It came in the form of one sentence in the Throne Speech, but for one man it carried a lot of weight: “The Government will amend the Defence Act 1965 in consultation with the Governor to officially end conscription to the Royal Bermuda Regiment within this legislative session.”
For Larry Marshall Sr, the founder of the group that became known as BAD – Bermudians Against the Draft, it has been a long time coming, after a court battle that went from the Supreme Court all the way to the Privy Council to end conscription for the Royal Bermuda Regiment (RBR).
As conscientious objectors, his sons Larry Jr and Lamont Marshall, and Jamel Hardtman launched their court battle on the grounds that they had a constitutional right to be protected from inhumane treatment if they had to do military service.
Ultimately, their case ended in defeat and all three have since aged out of the required 33-year-old age when they can no longer be conscripted to serve in the RBR. And at the end of the day, more than a decade later, their families were left with a $300,000 bill for legal fees that they struggle to pay off to this day.
To this day, conscription, albeit a different version of the original requirements, remains on Bermuda’s law books. Until it is removed completely, for the founder of BAD, it’s not over. For the past two years, the RBR has used volunteers, but there’s a clause in the current legislation that falls back on conscription as a back up plan.
When contacted by Bermuda Real, Mr Marshall Sr said: “Financially our family’s reality today is that we continue to struggle with the $300,000 bill for legal fees. That bill started accumulating in 2007. One decade later that struggle to pay it off continues.
“But I want to emphasise that Premier Burt has kept and honoured by his word, in that he promised to end it outright in this legislative session. So I would say that my initial reaction was that I was pleased, and I have every confidence that Premier Burt will fulfill his promise to end conscription. I want to see it end because conscription is fundamentally and morally wrong,” said Mr Marshall Sr.
From day one he has called for either a full-time or part-time service comprised of volunteers with proper pay, proper treatment and proper training. The male-only conscription policy has always represented forced labour in his view. And from a human rights perspective he said it is fundamentally wrong.
The group formed 11 years ago in January 2006 when Larry Junior went before the tribunal as a conscientious objector.
“Like many others have done before him over the years, he argued on the grounds of religious and moral reasons and they rejected his appeal,” said Mr Marshall Sr.
“They gave him a year to appeal their decision in the Supreme Court two years later in 2008. The court turned it down on the grounds that constitutionally forced labour was allowed.
“Most of the rest of the world is volunteer, but BAD believes forced labour will inevitably be cheap labour because they don’t have a choice, they’re forced into it. There’s no collective bargaining on conditions or wages, and as a consequence it would be a continuation of the vicious exploitation of cheap labour,” he said.
“Michael Dunkley, the former Premier, ended up doing nothing – it was six of one and half a dozen of the other, in that the Bill tabled in 2015 was just a rewording of the 1965 Defence Act,” he added.
Asked what he would say to critics who believe serving in the the Regiment is a good way to instill discipline in young men, he replied: “They have an incredible inferiorty complex in that they think so low of their young Black men that the only way to train them is through brut force. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of parents to instill discipline in their children. It is not the government’s responsibility.
“In today’s society you don’t take away someone’s fundamental right to their freedom because you want to impose your definition of discipline on them. You’re forced into cheap labour and subjected to profanity and vulgarity etc.
“This is a longstanding issue of social injustice that is finally coming to an end because Premier Burt realises everyone is entitled to human rights and he has acted accordingly. I look forward to seeing it passed in this legislative session. I can’t ask for more than that,” he said.
“For 12 years we’ve been fighting this and this is the first time I believe the Premier has honoured, and will honour his word. And so for me it’s a major sigh of relief.”
- Mr Marshall can be reached via email at [email protected]