HL Deb 05 March 1968 vol 289 cc1327-40

8.17 p.m.

LORD BROCKWAY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will extend political asylum to those who refuse military service in other countries on conscience grounds. The noble Lord said: My Lords, quite honestly, I had not expected the previous debate to end so quickly. I think it will be accepted that to-day there are many people in all parts of the world, and particularly young people, whose minds and consciences are disturbed by the problem of participation in war. This arose particularly after the use of the first nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More recently, the doubt of people about participation in war has arisen from the conflict in Vietnam. Large numbers of people have not only read of the appalling occurrences in Vietnam but have witnessed them on television. This has led to a very wide view, not only in our own country but in all the countries which can read about these things or see television, that war itself is now becoming such a crime against humanity that it is insupportable in the conscience of the world.

In this Question I am suggesting that our Government should extend political asylum to those who object on conscientious grounds to participation in war, should they reach this country. There are now very many countries which provide some form of exemption to conscientious objectors. Sweden and the Scandinavian countries do so; this country does so; America does so. Someone suggested at an earlier stage of our proceedings to-day that I did not speak for Britain, although I was speaking for the policy of the Government. In this instance I want to speak very emphatically for Britain. Our laws regarding conscientious objection are the most liberal in the whole world. It is true that during the last war, when conscription was imposed, a number of objectors were rejected by tribunals and then, after periods in prison, were recognised as genuine. But, on the whole—and I speak as one who was chairman of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors in the last world war—our provisions for con- scientious objectors were fairer and more equitable than those in any other country.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our exemption of conscientious objectors was that it was not limited to those objecting on grounds of religious belief. It was not even limited to those who were opponents of war in all circumstances. It also allowed political objectors when the tribunals felt that for the man appealing it was, indeed, from the depths of his being, a matter of right or wrong. I took the test case on this issue. I took many cases. There was one case in which an Indian had not an objection to all war but had an objection to fighting for this country in a war for democracy when his own country was denied the democratic right of self-government. The appeal tribunal felt that this was, to him, so much a matter of being a decision that was right or wrong that they recognised him as a conscientious objector and exempted him. I want to pay my very great tribute to the tolerance and feeling of liberty of this country, that we should have extended the rights of conscientious objectors in that very broad way.

I am asking to-night that the principle of conscientious objection should be accepted as a ground for political asylum as a general principle, but, quite clearly, to-day it applies most to the boys in the United States of America who are now being conscripted for the Vietnam war. My Lords, I was present two years ago at a meeting which I think has moved me more than any since the last world war. It was a meeting of students at Ann Arbor University in Michigan. There were 100 of these students, and they all expected to be called up for service in the Vietnam war. There were religious objectors there; there were objectors on moral grounds other than religion; and there were political objectors whose objection was deep. For them, again, it was an issue of right or wrong. What was so impressive in that gathering was that the religious objectors said, "We will not take advantage of the American law, which allows men to be exempted on the ground of religion but which does not allow anyone whose objection is not on religious grounds, even if it is on moral grounds, and certainly not if it is on political grounds, to be exempted". There, the religious objectors said, "We will, equally with the others, when our draft cards come for service in Vietnam, tear them up"; and, as one knows, hundreds of these boys have done so. They have done so when the penalty is five years' imprisonment, and already some of those penalties have been imposed.

My Lords, the tribunals in America are very often acting in a narrow sphere. There is one boy in England at this time who did great service, inspired by the idea of serving the community, in the American Peace Corps. His objection to service in Vietnam was a religious objection to war. When he got to the tribunal he was denied exemption because he belonged to the Episcopal Church—that is, the Anglican Church of this country, and the Anglican Church has not declared in principle against all participation in war. He therefore was not even judged on his own religious objection: he was judged on the ground that the Church to which he belonged had not declared that view.

I am asking that these boys—and not only these boys, but all others in this country who have this conscientious objection to military service, whether it be religious, moral or political with this depth—shall be regarded as political refugees and have political asylum here. I want to acknowledge that our Government have been very generous and very liberal in granting political asylum to many refugees. I suppose that in the last three years I have dealt with about twenty people who have escaped from South Africa—opponents of apartheid—and who, if they were to return, would be liable to imprisonment, and perhaps death. There is only one of those cases that I have taken up with the Home Office that has not been accepted by the Home Office. I want to pay my great tribute to that fact. The Home Office is very ready indeed to give political asylum to those who come from Communist countries.

