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Private military and security companies: Speech on behalf of High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP plenary

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Speech delivered by Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, on the human rights violations by private military and security companies, particularly the Wagner Group

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Thank you President, Honourable Members,

The use of private military and security companies has become common in conflict-affected situations.

On the one hand, this practice can be legitimate in certain circumstances, and as long as all applicable bodies of law are fully respected and incorporated in their activities. In particular, these companies must operate under precise contractual obligations, control and oversight, and with safeguards in place to prevent excessive use of force. The contracting state, the state where the company is operating and the state where the company is registered all have obligations to ensure that laws are respected, including international humanitarian and human rights law.

On the other hand, the European Union has become increasingly alarmed by the activities of the Wagner Group, which reportedly has close links to Russia, and is allegedly present in 23 African countries. Their legal status is vague, as well as their modus operandi, objectives and targets. Obviously, it is very difficult to prevent and ensure accountability for potential human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the context of such ambiguity.

The current situation in the Central African Republic is an illustration of this complex reality of blurred lines and diffused responsibilities.

According to the latest United Nations Human Rights report on the Central African Republic issued on 4th August 2021, ‘Russian instructors’ and the employees of private security companies are specifically mentioned as involved in combat activities and at the origin of many human rights and humanitarian law violations. The Special National Commission of Inquiry also acknowledged in October 2021 that some violations are attributed to ‘Russian instructors’.

In light of the possible engagement of the Wagner Group in Mali, which is unacceptable from the European Union’s perspective, the European Union has decided in its latest Foreign Affairs Council meeting to start working on restrictive measures to sanction this group. It is important to ensure legal clarity, well defined rules of engagement and full transparency on the use of private military and security companies. International law sets clear obligations for states to protect, respect and fulfil human rights. However, the Wagner Group’s current modus operandi clearly demonstrates that there is no intention to operate within the existing legal framework.

I thank you.

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