Mercenaries have been around almost as long as war itself. What is more recent, however, is the emergence of the "corporate mercenary" companies, which employ ex-military personnel and others and then sell their services to governments, mining companies, relief organisations and similar bodies. The corporate mercenary companies are often referred to as private military and security companies, or PMSCs.
The upper ranks of these companies are often filled with recently serving officers in the US and UK armies, who can receive much more money in their new positions than they did in the official armed forces. Overall, however, the companies are cheap, because most of their staff come from Iraq or from poor countries like Nepal and Fiji and are willing to serve for a fraction of a UK soldier's pay. The growth in PMSCs has been of note in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is a feature in many other countries around the globe.
Government abdicating responsibility for regulation
The discussion has been about whether PMSCs should be regulated and, if so, how. In the UK the debate really began with a Green (consultation) paper in 2002 and continued, intermittently, until finally, in April 2009, Labour's last Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP rejected the call for regulation. Instead, he proposed that a trade organisation, the British Association of Private Security Companies should promote high standards through a code of conduct to be agreed with and monitored by the Government. The Government would also itself only contract companies which could demonstrate that they operate to high standards and would work internationally to promote high standards. Any system of Government licensing was ruled out. As well as proposing to abdicate its responsibility to the trade association, the Government's proposals could allow mercenary groups to legitimise themselves as "respectable" private military and security corporations.
A consultation on the proposal finished in July 2009, but the Government did not issue its response until December 2009, a delay which possibly occurred because of a shooting in Iraq in August 2009 which resulted in the death of two employees of the PMSC ArmorGroup. They were allegedly shot by a third employee, who despite vetting by the company, was said by family and friends to have severe mental health problems.
CAAT had hoped that this tragic case would prompt the FCO to reconsider its proposals for self-regulation as these were a total dereliction of duty. Unfortunately, it did not and only conceded the possibility that a body other than the BAPSC be charged with overseeing the code of conduct. The Government consulted further on its proposals, producing a summary (PDF 156kb) of the results of this in April 2010. In September 2010 the Coalition government said that it was taking the Labour government's proposals forward and, in March 2011, that ADS, which represents over 2,000 companies in the AeroSpace, Defence and Space sectors has been chosen as the organisation to oversee the self-regulation. On 21 June 2011 the Government announced its agreement with ADS, including the establishment of a Security in Complex Environments Group. The UK government is also supporting an International Code, signed in Geneva in November 2010. 125 PMSCs, of which 45 are UK-based, have now signed up to this.
At sea too
The growth of piracy in the Indian Ocean, and the increased use of armed guards on commercial shipping travelling through those waters, has moved the discussion on the use of PMSCs into a new field. Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham told the Foreign Affairs Committee on 6 July 2011 that the Government was looking at steps to extend the Geneva International Code into the maritime sector.
Miliband and the mercenaries, a guardian.co.uk comment by War on Want's John Hilary responding to the UK government's rejection of regulation, April 2009.
Getting away with murder (PDF 352kb), a War on Want report, with action ideas, about the tens of thousands of mercenaries in Iraq who are committing human rights abuses and operating outside the law, 2007.
Corporate Mercenaries (PDF 165mb), a War on Want report and campaign on the threat of private military and security companies, 2006.
CAAT's response to the Green Paper on Private Military Companies, 2002.
The Privatisation of Violence, CAAT Report, 1999.