force, Says Straw."

In a preface to the "Green Paper," Straw writes that in the post-Cold War era, the norm is for small wars and weak states, many of which need outside help to maintain security at home. He says the British government already has adopted a policy of outsourcing -- that is, hiring private companies -- for tasks that the nation's armed forces previously would have undertaken.

Tim Ripley, a defense analyst at Britain's University of Lancaster, says the discussion is really about a number of possible quasi-military options, rather than peacekeeping itself.

"They are looking at, in effect, outsourcing to private companies huge sorts of chunks of UN foreign operations, not necessarily the sort of soldier bit, [of] running around with guns," Ripley says.

The "Green Paper" says, however, that differences between non-combat operations and what Ripley calls the "soldier bit" often become blurred. As the discussion paper puts it: "The distinction between combat and non-combat operations is often artificial. The people who fly soldiers and equipment to the battlefield are as much a part of the military operation as those who do the shooting."

For example, in 1996, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency hired Military Professional Resources Inc., a U.S.-based private military company, for military training duties in Angola. The UN Development Program hired Defense Systems Limited to provide security for UN relief convoys in Sierra Leone in 1998.

Straw's discussion paper mentions a number of potential drawbacks to using private military companies for national military activities. These include lack of clear lines of accountability for their actions, a diminishing of government sovereignty, the negative human rights record of mercenaries and, in the paper's words, a "natural repugnance toward those who kill -- or help kill -- for money."

Lancaster University's Ripley says the word "mercenary" is controversial in Britain these days. A private military company fought successfully in 2000 on behalf of the Sierra Leone government in Africa. That government was backed both by Britain and much of the international community. But then it was disclosed that some British officials had encouraged the private company to bring in weapons and equipment in violation of a UN weapons embargo. Ripley says then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was embarrassed.

"Mr. Cook got in a complete tangle because the newspaper headline said: 'British Government Helps Mercenaries Defeat UN Sanctions.' Which was a bit of a caricature. But in the politically correct term nature of the British government, it was just bad news," Ripley says.

The "Green Paper" says that, in one sense, the UN already employs mercenary forces for peacekeeping duties because nations that supply troops for peacekeeping are sometimes compensated by the UN. The paper says at least some countries who contribute to peacekeeping missions do so largely for financial reasons.

These forces, the paper says, often are poorly trained and badly equipped. It says private companies seeking to do business with the UN could be held to higher standards.

Both the discussion paper and Ripley suggest that another advantage of hiring out military functions would be cost savings. They say well-run private organizations might well underbid governments for the task of providing troops or military experts.

Paul Wilkinson, a professor of international relations at St. Andrews University in Scotland and author of several books on international security, says the British government has understandable reasons to consider outsourcing military operations.

"I can understand why Jack Straw and others in the British government would feel tempted to consider this as a possibility. Because British forces are already fully extended with the existing commitments -- in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, training missions in many countries and so on," Wilkinson says.

However, Wilkinson says, the proper direction to take is toward improving UN capabilities, not turning grave responsibilities over to for-profit endeavors.

"My view is that the way forward is to strengthen the United Nations by earmarking regular forces from a whole range of countries -- spreading the burden as it were -- over many countries, and giving the UN a far better budget so that it can actually deal with these problems adequately, instead of managing on the woefully inadequate budget it has at the moment," Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson and others say what is needed is greater attention to increasing the credibility and authority of the UN: "What we should be doing is enhancing the legitimacy of UN forces, ensuring that they are properly trained, controlled and disciplined, and accountable not only to the national authorities in the countries from which they originate but [also] to the UN and the international community generally."

Jack Straw's discussion paper says that, whatever the level of non-governmental involvement in military activities, it would be foolish not to consider regulating such activities. Regulation could range from an outright ban on private military activity abroad at one extreme to a licensing regime and oversight at the other.

The paper says, however, that -- given the nature of military activities that take place in distant lands in conditions of instability -- effective regulation would be difficult.