Mercenaries in Iraq – Q & A from the FAC

On 23rd November, shortly before the Aegis Video of civillian shootings hit the public airwaves, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee addressed a number of questions to Ian Pearson, Minister for Trade, Foreign & Commonwealth Office with responsibility for human rights, on the activities of British mercenary companies.

Q132 Mr Keetch: There have been, as you know, Minister, a number of high profile issues resulting in British military personnel involved in abuse in Iraq, including court martials. There was also the case of the proceedings that were recently dropped against some British soldiers accused of murder in Iraq. I am aware and the Committee is aware of the rules of engagement of the British Armed Forces. Can you tell us a bit about, if you like, the rules of engagement of the British based private military companies that exists in Iraq, because it is certainly the case that there are thousands of British citizens in Iraq carrying weapons working for private military companies that are not covered by British Government rules of engagement for armed forces but, nevertheless, are doing work in that country? Does the British Government give advice to those companies as to what kind of human rights activities and security training and such that they should be doing out there?

Mr Pearson: I think that question is probably better directed at the Ministry of Defence, who are likely to have better information about this. As Minister with responsibility for human rights I would want to make sure that the human rights obligations of any individual and, indeed, any company, whether it is operating in Iraq or wherever, are closely followed, and certainly we want would want to make sure that UK companies who operate in Iraq are fully aware of their human rights obligations.

Q138 Andrew Mackinlay: I want to take you back to Paul Keech’s point when he questioned you about private security companies and you referred Paul Keech to the Ministry of Defence. Can I gently remind you that before you were a minister of foreign office the Foreign Office produced a Green Paper on the private security companies, not the Ministry of Defence. It came here to this Committee, who produced a report, and the motive was regulation: because one foresaw some of the things which Paul Keech referred to. I remember at the time taunting the Foreign Office, saying, “This is going to be pigeon holed”, and broadly they said, “My God, how can you suggest such a thing?” Is it not pigeon-holed? Is it dead? Is this parrot dead, this Green Paper on regulating private military companies because of human right considerations?

Ian Pearson: I am not cited on this, so I cannot give you an answer on that other than the general answer.

Q139 Andrew Mackinlay: You see my point, though, do not you? The fact is you are the human rights minister. It was not I who initiated it, it was during McShane’s period and Cook’s, and it was a Green Paper produced, we dealt with it at length and it is dead as a dodo. It is dead as a dodo, I put it to you, for the reasons which Keech referred to, the fact that it is too sensitive. It raises the question of rules of engagement, recruitment, where they come from, where they are going to, companies being able to dissolve themselves at arm’s length, distance, “Nothing to do with us, guv”, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Could you come back to us on this, because I am putting it to you, the Government have ducked it because it is a hot potato and it does raise serious human rights issues and you should know about it?

Mr Pearson: I am certainly not prepared to pronounce the parrot dead yet.

Q140 Andrew Mackinlay: That is good.

Ian Pearson: As I say, I do not have information to hand specifically on this. If it would be helpful I would be happy to write to the Committee on this.

Q141 Chairman: Perhaps you could inform the Foreign Secretary that we have raised this matter. He is before us in a couple of weeks’ time, so I am sure we would like something before then, if possible.

Ian Pearson: I will bring it to his attention.

Will be interesting to hear what Jack Straw had to say on that one…