There are at least thirty countries that still have conscription. Among these are Mexico, South Korea, North Korea, Libya, Kuwait, Seychelles, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Greece, Brazil, Egypt, Norway, Russia, Jordan, and Venezuela.
Turkey does not recognise the right to conscientious objection for conscripts. Article 72 of the Turkish constitution states: “National service is the right and duty of every Turk. The manner in which this service shall be performed, or considered as performed, either in the Armed Forces or in public service, shall be regulated by law”. This in principle would allow for a non-military alternative. However, Turkish law does not provide for this.
Following the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Turkish conscientious objector Osman Murat Ülke in January 2006, the Turkish government declared at the Council of Europe that a law solving the problems would be in preparation. However, so far the Turkish government has failed to provide any more details. About 60 other declared conscientious objectors are in a similar situation, either after spending some time in prison or after a public declaration of conscientious objection, and ignoring a call-up.
The Turkish military openly discriminates against homosexuals and bisexuals by barring them from serving in the military. At the same time, Turkey – in violation of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights – withholds any recognition of conscientious objection to military service. Some objectors must instead identify themselves as “sick” – and are forced to undergo what Human Rights Watch calls “humiliating and degrading” examinations to “prove” their homosexuality.
Other exemptions from military service in Turkey include disability involving physical and sensory impairments as well as mental health issues.
Conscription and Conscientious Objection in the UK
Conscription in the United Kingdom has existed for two periods in modern times. The first was from 1916 to 1919, the second was from 1939 to 1960, with the last conscripted soldiers leaving the service in 1963. During World War I and World War II, it was known as War Service or Military Service. From 1948 it was known as National Service.
The UK was the first country to legislate for recognition of conscientious objection, resulting in the Military Service Act 1916. However, neither the 1916 Act nor the Second World War legislation which followed it provided relief to an individual who initially volunteered or accepted call-up but then changed his mind on grounds of conscience.
After conscription came to an end there were no formal procedures available for dealing with claims of conscientious volunteers until the end of the 1960s, when a non-departmental public body, the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO), was introduced to handle these claims. The committee deals with cases of those who object to further service and have been turned down; not those who are objecting to conscription or call-up on mobilisation for war.
According to a ForcesWatch brief in 2011, the right of serving military personnel to declare conscientious objection “is not set out clearly in legislation, is not mentioned in the terms of service and many, perhaps most, forces personnel are unaware of it.”
“Discharges due to conscientious objection are rare, with only six granted between 2011 and 2010.” The brief also states, “There is evidence that the small number of cases of conscientious objection recorded by the MoD does not reflect the true number of those who act on their ethical objections.”
According to figures released through the Freedom of Information Act in March 2011, as of January 2011 nine British servicemen and women had applied to be discharged from the military as conscientious objectors since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Six of them – two from the Royal Navy and four from the RAF – were granted the right to leave the armed forces because of moral, political or religious objections.
In 2008, British Soldier Joe Glenton was charged with desertion after refusing to return to duty in Afghanistan after just a 7 month gap following his previous tour. He spent nine months in Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre and has subsequently worked as an anti-war activist and journalist.
In July 2011, a British military court sentenced conscientious objector Michael Lyons to seven months’ detention. Lyons applied for discharge as a conscientious objector in 2008, as he had developed a conscientious objection to participating in the war in Afghanistan in particular, and against war in general. The court found that Article 9 of the European convention on human rights did not protect him from charges of insubordination.
It was not until 2004 that the Armenian government at last introduced laws for conscientious objection and the option of doing alternative civilian duties instead of serving in the army. However, this civilian service has been under military command, and Jehovah’s witnesses who have withdrawn on this basis have been detained and charged with desertion. In November 2011, the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, ruled that Armenia should pay compensation to 17 men who were detained and wrongly accused of desertion. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, around 30 of their members are currently in jail for refusing to perform military service.
In Eritrea the law is that men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 must do 18 months of military service, a stretch which in reality usually ends up being much longer. There is no right to conscientious objection. The government has deployed military police throughout the country using roadblocks, street sweeps, and house-to-house searches to find deserters and draft evaders.
