In its most recent annual session, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed resolution A/HRC/15/L.31, which addresses “The use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination”. In the resolution, the UNHRC declares itself, among other things, to be “Extremely alarmed and concerned about recent mercenary activities in developing countries in various parts of the world, in particular in areas of conflict, and the threat they pose to the integrity and respect of the constitutional order of the affected countries.”
When as august and influential a body as the UNHRC expresses itself to be “extremely alarmed and concerned”, presumably this should make us sit up and take notice. Perhaps, indeed, it should cause us to have the occasional sleepless night. I confess, however, that reading the Council’s resolution (let’s just call it “the mercenary resolution”) did not fill me with anxiety and disquiet. Instead, I found it more than a little puzzling.
Consider first the title of the mercenary resolution. It’s directed against “The use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.” That certainly sounds like something to be concerned about. After all, violating human rights and the self-determination of peoples is undoubtedly a bad thing. But, on reflection, it seems somewhat odd for the resolution to be focused on mercenaries. To see why this is so, consider another, fictional, UNHRC resolution directed against “The use of boxcutters as a means of hijacking passenger aircraft in order to crash them into buildings and commit mass murder and violate state sovereignty.” If I were to read the title of such a UNHRC resolution my first instinct would undoubtedly be that this is something I’d want to support. But then it would be very odd indeed if the resolution turned out to be all about the evils of boxcutters. That would seem to miss the point, to say the least.
Perhaps, however, we might imagine from its title that the point of the mercenary resolution is to delineate inappropriate uses of mercenary forces (violating human rights, impeding peoples’ self-determination) from legitimate uses of mercenaries. If that were so, then focusing the resolution on mercenaries would make some sense. It turns out, however, that this is not the case. As we read on further we find the UNHRC expressing itself to be “Convinced that, notwithstanding the way in which mercenaries or mercenary-related activities are used or the form they take to acquire a semblance of legitimacy, they are a threat to peace, security and the self-determination of peoples and an obstacle to the enjoyment of human rights by peoples.” So, then, no matter how they are used and no matter what form they take, mercenaries are nonetheless a threat to peace, security, the self-determination of peoples, and human rights.
Seriously? Imagine how odd an analogous claim would be if it appeared as part of our imaginary “boxcutter resolution”: “Convinced that, notwithstanding the way in which boxcutters or boxcutter-related activities (what could this possibly mean?) are used or the form they take to acquire a semblance of legitimacy, they are a threat to airline passengers and crew, office workers, bystanders and state sovereignty.” Such a statement is patently absurd in the case of boxcutters, so why does the UNHRC think the apparently equivalent statement about mercenaries is not absurd?
Perhaps the answer lies in some intrinsic difference between the nature of mercenaries and the nature of boxcutters. After all, it might be argued, boxcutters are mere tools, with no particular propensity to either a good or evil use of their cutting abilities. Mercenaries, on the other hand (so we can imagine the argument continuing), have some intrinsic propensity to be used for evil, making the mercenary more like a dedicated torture device, such as an iron maiden, than a boxcutter.
Following this logic, the idea must be that this intrinsic propensity to be used for evil makes it entirely sensible to consider mercenaries to be threatening no matter what they’re actually used for or what controls are in place regulating their use. (I take it that the latter is what the mercenary resolution is getting at when it refers to “the form they take to acquire a semblance of legitimacy”, though the meaning of the phrase is certainly not clear.) To flip to the iron maiden analogy, perhaps it might indeed make some kind of sense to think of the iron maiden as being threatening even if its owner only ever used it as a somewhat inefficient though entertaining tool for making orange juice at parties, and even if it were kept under lock and key and only ever brought out and used under the close scrutiny of an officer of the law. Perhaps, though frankly I don’t find myself breaking into a sweat at the very thought of that scenario. But even if we grant that some things can be threatening regardless of how they are used or controlled, does it really make sense to think of mercenaries as being more like iron maidens than boxcutters?
