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Interactive Dialogue, 39th session Human Rights Council

Statement by Mr. Saeed Mokbil
Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the right of peoples to self-determination
Geneva, 12 September 2018

Mr. President,
Ladies and Gentleman,

I am honoured to address the Human Rights Council today as the Chairperson- Rapporteur of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the right of peoples to self-determination.
In the past few months, we have had four Members of the Working Group finishing their tenure on this mandate. I have the privilege of now working with four new Members who joined the mandate in May and August respectively. We look forward to undertaking the important work given to us by this Council.

Mr. President,

As you are aware, the mandate of our Working Group is two-fold: monitoring and studying the effects of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities as well as the impact of the activities of private military and security companies (PMSCs) on the enjoyment of human rights, particularly the right of people to self-determination.

In the past year, we have benefitted from valuable engagements with various stakeholders. Members of the Working Group were invited to participate in the Montreux Document Forum Regional Meeting in Costa Rica in February, and in the fourth plenary meeting of the Montreux Document Forum in June, here in Geneva. The former Chairperson of the Working Group also participated for the first time, in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, to discuss the human rights impact of PMSCs in the context of the extractive industries.

During our regular sessions in Geneva and New York, we consulted and met with Member States, civil society organizations and other stakeholders including the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers’ Association (ICoCA). I thank all of those who met with us and contributed to the work we do. 

The Working Group also undertook official visits to Austria, Chad and Ghana. I reiterate my appreciation to these Governments for the excellent co-operation given to us. I will present the findings on our visit to Ghana. The reports to Austria and Chad will be presented to this Council next year.

Mr. President,

In the past few years, we have closely studied the link between mercenarism and the phenomenon of foreign fighters. We have organized several consultations and conducted official visits on this subject.

Based on some of our findings, we devoted our report to this session on the recruitment and use of children by non-state armed groups, which include mercenaries, foreign fighters and PMSCs. We are grateful for the important work carried out by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, which some of our research benefitted from.

Mr. President,

Around the world, thousands of children are associated with non-state armed groups, including mercenaries and foreign fighters. The recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is one of the six grave violations identified and condemned by the United Nations Security Council. In some of the ongoing armed conflicts today, these children have been forcibly recruited as child soldiers and have been subjected to some of the worst form of human rights abuses. We know, not only from our research, but also from world events today, that children continue to be targets and victims of recruitment by non-State armed groups. As such, this is an issue that requires our collective action.

The recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts by non-state armed groups is itself a grave violation of international law. Child victims who have been forced or lured into armed groups suffer a broad range of human rights abuses, including on their right to life, right not to be subjected to torture or sexual abuse; right to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing hazardous work, right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, right to education, and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Once recruited, children are often forced to carry out different tasks. They are forced to serve as combatants, servants, messengers and are subjected to atrocious practices such as sexual slavery. Some are abducted and trafficked. Some of them serve as porters, cooks or domestic workers; some are ordered to loot or steal; are forced to beat and kill civilians while some are sent to fight on the front lines, even to conduct suicide missions. Even more disturbing is that some of these children are born into these armed groups.

Some armed groups force child soldiers to commit cruelties and atrocities against their own family or community members. This is to ensure these children would have no family to escape to and that they would be stigmatized and not accepted by their communities.

Motivational factors

The Working Group assessed the motivational factors associated with this phenomenon. Our interest primarily relates to factors associated with financial/monetary or material gain – similar to what drives “traditional” mercenaries. We have found, however, that there is a diverse range of motivational factors behind children who become associated with non-state armed groups, including foreign fighters and mercenaries.  

While the majority of situations include forcible recruitment, other factors include socioeconomic conditions, including poverty and hunger, other forms of deprivation of resources and opportunities, and physical and financial insecurity.

Some children living in conflict-affected areas become associated with armed groups, in order to reunite with their family members or due to a lack of alternatives, especially when armed groups hold physical and economical control of the community. However, those travelling from abroad, such as in the conflict in Syria, seem to be less motivated by financial incentives, as some actually lose money by the fact that they need to be smuggled in the country.

Some of these children were motivated instead by ideological reasons or internal feelings, such as revenge, a sense of purpose or the need of a sense of belonging. It is however important to note that from a psychological and sociological point of view and level of development as a child, their choice cannot be considered voluntary, as they have only limited access to information concerning the consequences of their choice and are often the subject of “brain washing”.

For non-state armed groups, recruiting children often has a comparative advantage over adults, as they are easily intimidated, they are less costly in terms of equipment, but also in wages being paid to them.

