For nine years an ad hoc committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations worked to reach agreement on the text of an international convention against the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries. In December 1989, the text was submitted to the General Assembly for adoption. Mercenary activity is not a new phenomenon. The attempt to regulate such activity suggests that rules are needed to meet what is either a new problem or an old problem the significance of which has increased. The object of this article is to attempt to identify what activities need to be proscribed and who should be held legally responsible and for what That will suggest a framework against which to evaluate recent texts concerning the use of mercenaries. These include not only the one elaborated under the aegis of the United Nations but also the OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa, the Luanda Draft Convention and Article 47 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It is necessary first to consider the historical position of the mercenary, before examining the role of such fighters in the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s. It should then be possible to establish the nature of the perceived problem and, in particular, whether it is the activities of the ‘mercenary’ himself, as commonly understood, which is the cause of that problem. The article suggests that the issue of mercenary activity has been mis-diagnosed. It is not a matter of the jus in bello but of the jus ad bellum. The mercenary, it is argued, is an unlawful participant in the conflict. The problem is one of intervention and not of the status of such a fighter.