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Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

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3 Thinking about why change may be needed

Here you will consider a contemporary example of a call for change and reflect upon the reasons why the change was called for and one of the mechanisms used to raise awareness.

Activity 2 Making a difference

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

In the UK army, under 18s undertake training for combat roles. Many argue that the UK is in breach of international norms on recruiting 16- and 17-year-olds for military service. The UK is the only nation in NATO that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve in the armed services.

Read the open letter that was sent to the Guardian newspaper in September 2017 and answer the questions that follow.

Armed forces are no place for 16-year-olds

It is unacceptable that the British armed forces continue to recruit people under the age of 18. We are academics who research the armed forces or who are concerned with the wellbeing of young people, and it has been brought to our attention that the youth wing of the Scottish National party is presenting a motion to raise the minimum age of military recruitment to 18 at the SNP’s national conference. We fully support the SNP youth motion.

The UK is one of only 19 countries worldwide to recruit 16-year-olds. Other countries that do so include North Korea, Iran and Syria. No other EU or Nato member state recruits 16-year-olds. Some 2,250 minors were recruited into the armed forces in the past 12 months. The army alone enlisted 1,000 16-year-olds. This makes 16-year-olds the single biggest age group entering the army. The army states that it uses the recruitment of minors as “an opportunity to mitigate standard entry shortfalls, particularly for the infantry”. This is worrying because the infantry has the highest fatality and injury rate of any branch of the armed forces. Child Soldiers International has found that soldiers who enlisted at 16 were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 or above.

The UK’s child recruitment policy has been challenged by the UK Parliament’s joint committee on human rights, the defence committee, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, major child rights organisations, Amnesty International, the National Union of Teachers, the UN committee on the rights of the child and military veterans themselves. The UK government has ignored all these calls to review the policy, and it is an issue on which the SNP should take leadership.
Dr Rhys Crilley Open University
Dr Jamie Johnson University of Sheffield
Dr Aggie Hirst City University London
Alister Wedderburn Australian National University
Dr Kevin McSorley University of Portsmouth
Dr Helen Dexter University of Leicester
Dr Katy Parry University of Leeds
Dr Melanie Richter-Montpetit University of Sheffield
Dr Joanna Tidy University of Sheffield
Dr Andrew Judge University of Glasgow
Professor Cynthia Enloe Clark University, USA
Dr Naomi Head University of Glasgow
Dr Laura Mills University of St Andrews
Dr Catherine Baker University of Hull
Dr Ciaran Gillespie University of Surrey
Dr Claire Duncanson University of Edinburgh
Dr Laura Shepherd University of New South Wales, Australia
Dr Megan Mackenzie University of Sydney, Australia
Dr Julia Welland University of Warwick
Dr Linda Åhäll Keele University
Dr Nicholas Robinson University of Leeds
Dr Harriet Gray University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Dr Victoria Basham Cardiff University
Dr Katharine Wright Newcastle University
Dr Cian O’Driscol University of Glasgow
Dr Scott Harding University of Connecticut, USA
Seth Kershner Northwestern Connecticut Community College, USA
Federica Caso University of Queensland, Australia
Professor Sally Wyke University of Glasgow
Dr Chris Rossdale London School of Economics and Political Science
Dr John Carman University of Birmingham
Alice Cree Durham University
Dr Diana Martin University of Portsmouth
Dr Nancy Taber Brock University, Canada
Dr Synne Dyvik University of Sussex
Dr Bryan Mabee Queen Mary University of London
Wesley Doyle University of Liverpool
Dr Robertson Allen Author of America’s Digital Army, USA
Professor Hugh Gusterson George Washington University, USA
Dr Matthew Flintham Kingston University
Professor Anthony Burke University of New South Wales, Australia
Albert Sargis Niebyl-Proector Marxist Library for Social Research, USA
Dr Adam Broinowski Australian National University
Dr James Eastwood Queen Mary, University of London
Professor Paul Dixon Kingston University
Dr Catriona Pennell University of Exeter
Dr Sarah Bulmer University of Exeter
Dr Brian Lagotte University of Kansas, USA
Henry Redwood King’s College London
Dr Hannah Partis-Jennings King’s College London
Dr Thomas Gregory University of Auckland, New Zealand
Dr Cristina Masters University of Manchester
Dr Tom Smith University of Portsmouth
Dr Stephen Gibson York St John University
David Gee ForcesWatch

(Guardian, 2017a)

1. What was the purpose of the letter?

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2. What motion were the academics listed supporting?

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3. Why do you think this particular newspaper was chosen?

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4. What do the list of signatories have in common?

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5. What committees challenged the recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds?

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1. The purpose of the letter was to raise awareness of an issue, which it is claimed, the UK Government was ignoring. In effect, the letter was calling upon the Scottish National Party (SNP) (who, at the time of writing, formed the Scottish Government) to show leadership on the issue.

