News / Africa

UN Rights Group Urges Greater Regulation of Mercenaries

Lisa Schlein

A United Nations watchdog group is calling for greater regulation and accountability of mercenaries and private security companies, which often have close links. The U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries has submitted its findings on missions to Iraq and Equatorial Guinea to the U.N. Human Rights Council.  

The U.N. Working Group says tighter controls are needed to reduce incidents of human rights abuse by private military and security companies. It reports it is encouraged by what it found during its mission to Iraq.

It says there has been a decrease in serious incidents involving men for hire over the last few years. It attributes this to the reduction in military activity, to stricter regulation by the Iraqi authorities and greater oversight by the United States of its private security contractors working in Iraq.

Immunity remains key issue

Despite the improved situation, the Working Group says the issue of immunity remains a sensitive issue for Iraq. This problem came fully into focus in September 2007, when contractors of the U.S. military firm, Blackwater, killed 17 Iraqis at Baghdad’s Nissour Square.

The chairperson of the Working Group, Faiza Patel, said the families of the victims still have not received compensation for these killings and no one has been held criminally accountable.

Blackwater no longer works in Iraq, but other private contractors continue to provide mobile security to the U.S. Defense Department and private companies. Patel told VOA that new rules of engagement and tighter identification of these contractors is minimizing the risks.

“The way in which any incidents are handled has also been regulated more firmly. So, for example, I believe it is the U.S. that requires all of its contractors to have video cameras so there is a recording of any incident that happens," she said. "So, you have actual evidence because that is always a big issue. I think it continues to be an issue, but… our information is the kinds of abuses that we saw shortly in the period immediately after the U.S. went in have certainly diminished.”   

In response to these findings, the Iraqi representative to the U.N. noted how difficult it is for his government to monitor and control the activities of private companies. He called on the governments where the private military companies are located to punish those that violate Iraqi law.

Classic mercenary scenario

Equatorial Guinea presents a classic mercenary situation. Traditionally, mercenaries are soldiers hired to fight in an armed conflict or to overthrow a government. The U.N. Working Group says mercenaries pose a threat to security and to the human rights and self-determination of people.  

The mission to Equatorial Guinea focuses on the investigations and prosecutions relating to the attempted coup d’etat in March 2004 and to the armed attack on the presidential palace by alleged mercenaries on February 17, 2009.

Patel called this a difficult mission. She said the Working Group is very disturbed by the treatment of people accused of being mercenaries.

“When we were there, we asked for access to people accused of mercenary activities. We were not allowed to meet with these people," said Patel. "We know that they were tried in a very summary fashion. They were not given any right to appeal. They did not have basic procedural safeguards. The Working Group was very disturbed because the day after we left Equatorial Guinea, they actually executed the men who had been convicted in this procedurally flawed trial.”  

A representative of Equatorial Guinea accuses the Working Group of not taking into account all of the information made available to it. The representative assured the Human Rights Council that his government is taking steps to reform its legal system and is doing what it can to provide protection of human rights.

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