"The number of UK citizens and westerners travelling to fight in foreign conflicts has reached alarming levels unlike anything seen in recent years. We require an immediate response targeted at dissuading and preventing those who wish to go to fight from going."
These were the words of a British parliamentary report published last April. The report, as might be expected, was mainly concerned with British Muslims fighting in Syria – of whom there are thought to be about 500.
But they are not the only ones who are (or might become) involved in foreign conflicts. Some British citizens have dual nationality and may therefore be called up for military service in other countries but some also go abroad as volunteers and there are thought to be about 100 British Jews serving in the Israeli military, even though they do not have Israeli citizenship.
The question of what to do – if anything – about Britons fighting in foreign wars has been around for almost 150 years. In 1870, parliament approved the Foreign Enlistment Act which states:
"If any person, without the licence of Her Majesty, being a British subject, within or without Her Majesty's dominions, accepts or agrees to accept any commission or engagement in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with any foreign state at peace with Her Majesty, and in this Act referred to as a friendly state, or whether a British subject or not within Her Majesty's dominions, induces any other person to accept or agree to accept any commission or engagement in the military or naval service of any such foreign state as aforesaid, he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act, and shall be punishable by fine and imprisonment, or either of such punishments."
In other words, it is an offence to join foreign forces fighting any other foreign state which is not at war with Britain. It is also an offence to recruit people for that purpose. The immediate aim of the 1870 law was to prevent British citizens from joining the Franco-Prussian war.
Fast-forward to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, when more than 2,000 British volunteers went off join the International Brigades, fighting the fascists. The writer, George Orwell, was among them. When they returned, several leading politicians, including Clement Atlee and Stafford Cripps, welcomed them back as heroes.
Others sought to have them prosecuted under the Foreign Enlistment Act but the move failed – apparently because it was
difficult to produce evidence of their enlistment.
Today, their legal position would be different, as George Monbiot noted in an article for the Guardian:
"They would be arrested under section five of the Terrorism Act 2006. If convicted of fighting abroad with a 'political, ideological, religious or racial motive' – a charge they would find hard to contest – they would face a maximum sentence of life in prison. That they were fighting to defend an elected government against a fascist rebellion would have no bearing on the case. They would go down as terrorists."
Earlier this year, the head of counter-terrorism for the Crown Prosecution Service warned:
"“Potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are.
"People have got views about all sorts of conflicts and all sorts of places, but our government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflict they have views about. We will apply the law robustly."
If the British government seriously wants to enforce this rule, it should do so fairly and also apply it to Britons who join the Israeli military.
At present, there is nothing to stop anyone joining, so long as they are Jewish. Israel has a recruiting programme which it advertises on the internet and there is also a support organisation in Britain – "Mahal Mums" – organised by the mothers of some who have signed up.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 21 July 2014