Subaltern Voices Series

Speaking & Theorizing from the Disciplinary Margins


Dr. Sarah Percy (Research Associate, Oxford Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War, Oxford University, United Kingdom)

Topic: “Mercenaries: Strong Norm, Weak Law,”

Date: Thursday, 1 February, 2007


Keynote address for the University of Alberta International Week 2007

Abstract: The law designed to deal with mercenaries in the 1970s and 1980s is notoriously flawed. It is full of loopholes so problematic that it has never been, and most likely could never be, used to control the use of mercenaries. Commentators have argued that there is nothing surprising about the existence of weak law on the mercenary question: they argue that states purposely designed weak law to allow themselves the right to use mercenaries while denying mercenary assistance to non-state adversaries. However, an examination of the travaux préparatoires reveals that the conventional wisdom about anti-mercenary law is wrong. The weakness of international law dealing with mercenaries is the result of the influence of social norms, particularly a strong norm against mercenary use. States knew precisely what they found objectionable about mercenaries, and tried to create law that would reflect their objections. The result is a law that contains unintentional loopholes. This paper examines how a strong social norm paradoxically led to the creation of weak anti-mercenary law, and discusses the relationship between social and legal norms. How do social norms become legal norms? Has the anti-mercenary norm been weakened by ineffective anti-mercenary law? Flawed anti-mercenary law has significant ramifications today, with increased privatization of force in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued use of mercenaries in Africa. Discovering how international law on mercenaries ended up being so weak can reveal the prospects for controlling the private security industry today.

Bio: Sarah Percy is a Research Associate in the Oxford Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War. She received a master’s and doctorate in international relations from the University of Oxford (Balliol College). She also holds a BA (Hons) in political studies from Queen’s University in Canada. Her research interests include mercenaries, private military companies and the privatization of force; the use of norms to regulate warfare; and the relationship between international law and international relations. More general areas of interest include international security and international relations theory. Before coming to Oxford, Sarah taught senior military officers at the UK Joint Services Staff and Command College, where she still provides lectures about the privatization of force. She is the author of a forthcoming Adelphi Paper, The Regulation of the Private Security Industry, and a book, The Norm Against Mercenaries, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2007.