Amnesty International reported in November 2004 that since 1998 the Eritrean military had been rounding up and arresting thousands of young men and others suspected of evading military conscription. These arrests had recently been stepped up. Some members of religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses are in custody since more than 10 years because of their convictions to refuse to serve in the military. Arbitrary detention, torture, deployment at the front line, forced labour – all without any hearing – have been common ways to punish deserters and objectors. According to activists, “a common form of military punishment is to tie victims and to lay them in the sun for days or sometimes weeks.” Amnesty International reports, “Several hundred relatives of people who evaded or deserted from the military have themselves been arrested.”
Compulsory military service in Finland lasts for up to a year. Alternative civilian service (Siviilipalvelus) has existed since 1930. Until 1987, non-religious objections were examined by a Special Commission of Inquiry which was composed of a judge, a military officer, a representative of the social ministry, and a psychiatrist. Today, simply filing the correct paperwork suffices, and as such, many people opt for it simply as an alternative to military service while not having any special objections. In 1987, the duration of the civilian service was shortened from 18 to 13 months, the duration of the longest military service, but still over twice as long as the most common military service (180 days).
Conscientious objectors who refuse to do alternative service are sent to prison. The prison sentences of total objectors are normally executed in open prisons, where there is a possiblity to work or study outside the prison during the sentence.
In Greece men serve a year’s compulsory military service, though this may be reduced if the government’s establishment of a professional army system proceeds as planned. The right to conscientious objection was not recognised in Greece until 1997.
The case of one conscientious objector caused War Resisters International to launch a campaign to support him. He first declared himself a CO in 1992. In the following years he was imprisoned 3 times and taken to court 12 times. In 1998 he applied for status as a CO under the new 1997 law, but though he was accepted he was also called up for alternative service – for a term over 7 times longer than his military service would have been. He refused to do alternative service. In 1999 he was arrested again and sentenced to 4 years in prison. He appealed against the sentence, which was eventually suspended. But then he was called up again! At the end of 2004 he was once more arrested, tried and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Campaigners point out that he had now been tried and punished twice for the same ‘offence’, and should be released.
Conscription exists in Israel for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, although Arab citizens of Israel are exempt (but Druze citizens are conscripted); other exceptions are made on religious, physical or psychological grounds. The normal length of compulsory service is currently three years for men and two years for women.
The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognized in the case of men. It is only partially recognized in the case of women under art. 39 of the National Defense Service Law, which permits exemption on grounds of conscience but only if they are religious grounds.
Every year Israel jails individuals simply because they refuse to perform military service for reasons of conscience. Jewish and Druze men who study in religious institutions can receive a deferment from military service. By contrast conscientious objectors, including pacifists and those opposed to implementing Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories, who refuse to perform military service are normally imprisoned for weeks and sometimes months, after receiving unfair trials by military officers. In many cases they serve multiple prison sentences. The exact number of conscientious objectors who are imprisoned in Israel each year is unknown. Amnesty International learns of a few cases each year. The small number of persons imprisoned should not detract from the fact that Israeli law and policy do not recognize the rights of most conscientious objectors and fail to enable conscientious objectors to perform an alternative form of civilian service.
The Shministim are Israeli high school students who have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in an army that occupies the Palestinian Territories. December 18, 2008 marked the launch date of a global campaign to release them from jail. Since then another Shministim letter was drafted for 2010, and in 2012 another group of Shministim are refusing and being imprisoned. In 2012 and 2013, Natan Blanc became the latest “refusenik” imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Israel Defence Forces.
Mexican legislation does not recognize the right to conscientious objection and military service is obligatory of all Mexicans by birth or naturalization.
In 2010, Senator Jose Luis Garci’a Zalvidea of the PRD, proposed to modify the constitution to exempt from military service those who claim their right to conscientious objection based on religious, ethical, moral, philosophical, or humanitarian convictions.
Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 serve a compulsory 2 years in the armed forces. A law allowing for conscientious objection came into operation on January 1 2004. Both religious and non-religious grounds for conscientious objection are legally recognized. According to Article 2 of the Law on Alternative Civilian Service “A citizen has the right to perform alternative civil service as a substitute for military service if the performance of military duties is in conflict with his convictions or religious beliefs”
According to this law, alternative civilian service lasts much longer: 3 and a half years, and consists of menial jobs in the military, post offices, hospitals and orphanages. However, for most young people draft avoidance — by means of “buying” medical exemptions or deferments of military service — is the method of choice, and not the legally provided form of conscientious objection. This means that CO numbers do not reflect the widespread discontent with the Russian military.
According to NGOs, the law and practices regarding conscientious objection to military service are “discriminatory” (Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, 20 Oct. 2011). Human Rights groups have accused the government of discouraging alternative services, saying requests “were frequently rebuffed by different layers of the civilian and military bureaucracy.”
SERBIA & MONTENEGRO
Alternative civilian service was introduced here in December 2003. Problems quickly cropped up, because no civilian service work had been organised. COs who refused unarmed work in the armed forces were threatened with imprisonment. In at least one case, a CO who was called up for unarmed work agreed to start, but refused some military tasks he was asked to do. Eventually he refused to return to his unit at all, and returned to civilian life with a suspended prison sentence hanging over him.
It was reported that over 12,000 young men applied for CO status after alternative service became an option. Over 6,000 were in alternative service posts by the end of 2004.
Compulsory military service here is for 2 years. The Korean Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court have denied that conscientious objection is a human right, and say that ‘national security’ is in any case more important than an individual’s human rights. Two COs took their case to the United Nations in 2004: they claim that their right to conscientious objection is implied in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which upholds ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. When the outcome of this move is known, it will have significance for COs worldwide.
Meanwhile COs continued to be arrested and imprisoned. Some object to call-up because of their Buddhist religion. Some have objected in particular to the deployment of South Korean troops in Iraq. Yet others are pacifists, and some of these are active protesters in the pacifist cause, working with organisations such as World Without War and Amnesty International, or in liberal political groups, or through publications and the press. Some have protested by going on hunger strike.
Switzerland has an army 200,000 strong. Military service is compulsory for men and lasts nearly a year. Women have the same training but service is voluntary. Conscientious objectors can choose 450 days of civilian service – much longer than military service – instead.
A law on conscientious objection was passed in 1992, but allows very few reasons for claiming conscientious objection. This has meant that some COs have not even applied for CO status, but have found other ways out. There have been reports of successful evasion of military service for medical or other reasons. Some men have obtained dismissal from military training.
A 1971 United States Supreme Court decision, Gillette v. United States, broadened U.S. rules beyond religious belief but denied the inclusion of objections to specific wars as grounds for conscientious objection.
Currently, the U.S. Selective Service System states, “Beliefs which qualify a registrant for conscientious objector status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.” Current Selective Service law requires and allows only registration. It does not allow for making claims of CO.
In the United States, there are two main criteria for classification as a conscientious objector. First, the objector must be opposed to war in any form (Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437). Second, the objection must be sincere (Witmer v. United States, 348 U.S. 375). That he must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief was no longer a criterion after cases broadened it to include non-religious moral belief (United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 and Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333). COs willing to perform non-combatant military functions are classed 1-A-O by the U.S.; those unwilling to serve at all are 1-O.
Sources: Wikipedia, CO Project, War Resisters International, Amnesty International, Institute for War and Peace Reporting
On 13 July 2000 representatives of two human rights organizations in Venezuela, Red de Apoyo por la Justícia y la Paz (Justice and Peace Support Network) and Provea: El Programa Venezolano de Educación-Accion en Derechos Humanos (the Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education-Action) stated that although the new Venezuelan constitution, promulgated in December 1999, allows for the theoretical possibility of civilian national service instead of military service, in practice it is not possible. Both representatives also stated that the Venezuelan government has instituted no program of alternative service for conscientious objectors.