Back in the trenches?

11/10/2011The Friend

Within the same week, the UK conscientious objector Michael Lyons was detained for 7 months and a landmark ruling in favour of conscientious objection was made by the European Court of Human Rights.

Within the same week, the UK conscientious objector Michael Lyons was detained for 7 months and a landmark ruling in favour of conscientious objection was made by the European Court of Human Rights.

Derek Brett went to the Michael Lyons court-martial

Last Thursday will go down in the history books as a milestone in the history of conscientious objection. After sixty years, the European Court of Human Rights at last ruled unequivocally that the right of conscientious objection to military service is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

In the case of Bayatyan v Armenia, it found that the imprisonment of Vahan Bayatyan, a Jehovah’s Witness, for his refusal to perform military service at a time when no civilian alternative was available, was a violation of his freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Sadly, two days earlier in Portsmouth had been enacted a court-martial that might have taken place when conscientious objectors first came forward during the first world war. Michael Lyons was stripped of his rank as leading medical assistant and dismissed from the service with effect from the end of a seven-month ‘detention in a military correction establishment’ for ‘wilful disobedience of a lawful order’.

It may have been coincidence that Lyons was notified of the rejection of his initial application to leave the navy on grounds of conscientious objection just days before he was due to attend a course to give proficiency in the use of an SA80 rifle – the first time he would, as a submariner medic now detailed for Afghanistan, have handled a firearm since basic training five years earlier. What became clear last week was that the response to his request to be excused weapons training pending his appeal to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO) – namely a formal order to pick up a weapon and proceed to the range – was not an ill-considered decision by a junior officer in the heat of the moment, but taken at high level after several hours deliberation in order to force him either to abandon his conscientious objection or precipitate this court-martial.

Lyons is a conscientious objector. His objection ‘crystallised’ after a lecture entitled ‘Who gets care?’ at the end of a course in ‘battlefield trauma’. He was shocked to learn that he would be required in the field to deny treatment to civilians in a way inconsistent with his understanding of medical ethics. His qualms were reinforced when he learned from fellow medics that they had been required to use their weapons in anger while deployed in Afghanistan, and by Wikileaks allegations about war crimes committed by Coalition forces. He decided that he would rather put his expertise to use with Medecins Sans Frontières than as part of a military war machine. At the same time he developed doubts about the morality of the Afghanistan operation as a whole. Some of us would maintain that such doubts are also conscientious objections, but this view is not universal, and individual members of the armed forces have never been accorded the right to take part only in specific operations they approve of. The only option for a member of the British armed forces who becomes a conscientious objector is to apply on that basis for compassionate release, which is what Lyons did.

Given military regulations, the guilty verdict was never in much doubt. Were there any physical or medical reasons, Lyons was asked, why he could not carry out the order? No, he confessed. ‘So you chose to disobey?’ ‘I was unable for moral and emotional reasons to obey.’

What was confirmed only when the sentence was pronounced, however, was that this was a show trial designed to dissuade any others from coming forward as conscientious objectors. Lyons was told that the severity of his sentence reflected the fact that he had deliberately engineered the entire incident in order to evade posting to Afghanistan – an interpretation which in no way reflected the evidence, and an accusation that had not been previously put. He was accused of endangering his colleagues, because someone would have to go in his place – on that argument, of course, one cannot release any conscientious objector. It was admitted that he was not on active service, but ‘at the present time the entire armed forces are supporting those who are’. We are back in the trenches, or at Balaclava.

‘Not tho the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why
Their’s but to do or die.’ (Alfred Tennyson)

Derek is Conscience and Peace Tax International Representative to the United Nations, Geneva. A Fox Report on conscientious objection will be published towards the end of August 2011.


See everything on: conscientious objection,

Also see:

Bringing it up to date: 100 years on from the First World War

This article, summarising ForcesWatch work, was first published on the White Feather Diaries website.

The price of pacifism: Refusing to go to war is finally being recognised as a brave act

From the Second World War refusenik to the 19-year-old Israeli, Holly Williams talks to five people who risked shame and suffering to take a stand as conscientious objector.