Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 47 - 59)



Sir John Stanley

  47. Welcome to the Foreign Affairs Committee, thank you for joining us this morning. I should like to start in the key area of regulation. The Foreign Secretary, when he published the Green Paper on private military companies, coupled that with an answer to a parliamentary question which he gave on 12 February to Mr Stephen Pound, MP. The Foreign Secretary said in that answer, "The private military sector is a growing phenomenon which could develop in a helpful or an unhelpful way. I shall be surprised if we emerge from the debate with the conclusion that the best solution is to do nothing at all". Interestingly in your own paper[5], for which we are grateful, you are somewhat critical of the Government for not offering as an option the do-nothing route. You say in your paper, paragraph 9, ". . . the one option that it does not offer is DO NOTHING. Or, DO VERY LITTLE". You are then very frank and you say in paragraph 10, "I am hugely ambivalent about regulation". In paragraph 12, you say, ". . . I am not persuaded that a system of regulation is actually necessary. The real challenge is to winkle out companies like Sandline, hell bent at scooping up a lucrative contract no matter how idiotic its military plans might be". I should like to ask you whether your sole requirement for new regulation is the winkling out of companies such as Sandline. How do you think that can be achieved other than by some form of new regulatory and legislative process?

  (Mr Bilton) The word "ambivalence" does mean just that and "huge ambivalence" means I am really troubled by the question. Let us go back to the starting point for all this. The starting point for all this is Sandline International and the Arms for Africa affair. This was a scandal which involved the British Government, which severely embarrassed it, which caused a commission of inquiry to be held by Sir Thomas Legg and an inquiry by your own Committee. As a result of that you suggested that the Government bring forward a Green Paper about this subject. Having brought forward a Green Paper about the subject, the Government have taken on board many of the points which I know Colonel Spicer is extremely keen on in terms of regulation of this industry which existed up to now in an unregulated way. I have spoken very recently to a good number of soldiers about this, currently serving and former soldiers, and the argument which has been put to me is "If it's not broke, why are we fixing it?". There are reputable private military companies run by reputable people. May I say that when I say that I have to draw a distinction between Colonel Spicer the individual and the company for whom he worked and the people who financially backed that company? I have no reason to believe he is anything other than an honourable former soldier. I want to make that very clear. However, what he does and what his company does, and I have evidence of what it was involved in in Papua New Guinea, severely concerned me. Regulation or no regulation? Up to now we have had an ad hoc, unofficial system where former soldiers setting up private military companies approach Her Majesty's Government when they are in turn approached by a foreign government and ask whether this would impact in any way on British foreign policy, because that is what we are talking about here. Military companies going overseas are in essence, if they are sanctioned by Her Majesty's Government, carrying out British foreign policy in some way, shape or form. I am not so sure that the situation has reached the level at this stage where we need a huge bureaucratic machinery to vet the private military companies to license individual soldiers because I am not sure that we actually have the mechanisms to be certain in our own minds that what they could be doing is going to be in our best interests. There is a sense in which, by having an unofficial system, you deal with people whom you know to be reliable, but you can also pull the plug on that system when you feel that things have got out of hand. What concerns me is when things go wrong. Imagine the scenario where 100 of Colonel Spicer's employees go overseas and they are on a peacekeeping mission and things go badly wrong. Colonel Spicer's company needs reinforcements urgently. Where is he going to get them from? Where are they going to come from? Are they going to be his 100 licensed soldiers or is he having to go into the market to grab as many former soldiers from wherever he can in order to get reinforcements to get his men out of trouble? What mechanism is he going to use to ship them there? When the British Government sends its men overseas, it has an enormous—you as a former Armed Forces Minister know this—backup, an enormous logistical machine behind it, servicing it with all its requirements. I cannot believe that Colonel Spicer's 100-man force is going to have anything like the wherewithal to deal with serious trouble when it arises. My principal concern is that by going in and regulating, you are somehow giving sanction to, authorisation to, recognition of, the actions which are going to be carried out subsequent to granting of a licence.

