Move to muzzle SA dogs of war
Parliament passed the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in a Country of Armed Conflict Bill on Tuesday, effectively ending South African involvement in mercenary activities across the globe.
But opposition parties and some non-governmental organisations believe the proposed law could do more harm than good.
In a vehement defence of the proposed legislation, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said the bill was necessary to protect the rest of the world from the scourge of South African “military men for hire”, who he said had been used to destabilise governments both in the continent and abroad.
“These are killers for hire. They rent out their skills to the highest bidder, regardless of the political agenda,” Lekota told the House.
He said mercenaries had been manipulated by rich paymasters with political agendas across the continent, and had been directly involved in conflicts all over Africa “subverting democracy and good governance in general”.
Parliamentary Defence committee chairperson Thandi Tobias stressed that the bill was essential in order to regulate the operations of trained military personnel.
“There needs to be control over the movement of South African citizens, especially these with special skills, because they are killing machines. They can be ordered to kill,” she said.
Inkatha Freedom Party MP Velaphi Ndlovu backed the ANC led bill, saying it was unacceptable that South African mercenaries “are creating havoc around the world, destabilizing legitimate regimes, propping up illegitimate others and generally playing a destructive role in world affairs”.
“That is why we undoubtedly need anti-mercenary legislation,” Ndlovu said.
Observers note that part of the motivation for the new bill has been concerns by Pretoria that South African citizens operating in foreign militaries could be involved in wars contravening the country’s foreign policy objectives and international laws in the process.
They argue government is primed to the threat of potential damage to South Africa’s emerging reputation as an international peacekeeper.
Lekota said the government was also worried by the possibility of the South African army coming against foreign forces containing South African citizens, a possibility that “is not as remote as it might seem”.
However criticism of the proposed anti-mercenary law has come thick and fast, with opposition Democratic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus opposing it.
The DA said while it supported the ban on mercenary activities, it believed more consideration should be given to the bill before it was passed.
DA MP Roy Jankelsohn said the bill was likely to have a ripple effect on the operations of humanitarian organizations and security companies delivering services and assistance abroad.
He said the law was also likely to have an adverse effect on individuals enlisted in foreign armies, as there was no clear distinction regarding whether or not they were “mercenaries”.
“The extent to which the bill affects individuals who are not mercenaries make the legislation principally and perhaps even constitutionally flawed.
“Individuals rendering security services or working in foreign defence forces just want to do what they cannot do in South Africa, namely support themselves and their families,” Jankielsohn told Sapa last week.
While still in its first reading, British High Commissioner to South Africa Paul Boateng appealed to lawmakers to amend some of the provisions of the bill, which he said were likely to affect an estimated 800 South African ex-soldiers who have joined the British military – some for more than 10 years.
An estimated 2 000 South Africans, most of whom were trained as soldiers in the apartheid army, are currently believed to be working in various security companies in Iraq.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has estimated that at least 4 000 South Africans are employed in conflict areas around the world, though the figure could be higher.
The DA’s worries have been vindicated by South Africa’s most recent gaffe involving 19 South African security specialists who were arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo on allegations of engaging in mercenary activities aimed at destabilizing the country ahead of last month’s general elections.
The men, who were employed by private security firm Omega Security, said they were providing security to presidential candidate Oscar Kashala, and were later released without charge.
Human Rights advocacy group Amnesty International has also argued that a ban on South African mercenary involvement in foreign wars could have negative effects.
Arguing for the cancellation of the new law, the group said South African trained military personnel were highly valued on the global scene.
“South Africans bring crucial skills and capabilities, the knowledge of how best to mitigate human suffering in conflict and post-conflict environments … making them invaluable components in successful international peace and stability operations,” the group said in its submission on the bill.
While no action has yet been taken, private military and security companies and are expected to voice their concerns over the bill, which could put many of them out of business if passed into law.
However the government has seemed unconcerned by the potential threat to the security firms, with Lekota saying the firms needed to be regulated as some of them were engaged in humanitarian abuses and military coups.
“These firms, falling as they do outside (of government), are not regulated by international law. Nor are they accountable to international bodies.
“Thus, regulation at national level offers the hope of both superior legal definition and enforcement,” he said.
Apart from increased mercenary activity across Africa , the drafting of the bill is understood to have been prompted by the arrest of alleged South African mercenaries in Zimbabwe in 2004.
The mercenaries were reportedly on their way to participate in a military coup of Equatorial Guinea.