The letter had been sent in support of a motion proposed by the SNP youth branch at the forthcoming SNP national conference. This motion supported raising the age of recruitment for the UK armed forces to 18.

2. The letter was designed to raise awareness of the SNP’s youth branch conference motion at the SNP conference in October 2017. The SNP’s youth branch campaigns for the raising of the army recruitment age.

3. The Guardian is an UK-wide newspaper with a wide readership and is known for its investigative journalism and dispassionate discussion. The paper has an editorial code which is published and accessible via the internet. In the summary it states:

A newspaper's primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted.

The most important currency of the Guardian is trust. This is as true today as when CP Scott marked the centenary of the founding of the paper with his famous essay on journalism in 1921.

The purpose of this code is, above all, to protect and foster the bond of trust between the paper and its readers, and therefore to protect the integrity of the paper and of the editorial content it carries.

(Guardian, 2017b)

4. The list of signatories (bar one) work in academia and identify which university they are employed by. They include academics from the UK, USA, New Zealand and Australia.

5. The committees which have challenged the recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds are the Defence Committee and UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Defence Committee is appointed by the House of Commons (in the UK Parliament) to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Defence and its associated public bodies. The Joint Committee on Human Rights consists of twelve members, appointed from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords (in the UK Parliament), to examine matters relating to human rights within the United Kingdom. (This excludes consideration of individual cases.) Defence is a reserved matter and falls outside the remit of the Scottish Parliament.

This also illustrates how, since devolution, the support of one administration can be used to effect change in the law across the UK (other examples include legislation charging for carrier bags, the smoking ban, equality on public boards, prevention of domestic violence and opt-out organ donation schemes).

Having thought about the call for review of the recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds, read the briefing in Box 1 provided by ForcesWatch.

Box 1 ForcesWatch briefing

The minimum age for enlisting in the UK armed forces is 16. The UK is the only country in Europe which routinely recruits people aged under 18. Those who sign on when 16 or 17 must serve until they are 22.

The recruitment of minors has been criticised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights and children’s charities amongst others. The Armed Forces Bill is an opportunity to phase out the recruitment of people under 18 in line with international standards, while introducing greater protection for 16- and 17-year-old personnel in the meantime.

Recruiting minors

People under 18 are not legally recognised as adults. They cannot vote or, in most cases, sign contracts. They are barred from buying the most violent films and video games. For minors to join the armed forces, they must have parental consent. Yet, a contract which they signed as a minor will legally bind them for up to 6 years.

Independent research has highlighted many areas in which the recruitment of young people into the armed forces is not characterised by transparency. Not only is recruitment material often less than balanced about the risks, obligations and dilemmas involved, but after enlistment there is considerable misunderstanding by those recruited as to their rights. The research concludes that, as a result, many young people are not making an ‘informed choice’ to join the army.

The UK is the only country in Europe which routinely recruits minors into the armed forces.

Worldwide, 134 countries have prohibited the practice. 37 countries recruit from the age of 17. The UK is one of only 20 countries in the world to recruit 16-year-olds. These countries include no other member of NATO and no other permanent member of the UN Security Council. But they do include several regimes with little respect for human rights, including Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

Restrictive terms of service

After their first six months, minors are committed to remaining in the forces until turning 22.

Whereas an adult commits to serve for four years, a minor is committed for four years from his/her 18th birthday – up to six years in total.

Although members of the armed forces cannot legally be deployed on the front line until they turn 18, once they become adults they continue to serve based on a commitment they made as a minor with no opportunity to reassess this commitment as an adult. This appears to be a legal anomaly. Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), describes this situation as ‘conscription by the back door’ because it relies on ‘a decision made without informed consent’ (ForcesWatch, 2011).

This information from this source supports the factual information presented in the letter to the Guardian newspaper, but builds on it by considering the age of consent implications. However, both the letter to the Guardian and ForcesWatch are campaigning for reform of the current position. Information that supports their viewpoint is therefore presented. On their website, ForcesWatch outline their purpose, stating that it ‘scrutinises the ethics of armed forces recruitment practices and challenges efforts to embed militarist values in civilian society.’ Alternative positions arguing for no change also exist.

Legislation in regulation to the armed forces is often reviewed, for example, the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill ‘to make provision for members of the Regular Forces to serve part-time or subject to geographic restrictions’ was introduced into the House of Lords (UK Parliament) in October 2017.

The course authors chose this topic as it is one relating to a reserved matter and one where the international community and UK Parliamentary Committees (amongst others) have identified a need for change. However, not everyone is in agreement that this change is necessary. Whether it occurs will be a reflection of changing values and ideas within society around the employment and rights of minors. This also highlights a grey area of law where there are contradictory rules about minors. For example, minors can vote in Scottish Parliamentary elections or join the armed services at 16, can marry with parental consent at 16 but cannot vote in a UK Parliamentary election or open a bank account until 18.