Mercenaries, Mercenarism and Human Rights


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The term ‘mercenary’ comes from the Latin mercenarius (from merces -edis, wages) which means ‘working only for personal gain Mercenaries have not always been seen as they are today, as unprin­cipled lawless adventurers. In the Middle Ages, for example, mercenaries were used by monarchs as a mere commodity to be bought and sold according to the needs of the moment, but they were respec­ted, and if they were captured they were treated as prisoners of war. Their support was even solicited, since their commitment could be decisive in wars of conquest or defence.

With the creation of the United Nations in 1945, mercenaries became something akin to ‘outlaws’, since the UN Charter forbids wars of conquest and one of its missions is to promote friendly relations among States, based on the equal rights of peoples and a people’s right to self-determination (Article 1.2).

However, mercenaries, in the usual sense of the word, have been used extensively since the 1960s to prevent colonised people from achieving independence, and to destabilise newly independent States or legitimate governments whose political views have not suited the international and colonial powers.

Over the last two decades, a new form of mercenary activity has emerged in the form of private milit­ary and security companies (PMSCs) who have taken over military and security functions that were previously the preserve of sovereign states.

The aim of this Report is to analyse the problems posed by mercenarism. We also describe the meas­ures already taken or proposed, in particular within the United Nations, to stamp out this phenomenon which has a detrimental impact on the enjoyment of human rights, particularly on a people’s right to self-determination and sovereignty over natural resources, as well as on the exercise of democracy.


Annex 1 – International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries

Annex 2 – Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa

Annex 3 – Draft Convention on Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC)

Website of the Special Rapporteur on the use of mercenaries

Website of the Working Group of Experts on the use of mercenaries

The Montreux Document

Watch our conference with some experts on this issue (in French)

Categories Critical reports Economic, Social and Cultural Rights PUBLICATIONS Rights of peasants
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