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Thursday, 8 March 2012

A modern-day "conchie"

Published in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, vol 176, 3 March 2012, p 135

Conscientious objection to military service has provided much drama in both fiction and real life for many years. In fiction one finds examples in the recent Downton Abbey, or the gentle Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army, and countless other works as well.

The most famous non-fiction example is possibly Mohammad Ali, who chose jail rather than serving in Vietnam against an enemy he did not know on behalf of a state that declined to afford him full civil rights.

Recently the case of R v Lyons [2011] EWCA Crim 2808 raised the same issue in the context of Britain’s modern wars.

Lyons held the rank of leading medical assistant in the Royal Navy. In May 2010 he was told he would be deployed to Afghanistan. He formed the view that the UK’s involvement in the conflict was wrong and that it would be morally wrong for him to take part. He therefore applied for discharge on the ground that he was a conscientious objector. The application was refused and he appealed. Before his appeal was determined, he was ordered to undertake a pre-deployment weapons training course. He refused to participate. He was court-martialed and found guilty of intentionally disobeying a lawful command contrary to s 12(1)(a) of the Armed Forces Act 2006. He was sentenced to seven months’ military detention, demoted to able seaman and dismissed from the service. He appealed against sentence.

Historical background

Objection to war Рa particular conflict or warfare in general Рon religious or secular grounds is no doubt as old as war itself. In Britain the armed forces have historically been recruited on a volunteer basis. Full-scale conscription was unknown in this country until the Great War, when the British army found itself drawn irrevocably into the sort of full-scale conflict on the Continent which it had spent a century planning to avoid. By contrast, most Continental powers had had compulsory military service for generations, the modern origins lying in the French Revolution and the subsequent creation of the Grande Arm̩e.

It is therefore noteworthy that Britain was the first amongst European powers to have formal legal recognition of conscientious objection. Mention was made in the Militia Act 1757, but the story in modern times begins with the Military Service Act 1916, an Act which simultaneously introduced conscription and the recognition of objection on the ground of conscience.

During the Second World War, nearly 60,000 registered as Conscientious Objectors. After national service ended at the start of the 1960s, formal procedures for dealing with conscientious objectors fell away, until in 1970 the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO) was formed as a non-departmental public body to advise the Secretary of State for Defence.

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