Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. No, you are only allowed to answer questions.
  (Mr Bilton) Let us look at cases. What we are entitled to do is go back and look at cases. It is all very well for people to sit here before you and say "I believe this and I believe that and I behave this way", but we have certain evidence which we can look at and examine. That evidence came out in the commissions of inquiry in Papua New Guinea. My judgement was that this was an appalling state of affairs. I found it very disquieting. Not only did I find it disquieting, but the Government of Australia found it disquieting and the Government of the Solomon Islands found it disquieting and the Government of New Zealand found it disquieting. One is entitled to draw certain conclusions based on evidence which is before you. One is allowed to test the probity of what people actually say. I think that is not an unreasonable thing to do. When I talk about getting rid of Sandline, what I am talking about is companies who are prepared to hire in mercenaries, men who will fight for anybody for money, go overseas to a country and commit mayhem in a country they have no allegiance to, solely because they are being paid to do it. That is my definition of mercenary activity. It is one which is frowned on by many civilised countries in the world and I believe that "mercenaryism" is not something which we should sanction by licence.

  61. How do you reconcile that position with your statement that you have no desire to get rid of these companies, which you believe it is impracticable or silly to try to regulate?
  (Mr Bilton) You are the legislators and in a sense I am passing the buck to you. I raise an issue; I raise something and I present some evidence which concerns me. I hand it to you. You are the legislator. Of course it is incumbent on you to look at the evidence for an argument and against an argument. Is it possible that we can carry on as we have been doing but actually prevent mercenaries being hired to work overseas? That could be done through some kind of Arms Export Control Act.

Mr Hamilton

  62. Switzerland, for example, has a penal code which prohibits Swiss nationals from joining a force which is designed to fight abroad; the sole exception of course is the Vatican Swiss Guard. Seventeen persons have been sentenced in the last six years for having served in foreign armed forces. Surely that is the answer, is it not? If these people are mercenaries and we ban the activity altogether, we can have legislation which would allow prosecution of mercenaries if they are British and that would stop the whole thing completely. What do you think of that?
  (Mr Bilton) I think it is very difficult to define the term "mercenary" and that is what placed me in a very difficult position when answering Sir Patrick. There has been no international definition of what a mercenary is and how they act. One of the problems facing this Government in trying to legislate is going to be how to come up with a definition and whether to have something which fits in with European law. Are we going to have a law which all of our European partners can agree on in terms of the recruitment of personnel from overseas to go and fight in a foreign land for money? I do not know quite why people are having problems with the idea that somehow "mercenaryism" is morally repugnant. It is morally repugnant and I do not think we should beat about the bush here.

  63. Yes, and that is why Belgium and Greece make it illegal as well. They are two European Union countries and they prosecute.
  (Mr Bilton) Sometimes this country sends its own personnel abroad to help other countries; sometimes that is done covertly and sometimes it is done overtly, but it is always done in the interests of the British Government as an extension of its foreign policy. I think that is legitimate. I really do not want to do anything which would constrain our Government from doing things which are in the interests of British foreign policy.

  64. Surely it is very clear that what is suggested in the Green Paper is that those citizens of a particular country—and it analyses a number of countries—who take money to fight abroad and are not part of the armed forces of that country are liable to prosecution.
  (Mr Bilton) This is why I struggle. We had the Special Air Service Regiment serving in Borneo, in Malaya, in Dhofar, in Oman. Are we saying that they are mercenaries? Absolutely not.

  65. Absolutely not and you point that out very clearly in paragraph 11 of your submission. What I am trying to get at here is that it would be quite easy to say, "no mercenaries can be British". I would have thought it would be fairly straight forward. If all these countries in Europe can do it, why can we not?
  (Mr Bilton) It is very difficult because of the problem of defining who mercenaries are. It is extremely difficult. If it had been easy, we would have done it before now.

