Speech in the Council of Europe on private military companies

Private Military Companies and the Erosion of the State’s Monopoly on the Use of Force

29 January 2009

At the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, a report on the above subject was debated. Below Denis MacShane MP’s speech.

Mr MacSHANE (United Kingdom). – I congratulate my colleagues, Mr Wodarg and Mr Sasi, on their excellent report and I am sure that we will agree to it. I am particularly interested in the report’s title, which refers to the erosion of the state monopoly on the use of force. That description goes to the conceptual heart of the matter. The notion that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force is relatively recent. In much of European history, different groups, states, kings and dukes have created or hired armies and brought foreigners in to fight their battles for them. A remnant of that practice exists in the Vatican, of course, where a private military company called the Swiss Guard protects the Pope from all those who would like to do terrible things to him.

We are seeing a return of this practice, not because of some wicked idea of replacing controlled and legal arms with the law and profits of the market, but out of sheer necessity. If any of us were to go to Afghanistan or Colombia – I have to say to my dear Turkish colleagues that sometimes the same applies to Turkey – we would be made to wear an armoured suit and have bodyguards. They would not come from our own country, and they would not be supplied by the Afghani or Colombian state, because one would not trust them. They are provided by private military/security companies.

Using private security people to inspect baggage in an airport is one thing, but I am quite happy to have bodyguards if the alternative is being killed. Unfortunately, too many non-state actors think that they can use force, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, ETA, FARC and ELN. In Colombia, FARC and ELN, two fascistic groups that want to overthrow the authority of the state, produce an equal and opposite reaction from autonomous, privately paid military units, which end up fighting them and so the spiral goes on. We need to denounce all non-state violence, whether it is carried out by the IRA, ETA, Hamas, Chechen rebels or Hizbollah, and denounce state powers who provide them with arms. I recommend a very enlightening article in today’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung on the extent to which states, some of which are represented here, directly and indirectly furnish the arms that allow the erosion of state power.

I also recommend a very good article by my dear friend, Professor Jorge Castañeda, the former Foreign Minister of Mexico, in the current issue of Newsweek, who points out that last year 5 000 people were killed – he uses the word “execution” – by Mexican gangs, which is twice the number for the previous year. Consequently, he says: “the monopoly over the use of force by the state is also dwindling.” What do we do about that? The next scheduled speaker, Mr Lebedev, will know that his namesake in Russia, the owner of Novaya Gazetta, has suggested that his journalists should carry guns, because the Russian state is incapable of protecting Russian journalists or human rights lawyers from being assassinated in the streets of Moscow. That is a pretty crazy idea, but what is the alternative if the state does not ensure the safety of its citizens? An opponent of the Russian regime in London has to hire bodyguards because there are too many examples of those not protected being killed. You cannot say to a man, “I am sorry but you cannot have a private security company to look after you.”

Work is being done on this matter by many of our member governments, particularly in conjunction with the Swiss foreign affairs ministry, to which we should pay tribute, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their conference in Montreux in 2005 produced working ideas with which much of our work can now be blended. I agree about the need for rules and conventions on the matter, but I am afraid that as long as we do not make it clear that we will stand up to the FARCs, the ELNs, the Tamil Tigers, the Hamases and the Hezbollahs, and to all those who think they can kill their opponents in the name not of the state but their own ideology, we should not be surprised if this industry continues to grow.