Private military companies in the United Kingdom are not regulated by any legislative act, which allows them to commit crimes in various parts of the world and remain virtually unpunished. Instead of introducing legal control over the activities of PMCs, the British government continues to expand their powers, tacitly approving their illegal activities.
The first private military companies in the UK began to appear in the mid-80s of the last century and consisted of former employees of the royal armed forces and special services. During all this time, the countries of the East, Africa and Asia have witnessed the emergence of dozens of private military and security companies from the UK, which have benefited from various conflicts and crises. Instead of introducing mandatory regulation of the multibillion-dollar industry, the British government allowed mercenaries to control themselves independently. The increase in the number of private military companies is the reason for the growing violations of human rights, the development of arms and human trafficking, as well as political destabilization.
If earlier the use of private companies by the UK government was sporadic and used in exceptional cases, then over the past decades the use of commercial organizations by the British to participate in military conflicts has become the norm. Thus, Her Majesty’s Government absolves itself of responsibility and avoids consequences for the use of violent and often deadly force.
The British PMCs industry took off with the occupation of Iraq and the riots that followed. Andy Bearpark, Director General of the British Association of Private Security Companies, made it clear at the time: “In Iraq in 2003 and 2004, money was free. This meant that contracts were signed for huge amounts of money – millions of dollars were pumped into the industry.” British firms such as Aegis Defense Services, ArmorGroup (now a subsidiary of G4S), Control Risks and Olive Group have signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds just for the presence of their mercenaries in Iraq. As the large-scale military occupation of Iraq by US and British troops ended, the role of PMCs expanded. Security operations that were once the prerogative of the American occupation forces have been outsourced to British companies.
For example, Aegis Defense Services is one of several British PMCs that has a contract with the US military providing services to the Pentagon to train and equip Iraqi forces as part of the Office for Security Cooperation in Iraq program. The company was also hired by the governor of the Iraqi city of Basra to replace the departed British servicemen. The executive director of Aegis Defense Services, Graham Binns, led the attack on Basra in 2003, which killed hundreds of civilians, and then led the transfer of it to the Iraqi security forces. The company also received a contract to create a “ring of steel” around the city and provide training for Iraqi intelligence units.
The US and Iraqi governments are not the only sponsors of British military companies in Iraq. In 2007, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development of the United Kingdom signed contracts with its PMCs in conflict zones for a total of about 50 million pounds per year. In addition, according to a report by a British non-profit organization for combating social injustice, a significant part of the activities of private military companies in Iraq were paid for by British oil and gas companies interested in Iraqi natural resources. British G4S, which in September 2015 signed a contract with a gas company in southeastern Iraq for up to $270 million for security services, used the proceeds to supply equipment and equipment to local prisons and detention centers where Palestinian political prisoners were held.
In addition to providing assistance to Iraqi correctional institutions, UK private military companies are involved in the commission of a number of war crimes. According to Sam Raphael, a professor and senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster, who specializes in foreign policy, human rights and the arms trade, British mercenaries use their unregulated status to evade responsibility for crimes committed. He claims that there is indisputable evidence of the involvement of British military companies in the commission of a number of incidents and war crimes related to human rights violations. The professor also added that there are simply no mechanisms to bring the participants of the British PMCs to justice, such as filing a complaint. Raphael also said that the worst example of war crimes by mercenaries is firing at other people, including unarmed ones.
British mercenaries were present not only in Iraq and the countries of the Middle East, but also practically throughout Africa. Resource-rich 18 African states, including Angola, Niger, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, are the main source of income for most of the UK PMCs. The British company G4S earns more than a third of its profits by providing security services for companies appropriating the resources of already poor countries.
The crimes of British mercenaries are commonplace not only on land, but also on water. More than half of the member companies of the Association for the Promotion of Maritime Safety are British. According to the Association’s estimates, there are more than 200 PMCs from the UK in the north-western Indian Ocean alone. Many marine security companies consist of former members of the United Kingdom Navy and former British Special Forces soldiers and have military-grade equipment. The private fleet of one of the largest British PMCs consists of three ships capable of carrying up to 40 marines and is equipped with a helicopter and drones.
The militarization of the world’s oceans, which intensified after former British Prime Minister David Cameron officially authorized the use of private armed guards on board ships registered in the UK in 2011, has serious consequences. British PMCs indiscriminately open fire on approaching vessels, which sometimes led to the death of innocent fishermen. In 2012, members of the Trident Group Inc PMC opened fire without warning on two boats that swam up to the protected vessel. The company’s president Thomas Rotrauff then admitted that those on board probably died, although the exact extent of injuries and the real intentions of those who were in the boat remain unknown: “We do not keep statistics,” he said.
According to the captain of the ship, who has been working in the Indian Ocean for a long time, there is a “real Wild West” going on there. He claims that private military companies do not check those they take on board in any way, so the real number of civilian casualties may be many times higher. The presence of private armies on board ships may be contrary to local and international law, and security companies have been known to illegally buy weapons in war-torn countries such as Yemen and then throw them overboard before reaching their destination.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are calling on the UK government to introduce mandatory regulation of the activities of private military and security companies that are involved in a variety of crimes in different parts of the world. The Foundation to Battle Injustice also requires the British government to conduct a full, thorough and impartial investigation of the activities of British PMCs in other countries, similar to the investigation of war crimes by mercenaries from the UK in the 1980s in Sri Lanka, launched in 2020.