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Mercenary Activity

Volume 621: debated on Monday 29 January 2001

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2.42 p.m.

Why they did not fulfil their commitment to publish by November 2000 a Green Paper on mercenary activity.

My Lords, unfortunately, it did not prove possible to meet the target for publishing the Green Paper which was suggested by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. But this is a complex and new issue. Whitehall consultations are continuing and it is important to have as good and effective a Green Paper as possible.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the target of November 2000 was given not only by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee but by the then Minister, Mr Hain, in answer to my right honourable friend Menzies Campbell on 15th June 2000? Does she also agree that legislative measures against mercenaries in any one country are likely to be ineffective because such people will go off-shore? Will the Government suggest to the United Nations Secretary-General that he should convene a meeting of experts and NGOs with a view to drafting a new convention to replace that of 1989 to which the Government have felt unable to adhere because its definition is unsatisfactory?

My Lords, the deadline of November 2000 was the recommendation from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The Government accepted that recommendation and said that they would try to fulfil it. They have striven to produce the Green Paper by November 2000, as requested by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. However, for the reasons I have given, that has not proved possible. It is a new and complex issue and many noble Lords will be aware of the problems of definition as regards mercenaries, private military companies and so forth. It is important that the Green Paper is as good and effective as possible.

As regards whether one country can deal with the problem, a great deal of cross-border consultation and co-operation will be required. However, that does not get away from the fact that each country should deal with the problem as it arises within its borders. As part of our preparations for the Green Paper we have examined how other countries have tried to deal with the problem.

My Lords, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, it appears that the position relating to mercenaries is most complex. Can my noble friend tell us the legal position as regards mercenary activity?

My Lords, the only existing UK legislation on mercenaries is limited to the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870. That makes it an offence to enlist to serve or to recruit to serve in the army and navy of a foreign country at war with another country with which the UK is at peace. I am advised that a successful prosecution has never been brought under the Act. It is also widely considered to be inapplicable to modern means.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for agreeing that international co-operation is necessary to deal with the problem, in addition to any domestic legislation which may come into considerations. Will she therefore undertake to consider my proposal to ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene an expert conference, including representatives of NGOs which are concerned with such issues, to see whether the 1989 convention can be redrafted so as to enable the United Kingdom to sign it?

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, the United Kingdom has not signed the 1989 UN convention. In the 11 years since 1989 only 20 countries have signed it and as 22 signatures are required in order for it to come into force it has not done so.

We have not signed it because we do not believe that it is enforceable in United Kingdom courts. The definition hinges on proving intent, specifically that a mercenary has been motivated essentially for private gain. Many believe that that would be difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt. I must add that at present we see no possibility of obtaining international agreement to any meaningful amendment to the convention.

My Lords, does the statement which the Minister made on international agreement apply also to agreement with our NATO allies, particularly the United States and our European Union partners? The United States has employed private contractors to train the Croatian army and others, leaving some delicate issues for consultation.

My Lords, a study of other countries which have legislation on this issue includes the United States.