Government defeat on Gurkhas raises wider questions about rights

By staff writers
April 30, 2009

The British government suffered a humiliating defeat yesterday, as MPs from all parties combined to back a Liberal Democrat resolution calling for former Gurkhas to be allowed to settle in the UK without restriction.

A number of those campaigning for fair treatment say that the way Gurkhas have been treated illustrates the lack of rights soldiers have in a system which relies on militarism but does not face up to its consequences.

The House of Commons vote, which is not binding, was 267 to 246 in favour of a motion offering all Gurkhas equal right of residence. It was backed by 27 Labour rebels.

Gurkhas, who come from Nepal, have been part of the British Army for almost 200 years and have fought on behalf of Britain in many conflicts. They still carry into battle a traditional 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri.

Phil Woolas, the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, who has been pursuing a restrictive immigration policy and who earlier this year condemned human rights lawyers and activists for seeking justice for migrants, told MPs after the vote that new proposals about the Gurkhas would be published before Parliament's summer recess.

He said: "This government respects the will of the House of Commons".

But the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and his ministers were accused in the House of Commons debate of a "shameful" refusal to honour obligations to people from overseas who had served the country as part of its armed forces.

"How is it honest or decent to say that Gurkha soldiers who served 20 years can come and live in this country when [the PM] knows full well that the majority only served for 15?", asked Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg of the government's existing rules, described by others as "weasel-like".

The cause of justice for the Gurkhas has received widespread backing, including support from people who want to see alternatives to military force developed in a conflict-ridden world and who have strongly opposed recent UK involvement in wars in Iraq and elsewhere.

"I'm against war and militarism, but I'm in favour of fair treatment for all, for a generous migration policy, and for the government meeting its obligations," one peace campaigner said yesterday.

"Governments often use soldiers for their own ends and then don’t face up to the consequences and true costs of their actions," commented Simon Barrow from the think-tank Ekklesia, which has called for more support for the work of non-violent peacemakers in situations of conflict.

He said: "Soldiers are often denied human rights by the system whose freedom they are supposed to be defending. Those working against war have a natural concern about those caught up in it, alongside families and friends. It is a government that has commissioned military action on an unprecedented scale in recent years which has been failing them."

"The Commons' rejection of the UK government's attempt to deny residency to former Gurkhas is also a small, welcome crack in an immigration policy which is unjust and inhumane in so many ways," he added.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.