I need not say to my noble friend that I have the deepest sympathy with those who refuse to obey the dictates of apartheid and with those who are refugees from it in South Africa. I hope that I need not tell him that because of my great belief in personal liberty I have the utmost sympathy with refugees from Communist countries who come here. But I say quite sincerely that the deepest reason for disobeying the laws of a country in response to ideals and loyalties which are greater than those to one's own rational laws—deeper than opposition to apartheid, deeper than opposition to the totalitarianism in Communist countries—is the growing belief among thousands of people to-day that war has become so appalling that no human being with a conscience should be ready to participate in it.

When I raised this matter recently on a Starred Question, my noble friend replied that these men would be treated as ordinary immigrants; that their cases would be treated on their merits; that they would not be given political asylum, but would not be sent back to America; and that they would be given the opportunity to go to America or to other countries at the end of the period during which they were allowed to remain here. I am a reasonable person and I accept even that as some assurance. But I should like that assurance to be very definite to-night. I have a particular reason for asking this. I am asking my noble friend, when he replies to my Question, to say, quite categorically, that no man will be returned to America on the ground that he is refusing military service. I want him to say that categorically, because that is what he said a few days ago in answer to questions which were put. I have reasons for asking for a categorical statement to-night.

Secondly, I ask him whether he will repeat what he said in answer to questions which I put, that these men will be given the opportunity, if they so desire, to go to another country—to France, where they will not be proceeded against; to Sweden, which very generously recognises them as refugees and gives them the right of asylum—and that they will have the opportunity, at the end of whatever term for which they have been permitted to remain in this country, to go to one of those other countries. But, thirdly, and most persistently, I beg my noble friend to recognise conscientious objection to war and to a particular war. I wonder how many young men in this country, if they were conscripted to fight in the Vietnam war, would feel it right to go. I wonder how many of them would feel in their very souls that they would be doing wrong and denying what was finest in their own ideals. There would be thousands. I am asking my noble friend to appreciate that this action, which is based on conscience and principle, in the sense of one's being right or wrong, is the deepest of all grounds on which any nation which has pride in its liberty should provide asylum to those from another country.

My Lords, I want to conclude by saying this. I wonder whether America appreciates that the beginning of the United States was based on conscience; that the settlers who went there—Roman Catholics, Protestants, Quakers—went to those 13 British Colonies because their consciences could not accept the restrictions upon religion which were imposed in this country. America had its beginnings in those old conscientious objectors. I say to our own Government that it would be fair reciprocity if to-day, when young men in America are being compelled to do what they believe to be wrong, we were prepared to receive conscientious objectors from America, just as the American shores received our conscientious objectors at an earlier time.

My Lords, I make that appeal as sincerely as I possibly can. I believe that in the long run the reality of the civilisation of any country will be based more than anything else upon how far it appreciates the sense of right and wrong in its individuals, upon how far it gives those individuals the opportunity to live with their consciences and upon how far it is prepared to receive those from other countries who are animated in that way. I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name.

8.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to press the argument which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has put forward in asking this Question, because I think—and I know I share this opinion with a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Lords who usually inhabit these Benches—that it is a matter of principle. It is of course obvious that we must mention to-night the position in Vietnam, but it is very important that we should not get led into arguments pro or anti the American stand. It is something fundamental that we are trying to say about the status of a certain class of refugee. The tradition of Britain in the past in this respect has, with very few black spots, been honourable, and the Wilson Committee quotes the practice as being: to grant an application for political asylum only if it is reasonable to suppose that the result of refusing entry would be the return of the alien to a country in which he would face danger to life or liberty, or persecution of such a kind as to render life unsupportable for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion. There appears to be very little doubt that in the situation we are talking of, Americans who wish to evade conscription are subject to loss of liberty if they return home; and it is also, I think, quite definite that this is because of a political opinion and not because of what we would normally designate as a crime. Clearly Britain does regard the attitude of America, to take the present example, as in some way defective. Britain is a signatory to the Council of Europe resolution of January 26, 1967, which lays down that persons liable to conscription for military service who, for reasons of conscience or profound conviction, arising from religious, ethical, moral, humanitarian, philosophical or similar motives, refuse to perform military service shall enjoy a personal right to be released from the application to perform such service". Secondly the same resolution goes on to say that: this right shall be regarded as deriving logically from the fundamental rights of the individual in democratic rule-of-law States… These rights have been guaranteed in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This particular resolution also allows for alternative non-military service which could be offered to those who do not wish to serve military service.

It seems to me that the resolution from which I have just quoted is important, because it shows that we do not just regard this option of declining military service as something which can be allowed in some countries and not in others. Of course it is not for us to interfere in the internal workings of another country, or to seek to interfere, but it shows that we regard it as stemming from a fundamental human right and therefore something which we ought to uphold whenever we can.

