Laws of WarSee also: Laws of war, Privateer, Letter of marque, and Private military company
The Protocol Additional GC 1977 (APGC77) provides the most widely accepted international definition of a mercenary, though not endorsed by some countries, including the United States. The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 states:
- 1. A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war.
- 2. A mercenary is any person who:
- (a) is especially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict;
- (b) does, in fact, take a direct part in the hostilities;
- (c) is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
- (d) is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
- (e) is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
- (f) has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.
All the criteria (a – f) must be met, according to the Geneva Convention, for a combatant to be described as a mercenary.
According to the GC III, a captured soldier must be treated as a lawful combatant and, therefore, as a protected person with prisoner-of-war status until facing a competent tribunal (GC III Art 5). That tribunal, using criteria in APGC77 or some equivalent domestic law, may decide that the soldier is a mercenary. At that juncture, the mercenary soldier becomes an unlawful combatant but still must be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial", being still covered by GC IV Art 5. The only possible exception to GC IV Art 5 is when he is a national of the authority imprisoning him, in which case he would not be a mercenary soldier as defined in APGC77 Art 47.d.
If, after a regular trial, a captured soldier is found to be a mercenary, then he can expect treatment as a common criminal and may face execution. As mercenary soldiers may not qualify as PoWs, they cannot expect repatriation at war's end. The best known post-World War II example of this was on 28 June 1976 when, at the end of the Luanda Trial', an Angolan court sentenced three Britons and an American to death and nine other mercenaries to prison terms ranging from 16 to 30 years. The four mercenaries sentenced to death were shot by a firing squad on 10 July 1976.
The legal status of civilian contractors depends upon the nature of their work and their nationalities with respect to that of the combatants. If they have not "in fact, taken a direct part in the hostilities" (APGC77 Art 47.b), they are not mercenaries but civilians who have non-combat support roles and are entitled to protection under the Third Geneva Convention (GCIII 4.1.4).
On 4 December 1989, the United Nations passed resolution 44/34, the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. It entered into force on 20 October 2001 and is usually known as the UN Mercenary Convention. Article 1 contains the definition of a mercenary. Article 1.1 is similar to Article 47 of Protocol I, however Article 1.2 broadens the definition to include a non-national recruited to overthrow a "Government or otherwise undermining the constitutional order of a State; or Undermin the territorial integrity of a State;" and "Is motivated to take part therein essentially by the desire for significant private gain and is prompted by the promise or payment of material compensation..." – under Article 1.2 a person does not have to take a direct part in the hostilities in a planned coup d'état to be a mercenary.
Critics have argued that the convention and APGC77 Art. 47 are designed to cover the activities of mercenaries in post-colonial Africa and do not address adequately the use of private military companies (PMCs) by sovereign states.
The situation during the Iraq War and the continuing occupation of Iraq after the United Nations Security Council-sanctioned hand-over of power to the Iraqi government shows the difficulty of defining a mercenary soldier. While the United States governed Iraq, no U.S. citizen working as an armed guard could be classified as a mercenary because he was a national of a Party to the conflict (APGC77 Art 47.d). With the hand-over of power to the Iraqi government, if one does not consider the coalition forces to be continuing parties to the conflict in Iraq, but that their soldiers are sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces (APGC77 Art 47.f), then, unless U.S. citizens working as armed guards are lawfully certified residents of Iraq, i.e., a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict (APGC77 Art 47.d), and they are involved with a fire-fight in the continuing conflict, they are mercenary soldiers. However, those who acknowledge the United States and other coalition forces as continuing parties to the conflict might insist that U.S. armed guards cannot be called mercenaries (APGC77 Art 47.d).
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