1 November 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Working Group on Mercenaries


Faiza Patel, Chair of the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, told correspondents today about the Working Group’s visits to Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Iraq.

During a press conference at Headquarters, Ms. Patel explained that the Working Group, which consists of five independent experts, covered the activities of mercenaries, as well as those of private military and security companies.  Yesterday, she had presented the Working Group’s report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural).  She said the Working Group had visited Equatorial Guinea and South Africa in 2010 and Iraq in 2011.  (See Press Release GA/SHC/4023.)

Equatorial Guinea had been the site of a coup by mercenaries in 2004, many of whom had come from South Africa, she said, which had led to prosecutions in Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Zimbabwe.  The Government of Equatorial Guinea had also alleged an attempted coup in 2009.  The Working Group had been unable to verify those claims, but found that that there were credible reports that those arrested had been tortured and were denied fundamental due process rights in their trials.  Four convicted persons were summarily executed one day after the Working Group left.

She said the Group’s visit to South Africa had focused on legal issues.  South African law prohibited mercenary activities.  Prosecutions under that law were often unsuccessful, due to the difficulty of gathering evidence in foreign countries.  South African law also required cabinet-level approval for the export of the services of private military and security companies.

Iraq had a different set of problems, she continued.  Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 civilians in 2007 could not be prosecuted in Iraq because of a Coalition forces grant of immunity to contractors.  Four years after the fact, the case in United States court was still pending.  The 2009 status-of-forces agreement between the United States and Iraq dealt with the issue of immunity of contractors, but since United States forces are set to withdraw, the agreement would no longer be in force.  The status of foreign contractors in Iraq was quite unclear.

She announced that the Working Group would visit Côte d’Ivoire and Libya over the next two months.

Answering correspondents’ questions, Ms. Patel explained that mercenaries were very narrowly defined in international law.  They have to take part in armed combat for monetary gain and not be part of any country or party involved in the conflict.  There was an international convention with some 40 States parties that made the use of mercenaries illegal.  However, there was nothing similar for security companies and there was a need for a binding international commitment that forces States to regulate their use and ensure that every State had the laws in place to prosecute.

The Working Group had proposed an international convention in that regard, and the Human Rights Council had established an open-ended intergovernmental working group of the whole in 2010 to consider the draft, which had first met earlier this year.  The convention would, among other things, require States to have a national registry of private military and security companies in order to enable an export scheme; it would require States to ensure that there were no jurisdictional loopholes; and it would set up an international monitoring mechanism.  There was consensus that a regulatory framework was needed, but some countries preferred an international code of conduct, while others opted for international regulation.

South Africa, she said to a question, had traditionally been a recruiting ground for mercenaries.  The prosecutorial impact on the use of South African mercenaries was weak, first of all because the national law was of a “pioneering” kind and, therefore, had some “kinks” in it.  South African prosecutors, moreover, had to rely on evidence provided by outside countries where mercenary activities took place, often in murky situations and with weak rule of law.  Some of those countries had no laws against mercenaries.  Moreover, the South African office dealing with mercenaries was under-resourced.

Asked about the situation in Bahrain, where the Government had allegedly lured Sunni Muslims as mercenaries with the promise of citizenship, she said that, if such a person had citizenship, he was not a mercenary.  If he got citizenship after having participated in combat, he was a mercenary.

As the United Nations did not have the capacity to protect all its activities all over the world, it did use private security companies, she said to another question.  The Organization was well aware of possible problems and had uniform standards to ensure that companies whose employees had been accused of human rights violations would not be contracted.  Using private military companies in United Nations peacekeeping missions was not a good idea, she said, as those missions projected the image of the Organization, and it was difficult to regulate or control private security companies.

Asked why members of the United States military were indicted by a military court of alleged crimes committed in the Abu Ghraib prison and Blackwater contractors had to be prosecuted in civil court, Ms. Patel explained that jurisdiction for civilians was not clear.  The United States had passed the “Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act” that extended military jurisdiction to Department of Defence contractors.  There was a question about the constitutionality of that Act.  The United States had also introduced the “Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act”, which would fill the gap that remained with contractors not associated with a combat mission.

As for the activities of Saracen International in Somalia, she referred to a report of the Monitoring Committee of sanctions against Somalia, which had concluded that Saracen had violated the arms embargo.  She believed that the contract with that company had been suspended.

Answering a question about private contractors in the “war on drugs” in Colombia and Mexico, she said that the Working Group was very concerned about reports of human rights violations committed by those contractors.  It had requested the Governments of Colombia and Mexico to allow a visit, in order to investigate those allegations.

Asked what responsibility Australia had regarding the behaviour of Australian bodyguards hired by one of Muammar al-Qadhafi’s sons, she said that, if there were allegations of human rights abuses committed by them, the home country of the perpetrators was obliged to bring them to justice under international human rights law.

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For information media • not an official record