What would happen to people who refuse conscription if it’s introduced?

Britain has historically had a complicated relationship with those who refuse to fight (Picture: Getty)

The suggestion by top generals that Britain may need to draft civilians in the event of war with Russia has been met with a lukewarm reception, to say the least.

Rishi Sunak has ruled out the idea, saying that discussions about ‘hypothetical scenarios’ were ‘not helpful’.

But some officials reportedly believe a ‘wider conversation’ needs to be had if the world continues to get more dangerous while Britain’s military stays at a size of 75,000 soldiers.

Some have welcomed the idea of a return to the postwar ‘national service’ which required young men to serve in the armed forces for 18 months and stay in the reserves for four years before it was scrapped in 1960.

But many have lashed out at the idea of being forced to fight, prompting speculation about how people would respond to being drafted.

Since there is no law allowing the government to conscript people in the UK, there are no clear rules setting out what would happen to those who refuse mandatory military service.

For some idea, we might look to how Britain dealt with such people in the past, and how the Armed Forces today deal with professional soldiers who object to combat after signing up.

Exemptions from service and ‘draft dodging’

The UK has always had trouble with conscription: when it was introduced during World War One, almost a third of draftees failed to show up in the first few months.

Doing so was technically a criminal offence – meaning offenders could be jailed – although in practice the vast majority of men who didn’t want to fight applied for specific exemptions.

This meant they had to convince a tribunal they should be let off on the grounds of doing work of national importance, business or domestic hardship, medical unfitness, or conscientious objection.

By the end of 1916, around 750,000 men applied to tribunals – nearly as many as the number who joined the army – and the number of exemptions grew to 1.8 million by the end of the war.

Conscientious objectors leaving Dartmoor Prison in 1917 (Picture: Getty)

Conscientious objectors – those excluded on moral or religious grounds – are one of the most well-known cases of men who did not fight, though they were a tiny minority at just 20,000 successful applicants over the course of the war.

Some would accept non-combatant roles, while those who didn’t were treated harshly: often thrown in prison for long sentences and offered hard labour or farm work as they only alternative.

Many men who didn’t want to fight may not have ended up getting registered as ‘COs’ or being punished – so long as they weren’t absolutely opposed to any form of military service.

One of the most popular exemptions – granted to around 101,000 men – was given to men who accepted ‘home defence’ duties, which involved part-time military training and working to prepare Britain against an invasion.

Attitudes softened in the wake of the war, and by the time conscription was reintroduced at the outbreak of World War Two, it was easier to get registered a conscientious objector.

As a member of Nato, the UK would have to fight Russia if it attacked any of its allies (Picture: SWNS)

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The tribunals – which had been staffed by layman council officials – were replaced with specially appointed judges who generally accepted applicants if they said they objected to ‘warfare as a means of settling disputes’.

Still, they were a small minority: 60,000 registered COs, or roughly 22 in every 1,000 men eligible for the draft.

And very few – around 3,000 – were given complete exemptions, while the rest had to join the military in non-combat roles or work in other essential services.

Around 6,500 men were imprisoned by civil courts or court-martials, though sentences were shorter.

Conscientious objectors today

Since conscription was abolished with the end of National Service in 1960, there are no formal rules around refusing a mandatory call-up to the military now.

But the British Armed Forces recognise the rights of professional soldiers not to fight if they ‘develop a conscientious objection’ during their service.

Such personnel are expected to ‘raise the issue informally’ with their commanders, who can reject the objection or move them to a non-combat role, according to parliamentary briefings on the matter.

If this doesn’t resolve the issue, the conscientious objector can make a series of appeals to get discharged – though this is very rare, with only six discharged between 2001 and 2010.

Rishi Sunak has ruled out conscription – though some want him to be open to it (Picture: Getty)

This right is not set out clearly in British law, so the government could in theory scrap it or ignore it if conscription is introduced.

However, this could put the UK in breach of international law.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2006 found that the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights sets out a right to conscientious objection.

The ruling was not unanimous and is not set out clearly in a treaty: it’s based on Article 18 of the declaration, which states: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’

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