Credit: PA

In light of Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary’s, remarks yesterday that she supports individuals from the UK who want to go and fight for Ukraine and the UK’s recent measures to revoke the citizenship of Britons including those who have fought in conflicts overseas Shahnaz Ahsan explores the distinction between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ conflicts, and questions whether it is the position of the Foreign Secretary to effectively incite civilians to take up arms

Liz Truss, the British Foreign Secretary, recently announced that she would ‘absolutely support’ British citizens who travel to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces. Appearing on the BBC Sunday Morning programme, her position was unequivocal.

“I do support that. Absolutely.  I would support them in doing that.”

It is a strange position for a British Foreign Secretary to take, particularly when at the time of writing, UK forces have not been deployed to the frontline. And in light of the UK’s recent measures to revoke the citizenship of Britons, particularly those who have fought in conflicts overseas, Truss’s statement is even more problematic.

Lest we think that there is some ideological consistency applied as to whether a citizenship is revoked in such cases, it must be highlighted that the UK government has stripped citizenship of Britons who have fought against ISIS, as well as those who joined the terror organisation even as non-combatants. As such, it cannot even be framed as an issue of whether or not British citizens are fighting on the same side as the UK government. The very fact that British citizens such as Aidan James, who fought against ISIS, have had their citizenship rescinded, demonstrates that there is a double standard applied to Britons who affiliate themselves politically or ideologically with certain regions of the world even if they are fighting in accordance with the UK’s political stance.

Rather, Truss’s position appears to be based on the British political establishment’s arbitrary framing as to which conflicts and regions of the world are deemed acceptable for Britons to take up arms in, without raising suspicions about motives, loyalty, or indeed, contravening so-called ‘British values’. The explicit backing of the Foreign Secretary to British citizens who take up arms to defend Ukraine against Russia is not afforded to those who seek to defend Yemen, Syria, Kashmir, or Palestine, for instance. Britons who fight for those regions considered less worthy of government and public sympathy face losing their citizenship and being rendered stateless as a consequence.

This apparent moral hierarchy is mirrored in the selective empathy we have seen in the media coverage of the plight of Ukrainian refugees. Various reporters and anchors, including those for the BBC, CBS, and others have unabashedly spoken of their increased sympathy because these refugees have ‘blonde hair and blue eyes’ and have come from a ‘civilised’ nation.

There is a broader question too, about how appropriate it is for a British Foreign Secretary to give the green light to British citizens to engage in armed combat in Ukraine, when legal experts argue that doing so could flout UK terrorism laws. In saying that prosecutions would, however be, ‘unlikely’, these serves only to undermine these laws.

The issue must also be considered, as to whether this carte blanche would also apply to Britons who fight against Russia alongside neo-Nazis such as the Azov battalion. This question is evidently not as cut and dry as Truss believes.

In case all of the above was not problematic enough, the main point – which should not even have to be said – is that war is always horrific, ugly, and tragic. The captured Russian soldiers admitting that they did not want to fight and were forcibly conscripted. The newlywed Ukrainian couple who are currently fighting on the frontline. These are tragedies, reminders of the real human cost of this war, as with all others.

In an increasingly volatile world, of post-truth and misinformation, the rise of online radicalisation, mass shootings, and so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, any politician should be aware that cheap rhetoric comes at a great cost.

Liz Truss ought to know better than to valorise war. Offering unequivocal support to those who take up weapons is not only irresponsible and dangerous – but is also not within the scope of her job. The Foreign Secretary’s role is to peacefully bring about as swift an end to the conflict as possible through mediation, sanctions, and negotiations. Let us hope that she is soon reminded of this.


Shahnaz Ahsan is an author and commentator. Her debut novel, ‘Hashim and Family’ (John Murray Press) was named an Observer Best Book of 2020. Her articles have appeared in Observer Food Monthly, The Daily Telegraph, and various online magazines. Follow on Twitter

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