  48. I understand your concerns about regulation, but may I bring you back to my question? You said "The real challenge is to winkle out companies like Sandline". What I want to ask is how you propose the Government empowers itself to winkle out companies like Sandline as you have proposed?
  (Mr Bilton) There is a thing called the Export Arms Control Act in the United States. This is used largely to govern the private military companies within the United States and their activities in terms of exporting weapons. Colonel Spicer's company, when it was involved with Papua New Guinea, shipped its weapons from a company in Belarus to Papua New Guinea via Bulgaria. As far as I can tell, there is no means of regulating the shipment of $7 million worth of weapons from a third country to a third country providing they do not pass through British hands. One of the things we do actually need to do is tighten up the mechanisms by which companies are able to deal in weapons going from countries outside the UK. If the company operates from inside Britain, then I believe we ought to have at least some control over it, but it could be done through something like an Export Arms Control Act. That might help you a long way with regulating what is actually being done.

  Sir John Stanley: That is arms brokering, which I can assure you is a matter for close attention by this Committee.

Mr Chidgey

  49. You touched a moment ago in your opening remarks on accountability. You talked a great deal about the lack of logistical backup for private military companies. To some extent of course that is their problem because they are operating privately. The important issue I should like to test out with you is this whole question of accountability and recognising that private military companies clearly do not work under the sanctions of the Geneva Convention for warfare, yet clearly their personnel are being put into situations where they are faced as individuals with exactly the same pressures and threats to their lives as regular armed forces members would be. I am particularly interested to hear from you whether you believe it is in any way feasible to operate a system of regulation and sanctions on the activities of individuals who find themselves in a combative role, where their own personal preservation is probably their first priority, whether or not it is possible to have an audit trail on the activities of such personnel and whether there is a feasible means of regulating those activities through the sanctions of something like the Geneva Convention and bringing to account anyone who transgresses against them? Do you believe the commercial pressures are sufficient, as has been argued?
  (Mr Bilton) The short answer is no, I do not. One is entitled to go back in time and look at cases. My article in The Sunday Times Magazine about Papua New Guinea was in essence a case study of how a particular contract was arrived at and what happened under the terms of that contract. In the operational plan which Colonel Spicer drew up, it made specific mention that there were to be no human rights abuses. That was very clear. In the transcripts of evidence presented to the second commission of inquiry in Papua New Guinea, the head of the special forces unit for Papua New Guinea, which was being trained by Colonel Spicer's South African forces, gave evidence of something which troubled him and his men. The South African officers in charge of the South African forces who had been air lifted into Papua New Guinea had decided to hire in, obtain the help of, ten Bougainvilleans to act as guides through the jungle terrain of Bougainville, which incidentally cost the Japanese 30,000 lives against the Australians during the Second World War. At some point in his evidence the officer said that the disquiet of his men was at having these guides in close proximity to Papua New Guinea special forces soldiers; it troubled them because of the security aspects involved. The words used by a non-commissioned officer from the South African forces were, "Don't worry, we'll get rid of them afterwards". This was taken to mean that these guides would be liquidated afterwards. The word got back to Papua New Guinea later on and I know it was offered in evidence that this was one of the reasons why General Singirok, the Commander of the Army had pulled the plug on the operation; one of the reasons, there are many other reasons. They were worried about the things which were going to be done in their name to people who were essentially citizens of Papua New Guinea. Colonel Spicer being an honourable man—and I state that again—could in no way have wanted anything done like this. However, several hundreds of miles away in the jungles of Bougainville something dreadful could have been done. Who was going to be held responsible for this? Who was going to report back and say to him that they had to despatch these people?

