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Liberia: Northbridge Services Group Under Investigation

by Bruce ZagarisInternational Enforcement Law Reporter
October 1st, 2003

On August 7, 2003, The Financial Times reported the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the role of the Northbridge Services Group, an Anglo-American private military company (PMC), about its role in the Liberia civil strife on behalf of the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), especially a plan to arrest former Liberian President Charles Taylor and take him to the Sierra Leone Ad Hoc Tribunal to answer charges. The investigation raises many cases generally about the role of PMCs in the law of war and related areas.

Both the FBI and UK Customs have investigated whether it had violated UN arms embargoes. The apparently overlapping investigations indicate U.S. and U.K. authorities are concerned about the involvement of PMCs and western mercenaries in Africa's conflicts.

Earlier this year the British Government publicly chastised Northbridge after reports it was hiring several hundred fighters for the Ivory Coast Government. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the deployment by Northbridge would undermine the peace process in Ivory Coast.

According to a media report for several months Northbridge had tried to obtain funding from the Sierra Leone Ad Hoc Tribunal to fund the planned operation to arrest Mr. Taylor. Apparently the Tribunal said it was open to the Northbridge operation, but did not have funds. It is said to have privately suggested the U.S. Government might pay for the operation to arrest Taylor.

Northbridge and Lurd reportedly had also discussed having Northbridge deploy up to 2,000 men to "enforce" peace in Liberia ahead of the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force. Some of the discussions with Northbridge occurred with T.Q. Harris, the Lurd's California-based negotiator and a former Liberian presidential candidate. Mr. Harris said his opposition group had raised funds to hire Northbridge, but stopped because of the deployment of Nigerian peacekeeping troops.

The FBI has questioned Northbridge's U.K. principal Andrew Williams at the U.S. Embassy in London. The FBI investigation apparently has divided Northbridge, which is composed of former U.S. and U.K, soldiers who apparently have disagreed about the roles of Northbridge.

Northbridge is one of the largest PMCs and has staffing from organizations such as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. and British special forces.

The U.K. has expressed concern surrounding mercenaries subsequent to a 1997 scandal in which the U.K. Government was accused of using Sandline International, a British company, to circumvent U.N. arms embargoes. The U.K. Customs uncovered Sandline's operations. The U.N. and national governments have been sensitive about using PMCs proactively due to fear they may not be able to control the outcome. For instance, in 1997 the British Government was embarassed when it was revealed that Sandline International was delivering weapons to Sierra Leone in apparent contravention of a U.N. arms embargo. Although initially denying knowledge, the British Foreign Office was shown to have been aware of the transactions.

An issue with respect to the use by governments of PMCs in conducting war-like operations is the lack of proper oversight in key areas. For instance, according to a General Accounting Office report in 1998 the Pentagon realized it lacked central oversight of contracts for emergency essential services and no legal basis to compel contractors to perform. It also had no means to enforce contract terms. Other issues are to whom do contractors report to in combat? To whom do they turn to ask questions about sensitive legal issues surrounding the law of war? Who is liable if they are killed or injured? What rights do they have if their personnel are captured by enemy forces? What legal liability do contractors have if they kill or injure civilians, internationally or by accident? Some of the latter issues were raised on April 20, 2001, when a Peruvian fight working with a U.S. PMC shot down a plane carrying a group of U.S. missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her baby daughter, Charity.

Since the incident involving Sandline in Sierra Leone and another involving Sandline in Papua New Guinea, the U.K. Government has tried to stop any British PMCs from involvement in a foreign conflict. However, the U.K. Government, like most governments, has no formal regulatory regime for PMCs.

South Africa has become proactive in regulating PMSs and mercenaries, forbidding its nationals from fighting in a foreign war without government approval. South Africa successfully convicted a person in August after he was caught hiring mercenaries for Ivory Coast.

In the US the 1968 Arms Export Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations reg ulate PMCs in both arms dealing and the export of military services. U.S. companies manufacturing defense articles in the U.S., exporting defense articles, furnishing defense services (e.g., training), or engaged in brokering activities military advice or training must first register and obtain a license from the State Department.

The U.S. is employing PMCs, such as DynCorp, a company based in Virginia, to guard leaders of the Afghan Government against assassination attempts. Their home in Afghanistan is Camp Aegis, an imposing compound next to the central bank in the center of Kabul. Most of the DynCorp personnel in Camp Aegis are former military personnel, including U.S. Special Forces and Delta Force troops who have served in other problem areas, such as Somalia and Haiti.

In Colombia DynCorp operates a fleet of OV-10 "Bronco" jets leased from the U.S. Government. In Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, companies such as Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton, perform a vast range of services that were once carried out by military personnel. For instance, KBR has obtain a huge contract from the U.S. Government known as Logcap. The open-ended contract calls for Halliburton to perform various logistics services for the Pentagon, from base construction and laundry services to airfield maintenance.

An important area for PMCs is the compliance and enforcement regime operated by the Office of Defense Trade Controls DTC) at State Department. The Compliance and Enforcement Branch (CEB) handles making a voluntary disclosure and resolving compliance issues. The DTC maintains a watch list, which is intended to identify individuals, companies, agencies, groups and others whose association with a registration or export license application, or other request for approval by DTC, may warrant closer examination. The bulk of the caseload at DTC, related to ITAR violations, comes from voluntary dislcosures.

Indeed the increasing use of PMCs pose many international law issues that companies, national governments, international organizations, and national and international courts will have to


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