The Armed Forces Bill and human rights

Symon Hill ‘s account of the Armed Forces Bill and human rights, presented by Defence Secretary Liam Fox to the Commons this week, noted that Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd will try to amend the Bill to improve support for veterans facing poverty, isolation or ill health. Hill gave an account of some changes demanded by campaigners. 

One campaign which will be new to many readers is Forces Watch – a network launched last year which challenges the ethics of military recruitment and questions the climate of uncritical national pride in the armed forces. Symon reports that it has called for a reduction in the minimum length of service and improved rights to conscientious objection: 

In theory, members of the forces have a right to discharge if they develop a conscientious objection to continuing in the forces. But Forces Watch suggest that most are unaware of this right, which is not mentioned on the contract that new recruits sign. 

‘Respect for conscience is the hallmark of a democratic society,’ argued Emma Sangster of Forces Watch. Under the current system conscientious objectors have to find their way through a ‘very opaque process’ to have their beliefs respected.  

The Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO) last month advised the Defence Secretary to refuse to discharge Michael Lyons, a member of the navy whose conscience could no longer allow him to participate in the war in Afghanistan. Liam Fox’s ruling on his case is awaited. 

It was the first time that ACCO had met to hear a case for fourteen years. Reports that many deserting soldiers mention ethical concerns have led Forces Watch to say that the current system for registering conscientious objection does not appear to be working. 

In addition, a wide range of groups have backed a call to raise the minimum age of recruitment from sixteen to eighteen. They include Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW), the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, War Child and the Children’s Society. Twenty-eight MPs, five of them from the government’s own benches, have signed a motion backing the proposal. 

‘The armed forces don’t train teenagers to go on an adventure holiday,’ said Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, ‘They train them to go to war’. 

Elizabeth Way, United Nations Association, who for years objected to the army’s recruiting advertisements which showed youngsters engaging in adventurous sports such as ski-ing, will appreciate the final comment. A search today revealed that army recruiting ads no longer project that carefree image, but – understandably – still give no hint of the horrors of war.


Symon Hill’s article appeared in The Friend, 14th January 2011


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