The Working Group noted with concern that some children who had been forcibly recruited later became active members of the armed group which initially abducted them.

The Working Group also paid specific attention to the gender dimension and notes that boys and girls serve different tasks in armed groups. The majority of girls are recruited for sexual purposes. Girls abducted by armed groups are almost universally raped. For groups with state-like ambitions, marrying off girls and women helps ensure a future generation of supporters and bolsters the nation-building project. In other instances, women and girls are used to attract the recruitment of boys and men. They are also used to participate in combat or carry out suicide missions. As a result of sexual violence, many girls experience forced pregnancy and give birth without any assistance and care. Girls and women returning to their communities are especially stigmatized and face issues in reintegrating into their communities, particularly if they are pregnant or have children with members of the armed groups.

Recruitment of former child soldiers by PMSCs

The Working Group was also informed, that sometimes private military and security companies were involved in the recruitment of children to take part in active combat or in order to guard military facilities of a state party to the conflict. Due to a lack of effective oversight and vetting processes in these sort-of companies, it is very difficult to know the exact number of former child soldiers recruited in this context. We have found however, that often, the motivations of former child soldiers to engage with PMSCs, is a result of failure to reintegrate into society and these individuals are often considered to be cheap labour and to have experience in armed conflict in general.

Among various issues related to former child soldiers and PMSCs, the Working Group stressed that there should be a vetting process by companies to determine individuals who have committed war crimes or human rights violations when they were associated with armed groups, as these individuals would not be suitable for security services. 


In order to assist children in their recovery and reintegration, it is essential to avoid subjecting these individuals to situations where they are at risk of being traumatised. In that regard, the Working Group is concerned about the punitive approach taken by some States towards children associated with armed groups and insists that the “best interest of the child” approach should be the primary approach. Responses to the phenomenon should focus on; the separation, rehabilitation and reintegration of children. A specific focus should be paid to girls to address their social and psychological needs.

Ladies and gentlemen,

International humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law, recognizes children’s rights and the need to protect their dignity. We have a collective responsibility to pursue this aim.  

The Working Group welcomes States’ commitment to protect children in armed conflict, by ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which has been ratified by more than 160 Member States.

It further welcomes the various very important initiatives, including the Paris commitments and principles to protect children from unlawful recruitment or use by armed forces or armed groups, which were developed at the international level. In addition, States should criminalize the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 in armed conflict in national legislation, including with a reference to companies recruiting and using children in hostilities. Those responsible for the recruitment of children, need to be investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned.

The Working Group calls on the co-operation of all stakeholders to continue to support measures, which could contribute to the prevention and protection of children being recruited by non-state armed groups into conflicts.

Country visit to Ghana

Ladies and Gentleman,

My colleagues Patricia Arias and Anton Katz, former Members of our Working Group, visited Ghana from 8 to 15 December 2017 at the invitation of the Government. I reiterate our appreciation to the Government of Ghana for the invitation and co-operation we received.  

Ghana is often called an “oasis of peace” and has remained stable amidst challenges of armed conflicts that have affected some of the countries in the region. It has also been a refuge for many who have escaped wars and instability. However, the Working Group raised concerns about the large number of private security companies in the country.

The private security industry in Ghana involves some 400 legally registered companies with around 450,000 personnel compared to 33,000 members of the police force. Around 1,900 companies are operating illegally in the country, but the real figure is likely higher given the lack of concrete data on this. The Ministry of Interior, the responsible authority over private security companies, has made the positive effort of establishing a unit to focus on the licensing, and registration of these companies and has around 10 regional officers working on this and on tackling the problem of illegal operators.

However, the Working Group observes that oversight of these companies needs to be strengthened and a robust and independent mechanism to oversee the industry and to ensure that operations are in accordance to the law is needed. This will also ensure that necessary trainings are carried out for company personnel, effective vetting processes are in place and that private security operations are better tracked and monitored.

The Working Group also referred to the positive aspects of membership in self-regulatory initiatives such as the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers and Montreux Document Forum. On the national level, positive initiatives including the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and the establishment of the Association of Private Security Organizations in Ghana were also commended.

Other issues of concerns that the Working Group addressed, included the need to counter the proliferation of illegal weapons and arms in the country. Concerns about “galamsey” or illegal mining which often engaged foreigners, were also raised, as well as the spread of vigilante groups, which often perpetuated violence particularly during election periods. The Working Group calls on the Government address these issues in the interest of ensuring ongoing stability for the country.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank you for the attention given to my presentation and I look forward to a constructive discussion on the issues that I have raised.

Thank you.