My Lords, this is the main point. I do not wish to pursue the particular cases which are arising at the moment, except to put three very short points. First, this is a war which has never been declared by the country which is conscripting these people, and I think that would be a reinforcing reason. Secondly, as we have heard, the grounds on which conscientious objection is allowed in the United States have been narrowed since 1948 to those who believe that there is a superior being, a God, loyalty to whom overcomes other obligations. As a Christian, I feel that this arrogance in saying that atheists and agnostics cannot have loyalties and beliefs, and ethical beliefs, which go beyond some of the laws which may be put on them by their country, is a very wrong one.

Thirdly, I should like to point out that the National Selective Service Director in the United States, in a memorandum of October 26, 1967, has called on all draft boards to review all classifications of persons not involved in activities construed as not being in "the best national interest". This is direct persecution of those who, for political reasons, oppose this war.

I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in appealing to Her Majesty's Government to make it clear that we will offer political asylum to these people, and that we regard this as a basic human right, as I maintain we said when we subscribed to that resolution at Strasbourg.

8.47 p.m.


My Lords, may I, very briefly, support the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in the position which he has taken in this matter. I myself was in the Army in the last war and had no objection at all to our fighting that war; but I can imagine many circumstances in which I should have conscientious objections to fighting a particular war. In fact, there was a time, when I was still on the Army Emergency Reserve of Officers, when the question of whether I should refuse duty in the case of a call-up in a particular instance was present in my mind. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take a sympathetic view of the question. I speak as a member of a Church which has recently very strongly asserted the sovereignty of the conscience in a Christian.

8.48 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister of State whether, when he replies, he will explain something of the religious grounds for exemption in the United States of America? I believe that Mr. Cassius Clay is at present facing imprisonment and his objection is on so-called religious grounds. May I also ask whether my noble friend will tell us if these young men concerned have been given the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps, because I believe there is in existence an organisation which is called the Peace Corps and which gives them an opportunity to serve if they object to taking part in a war as combatants?

8.49 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Brockway paid tribute to our method of dealing in this country with those who have a conscientious objection to military service. I am not asked to deal with that to-night, I am asked to say whether Her Majesty's Government: win extend political asylum to those who refuse military service in other counties on conscience grounds. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, quoted the Wilson Committee with regard to political asylum, and I think that for the purposes of the record, and in order to give as complete an answer as I can to my noble friend, it would be well if I first defined the doctrine and the nature of political asylum.

Political asylum is the right of the receiving State to give asylum. There is no right in an individual to receive it. There is a right to give it, but it is, technically a right of the receiving State as against the State of the national. It is at the discretion of the receiving State how it shall exercise the right. This country traditionally has exercised this right so as to give asylum to the victims of oppression. We have done so for very many years, and are proud of the way we have done so. In considering applications, our practice is to grant asylum if it is reasonable to suppose that the result of refusing admission to a foreign national will be his return to a country in which, on grounds of politics, race or religion, he will face danger to life or liberty, or persecution of such a kind and extent as to render life insupportable. This is well-established practice, and Her Majesty's Government see no reason at all to vary it. The fear of persecution must be well founded, and the persecution which is feared must amount to more than a penalty imposed for a breach of the law. In other words, it has to be shown that the penalty imposed on an individual by the legal processes of his country, and which may be awaiting him if he is forced to return, amounts to persecution and not just to punishment.

My Lords, it follows that where, in a democracy, a man seeks to evade the military service to which he and his fellow countrymen are liable, and is thereby vulnerable to criminal proceedings, such a situation cannot be regarded, in itself, as satisfying the criterion for political asylum. A foreign national with a conscientious objection to military service should make his case for exemption to the authorities of his own country. In the last week or so my noble friend has asked me questions about individual citizens from the United States and has referred cases to the Home office. He has also referred to the hundreds of these young people we met together. This also answers the question put by my noble friend Lord Granville of Eye about Cassius Clay. Under the United States Military Selective Service Act 1967 no one is to be liable to combatant service who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.


My Lords, that is exactly the point. In America any exemption is limited to those who have a religious objection, and even in those cases exemption is not always granted. The moral objector who is not religious has no right of exemption in America.


My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to make my speech, he will find that I shall deal with this point. This is one of the difficulties we have in Question and Answer, and when my noble friend suggested it, I welcomed the idea of making a full statement. I cannot comment on the religious training and belief, but that is the first leg of the law. The second is that "religious training and belief" is not to include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code. Thirdly, claims to conscientious objection are to be examined by a local board, with a right of appeal to the President if the local board is not unanimous; and fourthly, if the claim to a conscientious objection is made out, the applicant is to be assigned a non-combatant service in the armed forces, or if conscientiously opposed to such service, to civilian work contributing to the national health, safety or interest.

