Written evidence submitted by Tamil Information Centre (WGN0010)


This submission reflects the views of the contributor, who is responsible for the accuracy of all claims made in the submission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign Affairs Committee. As a written submission accepted by a parliamentary committee, it is protected in the usual way by parliamentary privilege. No legal or other action may be taken against any person on ay grounds arising from the fact that they have provided such material.



        About the submitter: Dr Rachel Seoighe is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.[1] She is the author of War, Denial and Nation-Building in Sri Lanka: After the End (Palgrave, 2017). Rachel has assisted the Tamil Information Centre (TIC) since 2009. The TIC was established in 1983 and is based in Kingston-upon-Thames. It works to promote human rights in Sri Lanka.


        In 2020, the TIC filed complaints with the UN Working Group on Mercenaries and the Metropolitan Police war crimes unit. Our complaints concerned alleged abuses by a British mercenary company, Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) in Sri Lanka during the 1980s.[2]


        These allegations included:

        KMS pilots flew helicopter gunships on sorties that killed Tamil civilians or attacked civilian targets in Tamil areas. The pilots also transported Sri Lankan government forces to and from attacks on Tamil civilians.

        KMS personnel worked as advisers in Sri Lankan military operation rooms during periods of combat in which large numbers of civilians were killed or injured.

        KMS instructors effectively set up and trained a police commando unit that killed and tortured hundreds of Tamil civilians. The training continued even as evidence of their student’s atrocities mounted, with no discernible improvement in human rights as a result of the instruction.


        The TIC had raised contemporaneous concerns about KMS to no avail. The new allegations were based on evidence published in a book and film about KMS, based on interviews with insiders and declassified British government files.[3]


        Our complaints led the UN group to make representations[4] to the UK Foreign Office and KMS’s successor firm, and for the Met police to launch a war crimes investigation.[5] We believe these are the most significant steps to hold mercenaries accountable in this jurisdiction in recent times.


        Our experience of this issue has made it apparent there are serious weaknesses in the UK system for investigating, prosecuting and sanctioning mercenary activity. Most worryingly, the UK has actually undermined efforts to build a ‘rules-based international order’ against mercenaries that has had unforeseen consequences in attempts to deal with Russia’s Wagner group.


The UK’s approach to mercenaries


  1. In February 1976, ‘Colonel Callan’, a veteran of the British army’s parachute regiment, ordered the execution of 14 mercenaries under his command in Angola. The massacre at Maquela do Zombo prompted Prime Minister Harold Wilson to launch an inquiry into the need for anti-mercenary legislation in the UK.


  1. Wilson instructed Lord Diplock to review whether the only existing law, the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870, was sufficient. Diplock’s Committee of Privy Counsellors on the Recruitment of Mercenaries found the Foreign Enlistment Act was ineffective and recommended it be repealed. He advised that companies which employ mercenaries, pay them or advertise their recruitment should be banned, but only in circumstances where the activities would have an adverse impact on international relations as decided by ministers of the day.


  1. The recommendations were resisted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and not implemented by the end of the Wilson/Callaghan administration. Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington then decided to put the proposal “on ice” for two years upon entering office. This temporary postponement turned out to be far more permanent.[6]


  1. The journalist Phil Miller has researched what happened next.[7] He wrote: When Nigeria launched an initiative at the UN [around 1979] to draw up an international treaty against mercenaries, Britain opted to participate in the UN discussions partly as “a justification for postponing national legislation”. Over the next decade, the FCO privately planned to “go along with the idea of prohibiting recruitment of mercenaries” during UN talks while lobbying hard to ensure Britain’s own use of foreign soldiers was not curtailed.


  1. As early as 1981 British diplomats at the UN were under instruction to “resist any suggestion that a state should prevent the departure of its nationals from its territory on the suspicion that they intended to enlist overseas”. British negotiators were also told to “insist on a definition of ‘mercenary’ which would exclude loan service personnel, contract personnel, Gurkhas, or other cases of legitimate services with the regular armed forces of a foreign state”.


