Miliband challenged on mercenaries abuse

18 February 2008 - 10:25am
Press release

Foreign secretary David Miliband today faces a legal challenge over his failure to ensure democratic control over private military companies - only days after he promoted Britain spreading democracy around the world.

The challenge, from the anti-poverty charity War on Want, follows mounting reports of human rights abuse by mercenaries employed by private military and security companies in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last October guards working for British firm Erinys International opened fire on a taxi near Kirkuk, wounding three civilians. In September mercenaries from the American private military company Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians. Earlier a video published on the internet showed mercenaries from UK-based Aegis Defence Services randomly shooting at civilian cars from the back of their vehicle on the road to Baghdad airport.

War on Want, calling for legislation including a ban on mercenaries' use in combat, cites hundreds of incidents which have involved guards from Aegis and another British firm ArmorGroup in shootings.

In the first four months of 2007 mercenaries working for ArmorGroup were engaged in combat action 293 times. Aegis mercenaries have been involved in combat action 168 times in the last three years and have seen eight employees killed, according to its chief executive officer, Tim Spicer. Spicer broke a UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone with his former company Sandline International, and was jailed in Papua New Guinea for earlier activities.

In the last parliamentary session more than 100 MPs signed an early day motion urging the government to move towards binding legislation to bring private military companies under democratic control.

The UN has repeatedly called on governments where private military companies are incorporated, such as Britain, to introduce legislation to regulate the sector and guard against the 'inherent dangers' of privatising the use of violence in war zones.

Both the US and Iraqi governments have started to take action to control mercenary armies.

In February six years ago the UK government acknowledged the problems over private armies in a green paper which listed options for regulation.

In its response to the paper later that year, the Commons foreign affairs committee recommended that "private companies be expressly prohibited from direct participation in armed combat operations, and that firearms should only be carried... by company employees for purposes of training or self-defence".

The committee also proposed that the government consider "a complete ban on recruitment for such activities of United Kingdom citizens by overseas-based or offshore PMCs", while remaining activities be subject to licence.

But since then the government has failed to move towards regulation.

Iraq has turned this commercial opportunity into a huge money spinner, with UK companies among those making a real killing. British companies increased profits from 320 million in 2003 to 1.8 billion in 2004. Estimates have suggested the total income for the private security sector worldwide has reached $80-100 billion a year. In 2006, UK company ArmorGroup saw revenues totalling $273 million. The company earned $133 million in Iraq that year.

Aegis and ArmorGroup have won valuable contracts with the US and UK governments in recent months. Aegis has won a new contract with the Pentagon worth $475 million dollars over the next two years. The US Army has favoured the company for a second time, following its earlier $293 million contract from 2004. In 2007 ArmorGroup won the UK government's 20 million annual contract for security services in Afghanistan.

Ruth Tanner, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: "Despite increasing evidence on human rights abuse by private military companies in Iraq, the government has failed to act. This free for all cannot be allowed to continue. David Miliband must act on this mercenary crisis as an urgent priority."

CONTACT: Paul Collins, War on Want media office (+44) (0)20 7549 0584 or (+44) (0)7983 550728

NOTE TO EDITORS: A letter to Mr Miliband from War on Want's solicitors Leigh Day & Co, which claims his failure to act on mercenaries is unlawful, is attached

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