  50. You have given a very graphic example but may I summarise what I think you are saying and ask you to agree or not, as the case may be? I think you are saying very strongly that it is frankly impossible for a private military company to exercise the same degree of regulation and control over fighting personnel in remote locations which are applicable under the Armed Forces Act in this country.
  (Mr Bilton) I find it very hard to believe that soldiers who are not receiving regular training, regular indoctrination, regular assessments of why the country is sending them into a particular location, who are not getting letters from home, who are not receiving decent food and all the things which go with serving—

  51. Or threat of sanctions through the system.
  (Mr Bilton) These are things which lead to terrible events being perpetrated in military conflicts and I cannot see how those men could have been brought to account. Frankly I cannot see the same levels of accountability that we have with our own soldiers, who are after all licensed; they are licensed because they take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, that is their licence.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  52. It seems to me that there are only two logical conclusions to your position: either that you have tight regulation to bring these people as close as possible to regular members of the armed forces, or you get rid of private military companies. There is no other logical conclusion to your arguments.
  (Mr Bilton) You are right, there is not.

  53. Which do you opt for?
  (Mr Bilton) I do not believe in getting rid of public military companies, I think there is a perfectly desirable—

  54. You believe in getting rid of Colonel Spicer's company.
  (Mr Bilton) Hang on a second; I do not want to personalise this around Col Spicer, I wrote about Sandline and its activities, based on a very full record of what happened in a small country on the other side of the world.

  55. But you have been. It does seem to me, from what you have been saying, that you have been doing a sort of Mark Anthony, "So are they all, all honourable men".
  (Mr Bilton) I have not come to praise him.

  56. We know it as well as each other, I am sure. The fact is you have, although trying all the time to say that Colonel Spicer is an honourable man, "So are they all, all honourable men", you have been damning his company, Sandline. You have done this on the basis of one operation some years ago. I should like you to tell this Committee whether you believe that company still deserves the sort of strictures that you directed at it in your article in The Sunday Times or whether it does not, and if it does why? What has it done since then to compound its felonies and make you even more convinced that it should be sidelined?
  (Mr Bilton) I have no idea at all what Sandline has done since its operation in Sierra Leone, no idea at all. I do not think you have either, Sir Patrick.

  57. It is your self-appointed job to, is it not?
  (Mr Bilton) Self-appointed, yes, without any authority to demand information. The way one gathers evidence for journalistic purposes is by going and talking to people and examining the record, such as exists. I have to tell you that to try and unearth some of the details about what happened in Papua New Guinea and the companies behind Sandline International required a great deal of hard work. Thank goodness for the internet, the fact that the transcripts of evidence for the first commission of inquiry in Papua New Guinea were put onto the internet. Thank goodness for personal computers and the fact that I was able to obtain the transcripts of the second commission of inquiry, all 77 days of it, and was able to read every single page of that; it ran to about 7,000 pages. Do I have any evidence that Sandline International have done anything terrible since 1998? No. But we have not heard anything about any private military company since 1998.

  58. I find your evidence riddled with inconsistencies and ambivalences. You came and you said at the beginning that you did not really want regulation, though you admitted to a certain mental confusion. You then went on to say that although you did not want regulation, you did want to get rid of companies like Sandline. It seems to me you are basing everything upon one situation which you investigated, very thoroughly, and wrote about very graphically some years ago. Then you say in answer to my first question that the logical outcome of your position is either that you have tight regulation or you have abolition. You admit those are the logical outcomes but you cannot decide which.
  (Mr Bilton) I did not actually say abolition. I am not an abolitionist. You actually offered the two. I am not an abolitionist and I am not a tight regulationist. What I think is that "the thing wasn't broke until Sandline broke it".

  59. Are you going to share anything else with this Committee about your fears? After all, you are operating this morning under parliamentary privilege, so what else can you tell us to convince us that we do not need regulation, but we certainly do not want Sandline, that "the system isn't broke" yet you have this terrible, terrible example which you have written about? I just find your position wholly, wholly inconsistent.
  (Mr Bilton) May I ask you a question, Sir Patrick?

5   See Evidence, pp Ev 13 to Ev 15. Back

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