No life sentence for soldiers who refuse to be occupiers

By: Giorgio Riva


(Article to be published in Il Manifesto)

The UK government, clearly worried that the number of soldiers absconding from the British Army has trebled since the invasion of Iraq, is acting to stop this movement in its tracks. 


The Armed Forces Bill 2006, a major redrafting of military law, is now going through Parliament.  Section 8 says that soldiers who intend to avoid serving in a “military occupation of a foreign country or territory can be imprisoned for life. 


In contrast, the offence of “disgraceful conduct of a cruel or indecent kind“, for example, against Iraqi civilians, carries a maximum sentence of two years. 


At the same time the UK Defence Secretary, John Reid, is calling for a re-write of the Geneva Convention to legalise pre-emptive military action - the traditional English imperial policy revamped to go hand in hand with Bush’s “endless war”. 


This attack is evidence of the existence of the growing but hidden anti-war movement of men and women within the military who refuse to fight in present and future wars or occupations, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran . . .  The severity of Section 8 would undermine soldiers’ human right and in fact moral obligation to refuse orders to serve in illegal occupations that arise from illegal wars.


Soldiers are subject to a form of bonded or indentured labour, contractually unable to resign before completing five years of service.  If 16-18-year-olds (the main target of recruiters) don’t quit the army within six months after joining, they are obliged to serve until they are 22, including as part of military occupation.


Even before Section 8, UK refuseniks are already under attack.  Two weeks ago Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a RAF doctor, was sentenced to eight months in prison for refusing to go to Iraq.  At his court martial the judge denied Kendall-Smith’s right and responsibility, under the Nuremberg Principles, to refuse to be complicit with criminal acts.


The Armed Forces Bill has been in the UK Parliament since November.  It has scarcely raised a whisper in the media and is being met by a deafening silence even from those politicians who opposed the Iraq war.


Payday has circulated an Action Alert with a model letter addressed to British ambassadors around the world.  In the last few days our online petition ( to scrap Section 8 has gathered signatures from at least 19 countries - from Argentina to the US – highlighting the outrage this measure provokes once people know about it. 


Osman Murat Ülke, a conscientious objector from Turkey who won his right in the European Court not to be repeatedly jailed for his refusal, said of Section 8: “A soldier is still a human being and not a mechanical extension of the military apparatus. No contract, no oath and no law can change this.


Rose Gentle whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq, and who now campaigns with Military Families Against the War, said: “It’s heartbreaking for a parent when a son stands up for his rights and is locked away for life  It’s not just him, it’s his whole family that’s sentenced.


Mothers like Rose Gentle in the UK and Cindy Sheehan in the US have campaigned against the killing and maiming of their own loved ones and also of the people in Iraq and elsewhere, civilian and military, and have demanded that troops be brought back home from a war nobody wants.


It is the responsibility of the international anti-war movement to support refuseniks around the world and to take up this campaign against Section 8. 


As Ben Griffin, a soldier of the special unit SAS who refused to go back to Iraq, said: “I didn’t join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy.

Giorgio Riva, is a member of Payday, an international network of men working with Global Women's Strike, demanding that society invests in caring, not killing. (