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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