The law punishes conscientious soldiers

IssueJune 2009
Comment by Gwyn

All the fuss about MPs’ expenses made me wonder about what work MPs actually do that requires a second home in London. I was reminded of the “debates” I observed that preceded the Armed Forces Acts. This legislation occurs every five years. In theory, it is an opportunity to update military law and regulations and bring in necessary reforms. In practice, it provides an opportunity for the MoD to get legislation it wants passed and prevent any reform. The military top brass can rely on cross-party agreement not to oppose the military. They can also rely on the majority of MPs to take no interest in the issues or the debate. They can just amuse themselves in the bars, restaurants, gymnasium and other facilities in the giant leisure centre called the palace of Westminster while waiting for the division bell.

The most recent Armed Forces Act 2006 imposed a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for members of the armed forces who go absent without official leave (AWOL) to avoid a particular posting, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

An amendment opposing this was defeated by over 400 votes to 18. The 18 were among the few MPs who attended the debate. What literally made my blood pressure rise was the sight of crowds of MPs pouring in after the division bell to vote on a measure in which they had taken no interest. They did not even wait to hear the result.

It was ironic that these MPs who had been absent from their own major work station until clocking-off time had just voted life imprisonment for soldiers going absent from theirs. This legislation was in response to the fact that the rate of absence without leave had trebled since the beginning of the Iraq war.

An alternative solution to the rising AWOL rate might have been to publicise the fact that all members of the armed forces who claim to be conscientious objectors have a right to appeal to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors.

You can’t appeal to something if you don’t know it exists. ACCO has not had a single hearing during the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

There have in the past been harsh punishments for desertion. The death penalty for members of the armed forces was only abolished in 1998.

Formerly, the most serious charges were “desertion with arms to the enemy” and “desertion in the face of the enemy”. The 2006 Act did not define these as the most culpable forms of desertion. Instead it targets those who go absent as soon as they are ordered to a particular conflict zone, people who would be willing to accept different postings or give themselves up when troops are withdrawn from that country. Under present legislation, a sentence of life imprisonment could even apply to a reservist who did not attend a call up for Afghanistan.

Topics: Armed forces
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