Payday Briefing on the Armed Forces Bill
Second Reading, House of Lords 14 June 2006

The Armed Forces Bill 2006, a major redrafting of military law, will be in the House of Lords on 14 June. Yet from its start in November 2005 until May 2006 there was hardly a whisper in the media and a deafening silence even from all but a few politicians who opposed the Iraq war. 


The UK government, worried that the number of soldiers absconding from the army has trebled since the invasion of Iraq, is legislating to repress this movement in the military.  Before peers vote on this Bill, they should be fully aware of the serious objections to it.

Justin Hugheston-Roberts, the solicitor who represented RAF Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith when he was sentenced to eight months for refusing to serve in Iraq, said: "We are seeing an increase in the number of people who have absented themselves from service who come to us for advice."

Clause 8 introduces a new definition of desertion: soldiers who go absent without leave (AWOL) and intend to refuse to take part in a “military occupation of a foreign country or territory can be imprisoned for life. 


The government would expressly legitimise occupation, and with a proposed re-write of the Geneva Convention, would legalise pre-emptive military action – revamping the traditional English imperial policy to serve Bush and his “endless war”. 


In this way, the government contravenes the Nuremberg Principles (1950) which enshrined in international law the responsibility of each of us to refuse to obey illegal and immoral orders from any government.[1]   The eight-month sentence of Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith is a warning to military personnel who would act on principle.

The Bill ignores the injustices soldiers already face -- denied information, labour rights, and human rights. 


>>  Military personnel are rarely informed of the right to conscientious objection.[2] 


>>  Soldiers who refuse orders and want to declare themselves as COs are denied immediate access to the  Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO).  ACCO hearings may be held after a prison sentence is completed, if at all – disciplinary hearings and sentencing come first.[3]


>>  Soldiers are subject to a form of bonded or indentured labour; they are contractually unable to resign before completing four years service.  Those who are 16-18 years old (the main target of recruiters) -- child soldiers -- may be obliged to serve until age 22; if they opt for education, this may increase to age 40! [4]


>>  Soldiers don’t have the right to demand a trial on a serious criminal charge by a jury of 12 people in a civilian court.  At the present time they may be tried in front of a board of three officers of a court-martial -- whose pay, discipline and promotion depend upon their success in maintaining discipline. [5]


>>  The Bill may be incompatible with the Human Rights Act which gives everyone the right to a fair and public hearing of any criminal charge by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. [6]


The Bill, instead of righting these wrongs, underlined and added to the injustices.  When soldiers’ right to follow their conscience is denied, the whole society, starting with women and children in occupied countries, pay with their lives. 

Former SAS soldier Ben Griffin

I didn’t join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy.
Ben Griffin, UK refusenik, resigned from the SAS and refused to go back to Iraq. He spoke at the very successful REFUSING TO KILL IS NOT A CRIME Payday Briefing in the Commons (17 May).  At the Briefing, John McDonnell MP announced two amendments on Clause 8 that resulted in a two and a half hour debate at the 3rd Reading on the issues of conscientious objection, sentencing and occupation which had been virtually ignored at the previous Stages of the Bill.



John McDonnell MP: This legislation fails to show a modern understanding of why people desert . . . because of fear or trauma, or out of conscience . We should not penalise them with life imprisonment; we should accept that it is a disproportionate sanction, not the appropriate one.


Harry Cohen MP: Subsection 3(c) [military occupation of a foreign country or territory] has the potential to enshrine an illegal occupation.


Alan Simpson MP In Austria, the maximum sentence for desertion is one year; in France, in peacetime up to three years’; in Germany up to five years'; in the Netherlands, in wartime, a maximum of seven and a half years'; in Poland in wartime up to three years.


Angus MacNeil MP: we should not allow, in any way, shape or form, servicemen to be threatened with life imprisonment if they follow the 1950 Nuremburg principles and their conscience, and question orders.



Barry Ross, Gulf war vet:  

“No doubt this will be counter-productive and send more AWOL soldiers even more underground and for longer.  As a Gulf veteran and someone who deserted because of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] I understand the pressure. Police will hunt you down as if you were a mass murderer. I served six months in MCTC [Military Correction & Training Centre] Colchester for the same thing.  It was a nightmare. Afterwards to prove a point I was sent to Ireland. Went AWOL again. It must be stopped. What next, the firing squad just to enforce discipline?” [7]


Ben Griffin, UK refusenik, resigned from the SAS, and refused to go back to Iraq.

" A soldier could face life imprisonment . . . even if that occupation is illegal and instigated by a foreign 'ally', or if the conduct of the occupation is criminal and against the will of the indigenous people of that country".


Osman Murat Ülke, CO from Turkey who won his right in the European Court not to be repeatedly jailed for his refusal, speaking of Section 8:

A soldier is still a human being and not a mechanical extension of the military apparatus. No contract, no oath and no law can change this.


Rose Gentle whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq, and who now campaigns with Military Families Against the War:

“It’s heartbreaking for a parent when a son stands up for his rights and may be locked away for life.  It’s not just him, it’s his whole family that’s sentenced.”


Shimri Zameret, one of 500 high school refuseniks who was repeatedly jailed and then won his right to refuse to serve in the Israeli occupation:

"I sat 21 months in jail because I refused to serve in the Israeli Army. I know what it means for a young man to be taken away from his friends, family, dreams. I know that it wouldn't have mattered if it was 421 months. If I had ignored my conscience I would have lost my humanity."


Matan Kaminer, wih Shimri, one of the “five” who very publicly won their right to refuse:

“Soldiers are common people who pay the highest possible price for the imperial policies of economic, military and political elites. Resistance inside the military, whether among conscripts or volunteers, is vital for the struggle against imperial war and for world democracy. Israeli refusers stand in solidarity with our British sisters and brothers.”


Pablo Paredes, US Navy refusenik who publicly refused to go to Iraq; the judge at his court-martial admitted soldiers are justified in believing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be illegal:

“The day a Government considers punishing a human being who refuses to be a party to the greatest weapon of mass destruction in our world (War) with that same sentence of life in prison is the day in which that government hands in its humanity and returns to the savagery of persecution based on beliefs.”


Grupa Spoleczenstwo Aktywne, Active Society Group Wroclaw, Poland

“We speak as descendants of generations that suffered fear and loss of human dignity resulting from Hitler’s imperialist policy and military aggression. We find it outrageous that the UK Parliament is about to vote the legislation, which undermines the Nuremberg Principles of 1950 that established international recognition of each individual’s responsibility to refuse to obey illegal and immoral orders from any government.”

No prison for soldiers who refuse to be occupiers


John McDonnell MP (Hansard 22 May 2006)

There is a duty placed on each of us, as individuals in a democratic society — but in particular on soldiers and members of the military — to exercise judgment about whether what we do is right and lawful. I reiterate the point that, whatever debates take place in this or any other Parliament, they do not override that individual duty.


1  Nuremberg Principles, No. 4: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law . . .”

2  See the Peace Pledge Union’s submission by to the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, January 2006. .

3.  Letter to Payday from At Ease, May 2006

4.  See At Ease submission to the Select Committee, January 2006.

5.  See Gilbert Blade’s submission to the Select Committee, January 2006

6.  as above

7  From our petition on line signed by people from 20 countries. For more information on the Armed Forces Bill, including press, see

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