Fox's Armed Forces Bill neglects human rights

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
8 Mar 2011

It's not only British civilians who have become appalled by the realities of the war in Afghanistan. Michael Lyons was serving there as a member of the Royal Navy when he became appalled by civilian casualties. As a medic, he was disgusted to be told that he should prioritise British casualties over others.

In December, he appeared before the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO) to ask to be discharged as a conscientious objector.

It was the first time that ACCO had met since 1996. This is not due to a lack of ethical concern among members of the forces. It is because so many of them have no idea that they have a right to conscientious objection.

In theory, this right exists for all forces personnel. In reality, the forces helpline At East report that many are totally unaware of this right. It is not mentioned in the Notice Paper, which recruits sign when they enlist. Ethical concerns have often been mentioned by people who have gone absent without leave. They either did not know of their right to conscientious objection or did not manage to navigate the highly obscure system for registering it.

Michael Lyons appealed to ACCO after his initial request for discharge was turned down by senior officers. After hearing Michael's passionate objections to the Afghan war, ACCO decided to advise the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, to turn down the application for discharge.

ACCO described Michael's objection as "political" rather than "moral". They did not explain why objections based on medical ethics and civilian deaths cannot be considered moral. They seemed ignorant of the cases - going back to World War Two - of recognition for conscientious objection on grounds described as "political". It would be interesting to ask Liam Fox if his political views have a moral basis or if he keeps politics and morality entirely separate.

Fox has recently proposed an Armed Forces Bill in Parliament. This should be the perfect opportunity to clarify and strengthen the right to conscientious objection. Instead, he is merely tweaking at the edges of the existing system. He loudly proclaims his admiration for forces personnel while neglecting their human rights.

Forces Watch, a new network exploring ethical issues around the armed forces, are calling on MPs to amend the Armed Forces Bill so that it includes real and progressive changes.

This would mean a straightforward procedure for conscientious objection, written in legislation rather than forces regulations. It would mean mentioning the right in the Notice Paper and ensuring that objectors who apply for discharge are suspended from duty while the application is considered.

This should go along with other rights for forces personnel. The minimum length of service - one of the highest in Europe - should be significantly reduced. We need a thorough and independent inquiry into the political rights of forces personnel, who are banned from joining unions, speaking in public or to the media without permission or standing for election to political office.

Thankfully, not all MPs are simply swallowing Fox's rhetoric uncritically. Julian Huppert, an MP on the left of the Liberal Democrats, has proposed raising the minimum age of recruitment to eighteen. This policy is backed by Plaid Cymru, the Greens and a number of Labour MPs.

At present, the UK government is one of only twenty in the world to routinely recruit 16-year-olds into the armed forces. It is the only government in Europe to do so. People barred from buying the most violent films and video games are trained to fight by the state.

The coalition government is still defending this situation (as did the previous Labour government) despite criticisms from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the Children's Society and Parliament's own Joint Human Rights Committee.

The rapidly dwindling number of people who defend recruitment at 16 point out that recruits cannot be deployed to the frontline until they turn 18. But young soldiers cannot change their minds on turning 18. After the first six months, army recruits are committed to stay until turning 22. Their terms of service are even more restrictive than those for people over 18, who sign up for four years.

Adult soldiers are fighting because of a commitment made before turning 18. Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for Britain's Quakers, points out that people are fighting on the frontline because of a decision made "without informed consent". He describes this as "conscription by the back door".

Since the seventeenth century, it has been illegal for the monarch to raise an army without the permission of Parliament. This is why Parliament is required to pass an Armed Forces Act every five years.

Liam Fox and his allies clearly hope that some gung-ho rhetoric about "supporting our boys" will enable them to push through a bill that ignores the rights of the men and women in the armed forces.

Fox and his cronies claim to hold members of the forces in high esteem. It's time to call their bluff.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and a member of the steering group of Forces Watch. This article appeared originally in the Morning Star on 28 February 2011. See http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/101643.

For more information on Forces Watch and the Armed Forces Bill, please see http://www.forceswatch.net.

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