  66. We have not done it and we are suggesting exactly the opposite in the Green Paper, are we not? We are suggesting a licensing regime. May I go back to something Colonel Spicer said? He said in his examination by this Committee that in fact much of the work which his company does and other companies do is not related to actual conflict or armed soldiers fighting. It is a lot to do with training, advising and setting up systems. What is the problem with that?
  (Mr Bilton) I have no problem with that.

  67. Your concern is really with the conflict element which he states is a very small part of the role of private military companies.
  (Mr Bilton) What worries me is what happens when it goes wrong. I posed the question earlier. Here are Colonel Spicer's 100 men overseas getting into difficulty. The question is: whose responsibility are they? Are they Colonel Spicer's responsibility or are they British nationals in difficulty overseas? If they were there protecting oil wells and got into difficulty, we might well accept some responsibility for them. If we have licensed them to go over and they get into difficulty, whose responsibility are they? Are they Colonel Spicer's problem or do they become the British Government's problem.

  68. One has to assume that the legislation would take account of that.
  (Mr Bilton) It is going to be a mighty long piece of legislation, is it not, if you are going to do this? I cannot see how you can enforce it, how you can make these companies accountable. I do not see that you can actually make it work.

  69. You did a great deal of investigation into Sandline itself.
  (Mr Bilton) Only one aspect of it, its activities in Papua New Guinea.

  70. Would you not agree that has coloured your view about private military companies?
  (Mr Bilton) It showed what can go wrong. There is also this question of the overlap of the interests between the people who are doing the military operation and the financial backers behind them who have interests in exploiting mineral wealth in third world countries. In the case of Executive Outcomes and in the case of Sandline, there is this overlap, this symbiotic relationship which does trouble me. At which point does the work of the military company cease and the work of the people interested in exploiting mineral resources begin?

  71. Colonel Spicer was very clear about that. He said he had absolutely no interest in economic exploitation at all.
  (Mr Bilton) That is not borne out by the facts.

  72. May I come back to the question posed in paragraph 12? You did not answer the question Sir John Stanley put to you. You are saying that companies like Sandline should be winkled out, yet you are saying there should not be a regulatory framework.
  (Mr Bilton) I think you can winkle them out by making it difficult for them to operate by having something like an Arms Export Control Act which prevents them trading third country to third country if that is organised from the UK. Soldiers cannot operate without weapons.

  Andrew Mackinlay: Can we use the internet to try to get this particular Act of Congress and the relevant parts to see whether or not we can look at that? I put in a bid there.

  Sir John Stanley: I am sure the Clerk will give us every assistance.

Andrew Mackinlay

  73. Reading your article, Mr Bilton, and I tried to probe Colonel Spicer about this, one of the things was that it seems to me this labyrinthine relationship of companies which are created and dissolved is something we could address legislatively and indeed need to do so. Your article demonstrates to me that not only does that happen, but there is this relationship which goes from the smoking gun to mineral interests and so on.
  (Mr Bilton) Let us suppose that you did not listen to my strictures and went ahead anyway and decided on legislation. We would all agree that what we have to have is transparency. We would also agree that what we have to have is accountability. Those two things are going to be absolutely crucial. It is clear that Her Majesty's Government were perfectly aware that Papua New Guinea and Sandline were thinking about a contract as early as September of 1996. Things dragged on until the contract was signed, there was public exposure within Papua New Guinea and then, at that point, the High Commissioner for Papua New Guinea is called into the Foreign Office and a démarche is issued. What I am puzzled about is why we could not have had a quiet word with the High Commissioner long before that or even with Colonel Spicer who, not wanting to misrepresent British interests or the interests of the West, may well have said "OK, I hear what you say. I think it's time we knocked this on the head". Why did they wait so long? In terms of transparency, you struggled and Sir Thomas Legg struggled to find out about the ownership of Sandline International. Remember. Cast your mind back to 1998 and the headlines about this whole affair and the breach of the United Nations arms' embargo. It was extremely embarrassing for this country. I do not doubt for one minute that Colonel Spicer was operating with honourable motives, trying to help a beleaguered country. Nevertheless, there was a scandal. When it came to trying to uncover the ownership of Sandline, what you had from him was a memo which referred to various companies, Adson Holdings, companies in Jersey, companies in the Virgin Islands, companies in the Bahamas, companies with bearer shares, companies with nominees. What you did not have were any names, who actually owned the thing, what their interests were other than employing you to go off and do your job. These are very, very crucial matters. When you talked to Colonel Spicer in your Committee, one of the things he was very anxious to do was to draw a distinction between what he did and what his colleague/patron did, Tony Buckingham. I have documents here which I will happily provide to the Committee from 1996 which make it quite clear that there was an overlapping interest between Tony Buckingham's companies, because he talks there about his colleagues from Heritage Oil. In another one there is a memorandum from AB, who we would have to believe is Anthony Buckingham. Its subject is Colonel Bernie McCabe. It says that Bernie McCabe had recently joined Sandline. He had recently retired from the US Army. His background was entirely within Special Forces from the Vietnam era onwards. His most recent appointment was as commanding officer of Special Forces Detachment Delta. His job was Regional Director for the Americas. His task was to develop Sandline business and exploit opportunities for other group companies where appropriate in North, Central and South America. He was also to develop the image/contacts with US Government agencies. He was based in Washington reporting directly to TS—our colleague Colonel Spicer—in London, but ultimately responsible to AB. I do not think there is any doubt that Mr Buckingham was in the driving seat.

