Britain: conscientious objector Michael Lyons sentenced to seven month detention for "disobedience"

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British conscientious objector Michael Lyons was court-martialed on 4 and 5 July, on charges of "disobeying a lawful order". Michael Lyons joined the Royal Navy as a medic in 2005, and applied for discharge as a conscientious objector in summer 2010. Although his Commanding Officer supported his CO application, it was rejected higher up in September 2010. Almost immediately, Michael Lyons appealed to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO), which heard his appeal in December 2010, and recommended to Minister of Defence Liam Fox to reject Michael Lyons' appeal. Until today, Michael Lyons has not officially been informed of Liam Fox's decision.

Meanwhile, Michael Lyons was ordered to participate in a two weeks' advance rifle training course, as pre-deployment training for Afghanistan. Although he had participated in weapon training in 2005, as part of his initial training, he had never had weapon training subsequently, and as a medic he is usually considered a non-combatant, according to the Geneva Convention.
At the beginning of the course, he asked to be re-rolled to non-combatant duties, but he was given the order to draw a weapon, and to commence weapon training, which he politely refused, based on his conscientious objection.

The case highlights several problems with Britain's regulations for conscientious objectors. Already in 2007, WRI wrote in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee:
"It has to be pointed out that for all three services an application for discharge on grounds of conscience does not prevent deployment. During the time the application is being processed, the applicant remains a member of the Armed Forces with all duties this implies. There is no right to ask for service without arms during the processing of the CO application."

The order to commence weapon training effectively trapped Michael Lyons. Would he have obeyed the order, it could have been seen as undermining his application for conscientious objection, besides being against his moral and ethical beliefs. But disobeying the order landed him in court, and brought him a sentence of seven month detention, reduction in rank, and dismissal from the Royal Navy. However, at that time Michael Lyons would have reluctantly followed an order to deploy to Afghanistan as a medic, without weapons, even though he thought the war was unjust.
Speaking after the trial on behalf of Michael Lyons wife, Lillian Lyons, Emma Sangster, co-ordinator of Forces Watch, told The Guardian: "This seems a deliberately harsh sentence, which serves not only to punish Michael but to dissuade others from following his actions.

"Considering that servicemen have a right to conscientious objection and this inevitably comes to be a point where an order is not going to be obeyed, I think this indicates that the armed forces don't take conscientious objection seriously and are seeking to undermine it."

"I hope that people will realise from this they do have a right to object on grounds of conscience and that there is a process, albeit a very obscure one, which they can follow."

The court martial highlighted a lack of awareness within the Royal Navy (and presumably also the other forces) about conscientious objection, not only in terms of procedures, but even more so in terms of what this means for the individual concerned. It is pretty obvious that sending someone who has applied for discharge as a conscientious objector, and who has not handled a weapon for years (as a medic) to an advanced weapon training course will cause distress and a serious conflict of conscience. It is a clear sign of - at best - ignorance, or - at worst - sheer hostility and bullying.

The case shows that to bury the regulations for conscientious objectors deep inside the entire set of service regulations for the three individual forces does not do justice to it. Forces Watch and other organisations therefore demanded that regulations on conscientious objection be included in the Armed Forces Bill, or in its own bill, so that they are the same across all forces and more easily accessible. Emma Sangster told The Guardian on her own behalf: "Michael has been extremely courageous to act on his conscience and remain consistent and dignified throughout this whole process.

"We urge MPs to uphold the human rights of forces personnel by clarifying and strengthening the right to conscientious objection, and the procedures for it in the armed forces bill currently going through parliament."

Sources: War Resisters' International: British conscientious objector refused recognition, CO-Update No 62, January 2011; War Resisters' International: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Human Rights and the Armed Forces, 1 October 2007; War Resisters' International: BRITAIN: Conscientious objector Michael Lyons sentenced to 7 months' detention, 5 July 2011; The Guardian: Navy medic detained for refusing training over WikiLeaks claims, 5 July 2011; Forces Watch: Briefing on Conscientious Objection, February 2011