  1. In 1985, British diplomats reviewed their UN negotiating strategy and identified three options. Firstly, to let the drafting committee “ramble on” for longer, which had “the merit of putting off the day when we might be required to think seriously whether or not the UK could go along with a Mercenaries Convention”. The second option was “to try to make more constructive use of next year’s session of the Committee” to find a mutually agreeable treaty. The third proposal was “to look for ways of killing the whole exercise”, such as passing a legally non-binding “declaration” about mercenaries rather than a treaty.


  1. …Negotiations continued into 1986, by which point the activities of British security contractors were beginning to complicate efforts at the UN. Amnesty International was criticising the work of Defence Systems Limited (now part of G4S), which was training Uganda’s security forces. Another British company, KMS, was supplying helicopter gunship pilots for Sri Lanka’s air force. The pilots were implicated in massacres of Tamil civilians, such as in the farming village of Piramanthanaru on 2 October 1985 when 16 unarmed people were killed.[8]


  1. Opinions varied on how to handle firms involved in such operations. Britain’s export controls did not restrict the provision of military training and the Foreign Office noted that ministers could introduce a new law requiring UK companies to obtain a licence to teach military tactics abroad. Such licences could then be revoked if the company offered training “of a kind which we thought incompatible with the national interest,” one diplomat wrote.


  1. Concerns over British mercenaries led a UK government lawyer to repeatedly advise Whitehall that the only power available to ministers to stop KMS was to suspend the passports of its staff, which would prevent mercenaries from being able to leave the UK to work in Sri Lanka. Crucially, this recommendation directly contradicted the instructions given to British diplomats at the UN negotiations, who were under orders to “resist any suggestion that a State should prevent the departure of its nationals from its territory on the suspicion that they intended to enlist overseas”.


  1. Instead, the British government preferred to take the more “informal” approach to dealing with KMS, and the former vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, Sir Anthony Royle (Lord Fanshawe), was repeatedly asked in the mid-1980s to have private words with Colonel Jim Johnson, the head of KMS. The two men were close friends. Johnson had been best man at Fanshawe’s wedding.


  1. This use of the back channels had little impact on KMS helicopter operations in Sri Lanka and in 1987 the Foreign Office reflected that “irreputable [sic] activities by such companies [were] damaging our position on the subject of mercenaries at UN”. By this time, KMS operations in another part of the world were also coming to light. In March 1987, the US Congress heard testimony that KMS director David Walker had worked with Oliver North and the Contras in their bid to overthrow Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government. Walker was specifically implicated in the bombing of a hospital in the capital, Managua, but he has never faced charges in the UK for his work with KMS.


  1. By the end of 1989 the UN group had finalised a draft treaty against mercenaries that one British official described as an “acceptable text” for Western countries to sign. Sir Crispin Tickell, the most senior UK diplomat in New York, wrote to foreign minister Tim Sainsbury MP recommending that Britain support the treaty. He explained reassuringly that it defined mercenaries “in such a way as to exclude the Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion”.


  1. The only people who would be affected by the treaty were “ex-members of foreign armed forces who are recruited for nefarious activities such as a coup” and “there would be no safe haven for mercenaries or their paymasters.” Sir Crispin continued to press his argument, saying: “At the moment no mercenary activities can be controlled under our existing law. It does not do us any good to say that we deplore mercenary activities, but plead inadequacy of our domestic law.”


  1. Days before Christmas 1989, the Foreign Office commented privately: “The next stage is to consider whether it is in our interest to sign” the Convention. Alongside Sainsbury, two other ministers were asked to consider the matter, including Hamilton who would later become a director of the successor company to KMS, alongside notorious mercenary David Walker.


  1. The UK never signed the convention, but the ministers’ reasons are not public. The subsequent file in this series is not available at the National Archives as it has been withheld by Foreign Office, which claims it was too sensitive to release three decades after it was written. The UN convention against mercenaries was signed almost immediately by many African states as well as several European countries including Germany, Italy, Romania and Ukraine. By contrast, world powers such as Britain, France, the US, China and Russia have never endorsed the ban.


