UK private military firm hired ex-child soldiers from Sierra Leone for Iraq ops

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Former child soldiers from Sierra Leone have been employed by a private British military company to provide security for American bases in Iraq as part of a 2,500-strong contingent hired for the job, a new Danish documentary has revealed.

According to investigation based on contract documents, UK’s Aegis Defense Services contracted by US Department of Defense employed some 2,500 mercenaries to provide security force for the Pentagon-administered Project and Contracting Office (PCO) in Iraq.

Part of the security force, according to a documentary, titled Børnesoldatens Nye Job (The Child Soldier’s New Job) included child soldiers from Sierra Leone who were paid only $16 a day.

“When war gets outsourced, then the company tries to find the cheapest soldiers globally. Turns out that that is former child soldiers from Sierra Leone. I think it is important that we in the West are aware of the consequences of the privatization of war,” said the film’s director, Mads Ellesøe, as quoted by the Guardian.

Aegis was hired by Washington starting from 2004 to provide security for American bases in Iraq. The firm initially employed British, American and Nepalese personnel to do the job. But from 2011, the firm started to employ fighters from Africa to cut costs.

James Ellery, who was a director of Aegis Defense Services between 2005 and 2015, acknowledged that Aegis recruited personnel from Sierra Leone because they were cheaper than Europeans. Yet he stressed that the UK firm has never bothered to check whether the security force had employed any former underage combatants.

While agreeing that it would have been better to recruit Brits, Ellery told the Guardian, that “it can’t be afforded... I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans.”

Sierra Leone proved to be a perfect place for recruitment as the country had just emerged from the ashes of the atrocious civil war (1991-2002), tarnished with crimes against humanity and the widespread use of child soldiers to carry out the fighting.

Speaking with the British publication Ellery revealed that child soldiers cannot be prosecuted for war crimes under international law.

“They are, once they reach 18, in fact citizens with full rights to seek employment, which is a basic human right. So we would have been completely in error if, having gone to Sierra Leone, we excluded those people,” he explained.

One of the only things Aegis cared for was strict adherence to physical health requirements.

“The moment they [recruitment agents] start sending us people who are blind in one eye or have Aids, that’s it. Contract over,” Ellery said. “Because those sort of things, although they sound facetious, are big problems in Africa, because you don’t want people dying after you’ve put them through expensive training and then they die because they’ve got Aids and so on.”

Founded in 2002 by Tim Spicer, the former Scots Guards officer, notorious for supplying weapons in Sierra Leone to support the local government, Aegis Defense Services is now chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and a grandson of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In 2015 the operations of Aegis were taken over by a Canadian security company, GardaWorld. Contacted by the Guardian into the alleged allegations in the documentary, Graham Binns, Aegis’s former CEO and GardaWorld’s senior managing director shifted the blame onto the contractor's respected country of origin which provided the British company with their personnel.

“We worked very closely with our audited, vetted and authorised agents to recruit, vet and screen our professionals. Our agents were authorised [as was the employment of individuals] by the relevant national government of the countries from which we recruited,” he said.

The documentary shot in the US, UK, Sierra Leone and Uganda will be broadcasted on Denmark television on Monday, April 18.

The use of child soldiers became widespread during the civil war in Sierra Leone where the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in addition to state forces and state-supported militias widely recruited children for combat. An estimated 10,000 children took part in the conflict. Some of the child soldiers were also girls, who had been reportedly subjected to repeated abuse and rape. Most children were required by their superiors to commit war crimes such as murders, rapes, sexual slavery, mutilations and other forms of human rights abuses.