Sir John Stanley

  74. We are not going to re-run the Sierra Leone inquiry; the key point is the Green Paper.
  (Mr Bilton) I would say transparency, accountability and the ability of your Committee, if I may say, to ask questions and get to the truth is very important.

Andrew Mackinlay

  75. Would you be kind enough to make that letter available to the Committee?
  (Mr Bilton) Yes, I shall make that available.

  76. Listening to you talking about the interface of 150 people and the scenario where it goes wrong, that was precisely what happened in Sierra Leone was it not? HMS Cornwall had to help the Sandline helicopter. I mention that partly for the record, but it seems to me that we have to consider that these are not watertight compartments. There would probably have to be, even when it is not going disastrously wrong, an interface with United Kingdom armed forces and that raises some issues, does it not?
  (Mr Bilton) It raises the issues I mentioned earlier. At what point is the British Government going to have to step in and rescue one of these companies when something goes badly wrong. Moreover, if there were a major human rights abuse, would any British Government official bear any responsibility, having licensed a particular contract? I do not think you can escape that.

  77. Absolutely. It seems to me that this is going to be a weapon for governments who do not want to get involved. They will have the opportunity for denial if things go wrong politically or militarily and even in terms of human rights. This is one of the great attractions. If we go down the road of allowing governments and international organisations to sanction this, these will be some of the consequences.
  (Mr Bilton) I want to be very careful here. I think that there may be some occasions when deniability is very desirable in terms of British foreign policy. I shall not beat about the bush on that. There are times when the ability of our Government to operate in secret, using our Special Forces, is extremely useful. I would not wish to do anything which would prevent them doing that. What I should just like to say to you is this. You know about this company, Executive Outcomes, which existed across Africa and did much sterling work in Angola. It stabilised a destabilised situation in Angola where the oil fields were concerned. There were tangible links between Executive Outcomes and Heritage Oil and Gas which is owned by Mr Buckingham—looking at the question of transparency and accountability. It may be argued that in some senses, in its operations in 1997-98, Sandline was a sort of British version of Executive Outcomes. Executive Outcomes was reaching the end of its life at that point and its personnel were being made unemployed. An official document was prepared about Executive Outcomes operations in Angola and Sierra Leone. I wonder whether you would allow me to read this out? It is an official government document and it makes some very telling points.

Sir John Stanley

  78. We are rather running out of time and we have a further witness. We should be very happy to have your paper and it will go before the Committee.
  (Mr Bilton) You will allow me to put it in evidence. Thank you very much indeed.

Mr Chidgey

  79. In your responses to Mr Mackinlay you made reference to previous operations and I think I heard you say the SAS were operating in Oman against the Communists in what became Yemen. Is that right?
  (Mr Bilton) Yes.

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