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WHEN was someone last imprisoned in Britain for refusing to be part of the armed forces?
If you don’t know the answer, you might reasonably guess 1918 or 1945. There were conscientious objectors in prison in both world wars. Some were imprisoned during post-war conscription — so-called “national service” — so you might guess 1963, when conscription ended in Britain.
In fact, the correct answer is 2011.
Royal Navy medic Michael Lyons had been due to be deployed to Afghanistan. He was deeply disturbed when he heard revelations about the killing of civilians by US and British forces there. He told his wife: “I can’t have that on my conscience.”
As a medic, he was dismayed during a training session to be told that he should prioritise British casualties over Afghan ones.
Soon he was researching the process to apply for discharge as a conscientious objector. It is an obscure procedure. According to At Ease, a helpline for members of the armed forces, most military personnel are not even aware that they have this right in law.
Applications for discharge on grounds of conscience are rarely made, let alone granted. Mike’s request was turned down. So was his appeal. After declining to take part in rifle training, he was charged with disobeying an order.
The judge told Mike that “disobedience undermines the chain of command” and sentenced him to seven months in a Colchester military prison.
There have been many others in a similar position who didn’t even know that they had a legal right to apply for discharge. Joe Glenton went absent without leave for two years after refusing to deploy to Afghanistan. He was imprisoned not long before Mike.
SAS soldier Ben Griffin expected to be arrested but was quietly eased out of the army when he spoke up about the appalling realities of the occupation of Iraq.
As recently as last year, Ahmed al-Babati was arrested by military police while peacefully protesting opposite Downing Street against British military support for the war in Yemen. He was discharged from the army shortly afterwards. The military establishment realised that a trial would attract more public attention than it wanted.
Today, Mike is backing a call from the Peace Pledge Union for a change in the law so that forces personnel can leave when they choose.
He insists: “We must listen to the unique views and experiences of those military personnel who choose to stand up and speak out if we are ever to find a way out of perpetual war.”
It is a fitting way to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, which is observed through protests, vigils and other events around the world on May 15 every year.
Boris Johnson and his colleagues are always telling us how much they respect armed forces personnel. Labour frontbenchers trip over each other in their rush to agree with him. Very few politicians mention that the armed forces deny basic human rights to their own members.
Not only are they banned from joining trade unions and expressing their views in public but they cannot even choose to leave their job. This is a basic violation of workers’ rights.
It is also a reminder of what is wrong with militarism and how military structures allow the ruling class to exercise control.
This is especially true in countries that still have conscription. War Resisters International (of which the Peace Pledge Union is the British section) is drawing attention this year to Turkey, where the thousands of men who refuse to perform military service face what is known as “civil death.”
They can be prevented for years from gaining employment, claiming benefits, applying for passports and participating in hundreds of other forms of social, cultural and economic life.
As the Israeli government unleashes unspeakable and unimaginable violence against the people of Gaza, let’s remember that there are young people in Israel who resist the call-up to join the armed forces. It applies to both men and women at the age of 18. The number of objectors is bound to go up as a result of the indefensible actions of Israeli forces in recent days.
“My social responsibility as a member of society is important to me and my refusal to serve in the army does not stem from a desire to shirk this responsibility,” explains Israeli conscientious objector Atalya Ben-Abba.
“By refusing military service, I am in fact seeking to fulfil my responsibility to society.” She explains that this is because all people have a responsibility to work together for shared needs. Thus, she cannot co-operate with the army, which deprives people of their basic rights.
“We live in an endless cycle,” says Atalya. “Violence begets violence and is not the answer. Co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians will pave the way to peace and allow us all to live in safety without fear and hatred.”
You can hear more from Atalya at an online ceremony at 4.30pm today, organised by groups in Britain concerned with peace and human rights, to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day.
There are many conscientious objectors around the world. There are people like Atalya in countries with military conscription such as Israel, Turkey, Eritrea and Finland. There are people like Mike who have a change of heart after joining the forces and discovering the realities of war.
There are conscientious objectors in a broader sense, such as engineers who risk their career by refusing to work in the arms trade and teachers who refuse to promote cadet forces in schools.
The Prime Minister has increased the limit on the government’s stockpile of nuclear warheads by 44 per cent. He has promised the biggest percentage rise in military spending since the Korean war.
We all need to be conscientious objectors when faced with attempts to conscript our minds, money and society into war and militarism.
You can join the ceremony from 4.30pm to 5.30pm today by visiting www.co-day.org.
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