Under American law, therefore, there is proper provision for assessing claims of conscientious objection to military service; for the hearing of appeals; and for assignment to non-combatant or civilian service in lieu of military service. That probably covers the question my noble friend asked about the Peace Corps. It would appear, however, that a person who objected to serve in a particular war, as opposed to all wars, would not be exempt on grounds of conscientious objection, whatever his motives. However, we would not regard this as a ground for political asylum in default of evidence that those whose claims to exemption are rejected are persecuted, as opposed to being punished. The penalty under American law for evasion of military service is imprisonment for up to five years and a fine of up to 10,000 dollars. There is a right of appeal to higher courts. No one is to be tried by court-martial unless he has been inducted for training and service.

It is the case—and this is my noble friend's point—that a claim to conscientious objection in the United States can be based only on religious training and belief, and this would exclude non-believers whose conscientious objections might in some other countries be regarded as valid. In Britain we have no definition of conscientious objection, and it is left to local tribunals and to appellate tribunals to be arbiters of conscience, no grounds being barred, whether religious, personal or humanitarian.

My noble friend Lord Brockway is asking, in effect, that the British law in respect to conscientious objection should be applied to foreign nationals, and that if their country's law is different from ours, they should be granted political asylum if they come to Britain. I was asked to deal with this sympathetically My noble friend has indicated just how sympathetically we deal with cases but what he now asks is not possible. The fact that a different criterion is applied by some other country in determining the validity of an appeal on grounds of conscientious objection cannot be regarded in itself as providing ground for political asylum unless there is evidence to show that those whose claims to exemption are rejected are persecuted, as opposed to being punished. I emphasise the words "in itself", because if there were other circumstances, as there could be, it might well be that a person who was a conscientious objector might be granted political asylum, but not solely because he had a conscientious objection to military service.

My noble friend asked me two questions. The first was: could I say categorically that no man would be returned to the United States on the ground that he has evaded military service? The provisions of Part 2 of the Visiting Forces Act 1952 for the arrest and handing over of deserters do not cover persons who are not members of the United States Forces. A person who has merely failed to report after being called up for service and is therefore not yet a member of these Forces is not liable to arrest under the provisions of the Visiting Forces Act. I hope that is clear to my noble friend. As I told him on a previous occasion, and as I now repeat, the fact of conscientious objection is neither a ground for refusing admission in this country nor for enforcing departure; and it is not a ground for granting political asylum. We are prepared to consider an application for admission, or a request for an extension of permitted stay, on the basis of the proposals put to us in their relation to normal immigration policy. Many young foreigners come here for study and are freely admitted, provided that they are following a full-time course of bona fide studies and are able to maintain themselves while here. Others may be working here in employment approved by the Ministry of Labour, or be here simply as visitors because they have the necessary financial resources. We consider applications sympathetically in the light of the circumstances of each case. But to give the general assurance about political asylum asked for by my noble friend would not be possible, for the reasons that I have explained.

There is one final point. My noble friend asked me whether the people he described were free to go to other countries if other countries would take them. Of course they are free to go. I have said that there is nothing to stop them from leaving this country and going to another. That is entirely up to the other country. We shall not prevent them from going. They are perfectly free to go if they wish, or they are free to stay here, provided that they satisfy the normal Immigration Act procedures, which we think are fair for them and fair for other people, and which will be administered without fear or favour.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—I do not want to abuse Parliamentary procedure—I should just like to ask for some information. When he says that no man will be returned to America because he has not yet become a member of the Armed Forces of America—I understood that to be the reason—would he say that that applies to someone who has been rejected by the tribunals, who has been drafted and has torn up his draft card? Is he not then subject to the American military laws, just as in this country those of us who were conscientious objectors in the First World War were regarded as part of the military as soon as we had been handed over to them?


My Lords, I am not an expert on United States law but my understanding of the position is that the Act under which we should proceed would be the Visiting Forces Act, 1952, Part II—that is, in regard to members of visiting forces over here. This is where our jurisdiction lies in this country. My understanding of the position is that a person who has merely failed to report after being called up for service, and is therefore not yet a member of those forces, is not liable under the provisions of the Visiting Forces Act to arrest.

In the case to which my noble friend referred, the young man had been to two tribunals and to the High Court. Whether he had actually been called up, I do not know. Therefore, it is impossible in an individual case like that for me to answer the question. But certainly, on the face of it, and in the terms of the Visiting Forces Act, if he had not been called up, we should have no power to send him back to the United States.

House adjourned at five minutes past nine o'clock.