War Resisters' International raises concerns about British regulations on conscientious objection

Using the UK Freedom of Information Act, War Resisters' International finally obtained the regulations governing the right to conscientious objection for the three branches of the British Armed Forces, in time to examine them for a counter-report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which will examine the United Kingdoms human rights record in its sessions in October 2007 and July 2008.

The regulations governing this right have so far not been publicly available, although War Resisters' International did make a leaked copy of the regulations for the army available on its website since 2003. Andreas Speck, conscientious objection worker at War Resisters' International, comments: "The non-availability of regulations governing a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 18 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), prevents members of the Armed Forces effectively from exercising their right. It is therefore not a surprise that - according to the information obtained from the MoD - only six members of the Armed Forces applied for conscientious objection since 2000".

In its report to the Human Rights Committee, War Resisters' International raises five major concerns:

  • The regulations governing the right to conscientious objection are not in the public domain, and information is difficult to obtain by members of the public, and also by members of the Armed Forces.
  • Decision making on an application for conscientious objection in the first instance is by the respective branch of the Armed Forces itself, and not by an independent body. Only the appeal body – the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors – is an independent body.
  • It is disturbing that the Royal Air Force does not allow applications for discharge on grounds of conscience while disciplinary action is ongoing, or the conscientious objector is absent without leave or a deserter.
  • Members of the Armed Forces “are not to take any active part in the affairs of any political organisation, party or movement. They are not to participate in political marches or demonstrations”. This is a serious infringement of the right to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly, as enshrined in Article 21 and 22 ICCPR.
  • Members of the Armed Forces are prohibited from standing in parliamentary elections, and need to seek approval from the Ministry of Defence to stand in local authority elections. This is a serious infringement of Article 25 paragraph (b) of the ICCPR.

Andreas Speck comments: "While Britain is certainly not the worst offender in terms of the human right to conscientious objection, it is also equally certain that the British regulations do not meet international standards, as defined by the Human Rights Committee. The semi-secret status of the three different regulations, and the inconsistences between the regulations for the different services don't make things easier for soldiers who develop a conscientious objection. It is high time that Britain brings its regulations in line with international standards".

Source: wri-info, 20 September 2007; War Resisters' International: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Human Rights and the Armed Forces, September 2007