The UK government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Wagner Group network
By Sara Dill
Sara Elizabeth Dill provides her views on the inquiry into private military security companies and the government’s response to the report
In recent decades, private military security companies (PMSCs) have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism due to their transnational reach and allegations of human rights violations, corruption, and violence against civilians, yet rarely has the focus been on the positive or necessary role PMSCs often play. This debate intensified following the commencement of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia, as the role of the Wagner Group in conflicts around the world came into the spotlight, leading to an inquiry by the UK government. On 30 October 2023, the Foreign Affairs Committee published the government’s response to the Committee Report 'Guns for gold: the Wagner Network exposed'.
A quote from the press release accompanying the release of the government response demonstrates the problematic premise from which this inquiry proceeds: ‘Private Military Companies are a clear threat to global security and the rules-based international order’, building off findings of human rights abuses, the destabilising role Wagner is deemed to play, the perceived benefit to autocracies and the amplification of corruption through the use of PMSCs, and the importance of terrorist proscription of groups and sanctions against key individuals and entities.
Despite negative media reports and a few isolated cases, PMSCs serve an important role and fill gaps where military or civilian agencies are unable to act or are under-resourced. Missions are multi-faceted, from security, to rebuilding and development. They may engage in the training of domestic military, police, lawyers, or judges, or other operations without engaging in the politically challenged nature of an invasion by foreign military forces, in compliance with the principle of non-intervention. Contractors can assist with humanitarian relief in violent or high-risk settings, but can also foster or engage in dialogues, negotiations, or relationship building when government actors cannot directly do so. Private security companies do provide valuable services when state armed forces are unable to deploy, either in assisting in the evacuation of Afghans following the Taliban takeover, or more recently in assisting with evacuations of those in Gaza.
The UK government created an authority in 2001 to administer, monitor and enforce private security regulation, and an industry code of conduct exists in the UK under the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC). Notably, the BAPSC specifically states that its objective is to govern the activities of PMSCs operating in other countries.
The United Nations presently has an ongoing effort to draft an instrument on the regulation, monitoring and oversight of PMSCs, and the most recent draft version (March 2023) contains principles that should guide any national efforts. The International Code of Conduct Association (ICOCA) is another important entity (and one specifically noted in the government’s response) with the specific mission to ‘raise private security industry standards and practices that respect human rights and international humanitarian law and to engage with key stakeholders to achieve widespread adherence to the International Code of Conduct globally.’
The government’s response
As to the present inquiry, the parties did agree on a number of factors, including the ‘terrorist’ designation for Wagner (imposed on 15 September 2023), but did not address the broader implications of this proscription on corporate entities or state actors. The areas where the government response diverges (to varying degrees) from the Committee recommendations are in a few key areas.
First, while the Committee recommends sanctioning Wagner individuals and entities, but also enablers and corporate front men, the government seems resistant to broaden sanctions, focusing on aspects of ownership and control and the legal requirements of sanctions regimes. The targeting of so-called enablers has emerged as a common recommendation, despite the broad reach and criminalisation of otherwise legitimate legal or business practices.
Next, the Committee calls for a cooperative mechanism specifically on Wagner sanctions and regular reporting requirements, but the government asserts that coordination between countries already exists for all sanctions. What is missing from this discussion is the need for more coordination and information sharing that includes the private and NGO sectors, but also the use of Global Magnitsky sanctions to target human rights violators.
The government also appears resistant to the calls for special security partnerships and development assistance, noting that solutions to these issues are not solely about the military and security, but require targeting core issues of poverty and inequality, while being cognisant of the present fiscal situation within the UK.
In response to the recommendation to strengthen efforts against all PMSCs to counter threats and the risk of malign use through increased sanctions, strong enforcement, proscription and tackling illicit finance, the government rightfully recognises that not all PMSCs are bad actors, and their use is not always corrupt or malicious.
Finally, in response to the recommendation about the legal framework governing PMSCs and calls for greater accountability, the government notes that it is working with ICOCA, as well as the UN draft framework on PMSCs. Overall, the key tension appears to be between the Committee’s desire to create new laws and entities, whereas the government recognises the existing frameworks and legislation that could be utilised, perhaps with some modifications, to address the issues, while not engaging in overly harsh measures against otherwise law abiding PMSCs.
In tackling this problem, the UK should remain cooperative with the international bodies presently working on PMSCs, and develop domestic frameworks accordingly, considering the most realistic and effective solutions, whether under existing laws or the possibility of new ones. Any action should be focused on the prevention of atrocities, but also be cognisant of the risks or potential consequences to innocent actors.
The government must consider reasonable, practical and effective solutions capable of meaningful enforcement. Often a lack of training or knowledge about international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law results in poor decision making. Corruption may play a role and risks of human trafficking, the use of child soldiers, and other human rights violations. All of these risks, which are common in the corporate environment, are heightened when they occur in high pressure war zones, where split second decisions are made with heightened emotional states, and in the face of death or imminent harm. Most importantly, the message as to behaviour and culture must come from the top down, both in the PMSCs, but also in the armed services of the countries seeking to govern them. As long as nations themselves commit war crimes and human rights abuses with impunity, we cannot feign surprise when it occurs in the private sector.
Sara Elizabeth Dill, Esq., is a partner at Anethum Global