Report on the evolving forms, trends and manifestations of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities

28 July 2020
Working Group on the use of mercenaries
To the 75th session of the General Assembly in 2020


Twice a year, the Working Group on the use of mercenaries issues calls for inputs to inform thematic studies to be presented at the Human Rights Council in its September session and at the General Assembly in October.

Since the establishment in 1987 of a mandate on the use mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, the Working Group (and previously the Special Rapporteur) has examined the human rights impact of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities in different contexts. The Working Group has observed that, in general terms, the currently accepted meaning of the term 'mercenary' primarily captures persons who are paid to intervene in an armed conflict in a country other than their own. Despite being an old practice, mercenarism has significantly evolved over time and assumed new complex forms and characteristics. For instance, the Working Group found some similarities between foreign fighters and mercenaries (A/70/330).

The year 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. Over the years, the Working Group has consistently called upon States to ratify and implement this Convention, while recognizing that the legal definition of a mercenary contained therein is exceedingly narrow and difficult to apply (A/71/318). The Working Group further notes that in February 2019, upon the initiative of Equatorial Guinea, the United Nations Security Council held a high-level debate on the issue of mercenaries in Africa. Speakers at the meeting reiterated their concerns around mercenary activities and called for greater attention on the issue.

Given the ongoing negative consequences of mercenary activity on human security and human rights, the Working Group dedicated this thematic report to examining the contemporary nature, patterns and trends of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities.

On 16 November 2020, the Working Group on the use of mercenaries and the Centre for Military Studies (CMS), University of Copenhagen, co-hosted a panel discussion with leading experts on the evolving forms, trends and manifestations of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities. The event followed the presentation of the Working Group’s report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly of 2 November.

  • Speakers included:
  • Prof. Kevin Jon Heller (Moderator, CMS, University of Copenhagen)
  • Dr. Chris Kwaja (Chair-Rapporteur, Working Group on the use of mercenaries)
  • Prof. Candace Rondeaux (Arizona State University)
  • Mr. Brian Castner (Amnesty International US)
  • Dr. Jovana Jezdimirovic Ranito (University of Twente)
  • Ms. Julia Friedrich (Global Public Policy Institute)
  • Mr. Bassam Alahmad (Syrians for Truth and Justice)
  • Col. Chris Mayer (Discussant, US Army, ret.)

Listen to a recording of the event


In this report, the Working Group on the use of mercenaries examines the evolution of the use of mercenaries and related actors against developments in the nature of contemporary armed conflicts, in addition to challenges for the implementation of the relevant international and regional legal frameworks pertaining to mercenaries. The report enumerates a broad range of actors and activities that may be considered mercenary-related and notes that special consideration should be paid to the specific context and conditions in which these actors operate.

The report outlines the impact of current and emerging manifestations of mercenaries and related actors on the enjoyment of human rights. In some cases, these actors have allegedly committed violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. In other cases, their use has contributed to the intensification and prolongation of hostilities and therefore to the human suffering borne by the civilian population. Their activities may also undermine the right of peoples to self-determination, including in non-conflict settings.

The report sheds light on the pervasive secrecy and opacity surrounding mercenary and mercenary-related activities, which is particularly stark when such actors are employed as an instrument to remotely influence armed conflicts, while their patrons, including States, deny involvement and seek to avoid legal responsibilities. These dimensions represent a major obstacle to holding the perpetrators of violations and abuses accountable and providing victims with effective remedies, thus enabling perpetrators and those directing their actions to operate with impunity.

The report concludes with a call for urgent attention by States and other stakeholders to the new forms and manifestations of mercenary-related activities and sets out recommendations to stimulate thinking and discussion on ways to counter mercenary and mercenary-related activities more effectively.

Inputs received

While the Working Group welcomed any information deemed pertinent to the issue, it was particularly interested in the following areas:

  1. Regulatory frameworks and their application
    • National legislative and regulatory frameworks, as elaborated in Military Codes or other instruments, on mercenaries and related issues (e.g. nationals engaged in military service abroad, foreign fighters etc.), including implementation of the 1989 International Mercenary Convention, Article 47 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, as applicable.
    • Information and recent figures on investigations, arrests, prosecutions, convictions and penalties imposed on mercenaries and mercenary-related actors;
    • Observations on the level of implementation by States, regional and international bodies of the existing international legal framework on mercenaries, including impediments to regulate effectively the current forms, trends and manifestations of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities.
  2. Current trends and developments
    • The types of services provided by mercenaries and mercenary-related actors as well as information on who they are, where they operate, their clients, the reasons behind their recruitment and the modalities behind the use of their services;
    • Trends and patterns regarding States of origin, motivational factors and professional backgrounds of mercenaries and mercenary-related actors;
    • The role of non-State armed groups and organized criminal groups in either using or providing mercenary and mercenary-related services;
    • Transnational, regional and national dynamics conducive to the use of mercenaries.
  3. Human rights impacts of mercenaries and mercenary-related activities
    • Specific allegations about the use of mercenaries and mercenary-related actors in recent and ongoing conflicts, including methods of recruitment, motivational factors, training and financing;
    • Information on how the use of mercenaries and mercenary-related actors influence conflict dynamics;
    • Examples of the access to and use of advanced technologies and weaponry by mercenaries and mercenary-related actors; 
    • Specific allegations of human rights abuses committed or facilitated by mercenaries and mercenary-related actors, and violations of the right of peoples to self-determination linked to their use, including relevant gender-related and intersectional dimensions. 

All submissions received are published below, unless the submitter clearly indicated that they did not wish to have their input be made publicly available when submitting their response.

Member States

Other stakeholders

Special Procedures
Working Group on the use of mercenaries
Recent thematic reports
Contact information
Others involved
External links