Briefing on the Armed Forces Bill

Thursday, 20 July 2006, 11.30am-12.30pm, Room N, Portcullis House
(above Westminster tube, entrance on Victoria Embankment, wheelchair accessible)

The Armed Forces Bill, a major redrafting of military law, will be in Committee in the House of Lords on 24 July (final date for amendments, 20 July). Yet from its start in November 2005 until May 2006 there was hardly a whisper in the media and a deafening silence from all but a few of the 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 serious objections to it from other Lords, MPs and the public.

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 effective 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 on conscientious objection, sentencing and occupation - which had been virtually ignored in the Bill’s previous Stages.


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.  The eight-month sentence of Flight-Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith is a warning to military personnel who would act on principle.

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."

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.

>>  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.

>>  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!

>>  Soldiers on a serious criminal charge don’t have the right to demand a trial 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. 

>>  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.


The Bill, instead of righting these wrongs, underlines and adds 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. 



Lord Judd: (Hansard 14 June 2006) Life imprisonment is a heavy sentence. A serviceman or woman should be expected to refuse to carry out an order which he or she knows to be illegal. Such refusal should have our complete and unqualified endorsement.

John McDonnell MP: (Hansard 22 May 2006) 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 Nuremberg principles and their conscience, and question orders.


The Bill will go to Committee Stage and 3rd Reading in the Lords and then return to the Commons. Contact MPs and peers NOW - send them this Briefing, refer them to the website, and ask them to debate the Bill and to amend Clause 8.

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