One reason to think that mercenaries are not like iron maidens is that, while it’s pretty easy to see what’s morally problematic about the nature of iron maidens – they’re designed solely for the purpose of committing acts of torture – it turns out to be rather difficult to pin down the moral “badness” that’s generally assumed to be inherent in mercenaries, or to even work out what, exactly, a mercenary is.
What, for example, is the morally odious feature that places the “mercenaries” of the Flying Tigers of WWII (American airmen under contract to the Chinese government who fought against Japanese imperialism prior to the United States’ entry into the war) in the same category as Bob Denard, the notorious French soldier-for-hire who roamed Africa for three decades, and whose activities included four attempts to overthrow the government of the Comoros? Or, for that matter, what common feature entitles the UNHRC to also heap blanket condemnation on the “private companies offering military assistance, consultancy and other military and security-related services on the international market” that the mercenary report also deems to fall into the morally abhorrent category of “mercenary”?
While space limitations prevent me from offering a full analysis here, it doesn’t take all that much head-scratching to realise that there are no good definitions of the word “mercenary” that both capture the moral badness that is presumed to be inherent in that term and is also a good fit to the characteristics displayed by all those that the UNHRC and others would like to paint with this particular brush. The problem with mercenaries can’t simply be that they do what they do for money – most people do the jobs they do at least in part for that pay check at the end of the month, and they don’t thereby earn moral excoriation. Nor can the problem be that mercenaries engage in combat operations for money. For one thing, most of those that the UNHRC would like to call mercenaries simply don’t do combat operations. They provide advice and training, they supply and service equipment, they provide logistical support and the like, and a small minority use guns to guard things in dangerous places (rather like the numerous security guards who guard things in South Africa, the dangerous place I hail from). But even if there were private contractors providing genuine combat services (as, say Executive Outcomes did in the 1990s under contract to the governments of Angola and Sierra Leone), it would be pretty hypocritical to condemn them for doing so for money, given that we generally honour and praise those members of our nation’s Armed Forces who fight at the front line – even though they receive a pay check at the end of every month. True, we would certainly consider someone who would do anything for money, and who valued money above all else, to have gone over to the moral dark side. Adrian Walsh and Tony Lynch of the University of New England in Australia have coined the delightful term “lucrepath” to describe such a person. But it’s pretty obvious that only a small portion, at best, of those that the UNHRC seeks to tarnish with the label “mercenary” are actually lucrepaths, and that those inflicted with lucrepathology are to be found in all walks of life, not merely among the ranks of the mercenary hordes that the UNHRC seems so concerned about.
It is, of course, undeniable that (to use a more morally neutral term) some contracted combatants have been involved in morally questionable activities. But this is an unfortunate, but probably inescapable, feature of the existence and use of military forces in general. Far, far, more atrocities and coups have been carried out by national military forces than have been carried out by contracted combatants. Once one recognises that contracted combatants employed by states stand in essentially the same fundamental relationship to those states as do the states’ national military forces – both groups are agents of the state – it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a neat moral line between them. This point explains the (I hope excusable) pun in the title of my book Just Warriors, Inc. My claim is not that all contracted combatants are just in the moral sense – that would be obviously absurd – but rather that they are “just” (merely) combatants, and what defines whether or not they are just (moral) warriors are essentially the same features that define whether or not the soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines of a nation’s armed forces are (morally) just. Some uniformed personnel fail this test, as do some contracted combatants. But the opposite is also true – some military personnel are worthy of honour and respect, and there are no good reasons to believe that the same could not be true of some contracted combatants.
The UNHRC, it seems to me, would be far better served by focusing less on “the menace posed by the activities of mercenaries” and instead focusing its attention on the states or non-state groups that employ contracted combatants – or militia forces, or bandits, or secret police, or soldiers, or whomever – to violate human rights or impede the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination. Contracted combatants, like their uniformed colleagues, are (as a category at least) more like boxcutters than iron maidens. They can be used for good or for harm. What matters then, is who uses them, and for what purpose.
Deane-Peter Baker is assistant professor of philosophy in the department of leadership, ethics and law at the US Naval Academy and author of Just Warriors, Inc. (Continuum 2011). This is the author’s opinion not that of the US Naval Academy.