UK policy post-2000

  1. In 2002, Tony Blair’s Labour government put forward a green paper looking at options to regulate private security companies. The proposals ranged from a total ban on mercenaries to a licensing scheme.


  1. This initiative was eclipsed by the invasion of Iraq, where western private security companies were heavily utilised during the occupation. From then on, the FCO favoured setting up a voluntary code of conduct and played a leading role in establishing the Montreux Document, signed in Switzerland in 2008. Foreign Secretary David Miliband supported the Montreux Document, but campaigners said it was not a substitute for legally-enforceable legislation.[9]


  1. In 2019, UK officials at the Human Rights Council voted against renewing the mandate of the UN's working group on mercenaries.[10]




  1. British officials at the UN Human Rights Council should vote in favour of renewing the mandate of the UN Working Group on Mercenaries later this year.


  1. The UK government should sign the UN’s International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.


  1. The FCDO should declassify its file FCO 58/5472, which could clarify why the UK decided not to sign the UN mercenary convention.[11]


  1. The Foreign Affairs Committee should call Lord Archibald Hamilton[12] to give evidence to this inquiry as to why the UK government did not sign the UN mercenary convention.


  1. The Foreign Affairs Committee should call Saladin Security director David Walker[13] to give evidence to this inquiry as to the conduct of KMS in Sri Lanka and Nicaragua, and what his relationship was with the British government of the day.


  1. The FCDO should stop opposing appeals at the Information Tribunal to declassify KMS-related files.[14]


  1. The UK government should introduce a licensing regime so that British PMCs which want to operate abroad (including training of foreign militaries) must receive official approval in the same way arms exports do.


Dr Rachel Seoighe

Tamil Information Centre

Email: r.seoighe@kent.ac.uk

Website: www.ticonline.org

















5 May 2022


[1] Dr Rachel Seoighe https://www.kent.ac.uk/social-policy-sociology-social-research/people/1862/seoighe-rachel

[2] Tamil Information Centre, Met Police open war crimes investigation into British mercenaries, 18 August 2020 https://ticonline.org/newsdetails.php?id=176&vtype=h

[3] Book - Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes, Phil Miller (Pluto Press, 2020). https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745340791/keenie-meenie/

Film - Keenie Meenie: Britain’s Private Army (Yardstick Films, 2020) - available at https://vimeo.com/466094032

[4] UN submission to UK Foreign Office, 4 June 2020 https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25270

[5] BBC, British mercenaries investigated over Sri Lanka war crimes, 30 November 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-55071099

[6] Miller, Keenie Meenie, pp21-32.

[7] Miller, Why Britain wanted to ‘kill’ a United Nations ban on mercenaries, Declassified UK, 17 June 2020 https://declassifieduk.org/exclusive-why-britain-wanted-to-kill-a-united-nations-ban-on-mercenaries/

[8] Piramanthanaru massacre - http://www.padippakam.com/document/ltte/HR_Report/PiramanthanaruMassacre1985.pdf

[9]  War on Want, 'Pact threatens bid for tough curbs', 23 September 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20200731201019/https://waronwant.org/media/fears-mount-mercenaries-abuse

[10] UN General Assembly, Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council

on 26 September 2019  https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/RES/42/9

[11] UK National Archives catalogue https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C16945645

[12] Lord Hamilton of Epsom - https://members.parliament.uk/member/100/career

[13] Companies House, David John Walker https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/officers/1CWevHeMspVVxl7h0j6OVo72Wzw/appointments

[14] Patrick Wintour, Foreign Office resists release of files on support for UK mercenaries in Sri Lanka, The Guardian, 15 November 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/15/fco-resists-release-of-files-on-support-for-uk-mercenaries-in-sri-lanka First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), appeal references for Phil Miller vs Information Commissioner and FCDO are EA/2020/0159, EA/2022/0021, EA/2022/0022 and EA/2022/0023.