Politicians who really care about soldiers should call for more human rights legislation, not less

Promising to end the non-existent witch-hunt allows Boris Johnson to appear to help veterans while doing nothing to address their actual needs.

Some election promises are costly. Perhaps the cheapest way of making an election promise is to pledge to stop something that is not even happening. 

Boris Johnson promised this week to end the “witch-hunt” against current and former armed forces personnel accused of war-related crimes in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

There is no witch-hunt. Since the beginning of the Troubles 50 years ago, only four UK soldiers have been convicted of unlawful killing. Of all the soldiers accused in relation to Bloody Sunday, only one is to stand trial. 

Johnson knows this. He also knows the power of the militarist lobby. If you don’t read right-wing newspapers, you may be unaware of how big the “witch-hunt” myth has become. It features regularly on the front pages of the Daily Mail and the Sun. 

But Johnson has gone further. He says he will amend the Human Rights Act so that it won’t apply to troops on military operations (including within the UK) or to anything that happened before 2000. This threatens a basic principle of democracy: that everyone must be subject to the same law. 

Other ministers have occasionally murmured about introducing some sort of policy along these lines, but nothing has come of it. This is probably because they know that they can never really satisfy the militarists. For those who daily spew forth their anger about “witch-hunts” on Twitter, the only policy that will satisfy them is a blanket ban on any British veteran being prosecuted. Even their most gung-ho allies on the Tory benches must know that this is not possible. 

Promising to end the non-existent witch-hunt allows Johnson to appear to help veterans while doing nothing to address the needs of the 13,000 homeless veterans in the UK or the many veterans whose health and care needs have been affected by austerity. The state pays the costs of waging wars but expects those who have fought in them to rely on people rattling charity tins in the street. 

Johnson’s plan will not help veterans. It will help to make the military as an institution even less accountable than it is now. The people who will gain will be the armed forces leadership, along with others among the rich and powerful who benefit from a society that heroises an institution in which people do as they are told. 

The armed forces are the only institutions in the UK that are allowed to conduct their own criminal trials, and to maintain their own police forces. In 2018, I sat in Bulford Military Court and watched from the public gallery as the trial gradually collapsed of 16 army instructors accused of mistreating 16-year-old recruits. When the judge threw the case out, he blamed the Royal Military Police, who had made no arrests until two years after they received dozens of reports of abuse. They blamed the delay in part on pressure from “more urgent enquiries”. In other words, teenagers who join the armed forces are at the mercy of a private police force that does not regard the abuse of 16-year-olds as an urgent concern.

The armed forces are allowed to deny the most basic human rights of their own personnel, who are banned from joining trades unions and cannot leave their jobs when they choose. In 2011, Michael Lyons was refused discharge from the Royal Navy after he developed a conscientious objection to war. He spent seven months in prison for “disobeying a lawful order” – or for becoming a pacifist, which is a crime in the eyes of the armed forces. Unlike Alexander Blackman – who was imprisoned for killing a wounded prisoner in Afghanistan – he did not have his case taken up by the Sun and the Daily Mail

Politicians who really care about current and former armed forces personnel should be calling for more human rights legislation, not less. 

Symon Hill is campaigns manager of the Peace Pledge Union and a history tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association.

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4 Responses to “Politicians who really care about soldiers should call for more human rights legislation, not less”

  1. Joe

    Labour has become institutionally anti-British.

    We have Labour now supporting the convictions of brave British soldiers for doing their jobs in the fight against IRA terrorism.

  2. Bill

    Here we go again. Anyone who opposes an occupation force is a ‘terrorist’ according to Joe. Dutch, French Polish resistance against the Nazi’s? Were they to terrorists Joe? or are the rules different for UK occupation forces?

  3. Gary

    It should be pointed out that firstly, the main case cited by those who want to end the ‘persecution’ of British soldiers is Bloody Sunday. It should also be pointed out that the single case which is to be prosecuted is the one where a British soldier is alleged to have shot an unarmed civilian (who was running away) in the back, he then followed and shot the victim at close range as he lay, already dying, on the ground. The ‘repeated investigations’ of which they speak have been the repeated cover ups by both the army and successive governments. This was almost 50 years ago and this is how long it has taken for ANY of those on duty to be brought to justice. Of course many who were there have now died, aside from those civilians who died on the day, many witnesses and accused have now also died.

    We should NEVER live in a country where rogue soldiers can murder unarmed civilians at will. This is not a military junta no matter what some would wish. Justice must be done and justice must be SEEN to be done too.

    Personally I don’t believe this was simply a few rogue soldiers acting against orders. Their unit had a bad reputation even within the British Army based in NI. Mike Jackson who was in charge of them also had a bad reputation and I have no doubt whatever that they were acting under his authority at all times. Whether the government of the day had allowed or encouraged this behaviour is open to debate BUT they would not have been unaware of his, or his unit’s, reputation. Sometimes ‘inaction’ speaks as loudly as action.

    Those who want to defend the cold blooded execution of civilians are little better than apologists for murder. They always talk of ‘terrorists’ but these were ALL unarmed civilians, that has never been in question. Some were teenagers too. They should hang their heads in shame that they would defend a murder of a child in the street by an armed soldier…

  4. nick w

    the entire issue is one of even handedness a wrong is a wrong no matter who commits it, the entire issue of army prosecutions is one seen from a prospective of the why only concentrate on the wrong commited by the army, certainly we have higher standards and should do, but justice which must both be done, and be seen to be done is not advanced by the good Friday agreement giving one side a free card, let us not forget that British justice however imperfect allows for those who suffer a miscarriage of justice an avenue of eventual justice, those innocent people who were blown up murdered, and punishment murders in the name of the various factions of Northern Ireland are dead, they in many cases have no resting place as the perpetrators seem to ” forgotten” what happened to bodies, nobody is above the rule of law or justice, but unless there is an evenhanded approach this issue will rumble on for decades.

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