Conscientious objection: where are we now?
Conscientious objection was legally recognised in Britain in the Military Service Act 1916 although the Act itself was unclear about whether the right was applicable to combatant service only or towards all forms of military service.
In 1950 a statement on conscientious objection was submitted to the UN Commission for Human Rights. The Quaker United Nations Office continued to work on international recognition and, in 2006, conscientious objection to military service was recognised as legally protected under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. Work to strengthen the standards continues today.
In January 2016 Rachel Brett, former Quaker Representative to the United Nations on Human Rights and Refugees, gave a speech entitled ‘Conscientious objection to military service: where are we now?’ outlining the international recognition of the right and how it is applied in different countries. This is an extract of her speech.
Conscientious objection to military service has been recognised as a human right at both the international (UN) and European levels. Specifically, the European Court of Human Rights in 2011 ruled (Bayatyan v Armenia) that it is part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (ECHR Art. 9), following on from the earlier recognition of this by the UN Human Rights Committee (2007) which is the body dealing with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Although various other international and regional human rights bodies had already stated that this was the case. However, these individual cases removed any remaining doubt about the matter.
This recognition as a human right is significant because:
1. All states in the world are bound by one or more human rights treaties which recognise the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This gives the recognition of conscientious objection universality. It is not a matter of choice of a specific government or military whether to provide for conscientious objectors.
2. It means that this is a right applicable to all persons – it is not a group exemption for certain religious groups such as Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. and cannot be limited to members of such groups (though such membership may be good evidence of the individual's position in this respect). This applicability to all on an individual basis was one of the significant aspects of the CO provision in the Military Service Act 1916.
3. This right is also applicable at all times because the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a non-derogable right. The British Military Service Act is a useful precedent and reminder for others that it is precisely in times of war or national emergency that it is essential to provide for conscientious objection!
4. Because human rights have to be applied without discrimination, the basis for an individual's conscientious objection is not a valid criterion for distinction – a non-religious pacifist objection is as valid as one from the 'traditional' peace churches or from a religion that does not intrinsically espouse a pacifist position.
5. Not only may there be no discrimination in recognising conscientious objectors, but their treatment may not be discriminatory in relation to those who do military service. If they are required to do an alternative service its duration, terms and conditions, etc have to be equivalent to the military service and not punitive. In any case, conscientious objectors may not subsequently be subjected to discrimination in relation to any economic, social, cultural, civil or political rights because they have not done military service.
6. Finally on the legal aspect it is important to note that a person may become a conscientious objector at any time (clearly because there is a right to change one's religion or belief) – the right must therefore be available to conscripts even after they have begun military service, it applies to those who have joined voluntarily and it applies to reservists.
The legal position is therefore very clear. Unfortunately, not all countries yet apply the law in practice although there has been a steady increase in recognition and improvement in treatment of conscientious objectors.
In some countries there is still no recognition of conscientious objection at all, in particular South Korea (where between 500 and 700 young men go to prison each year for their objection), Singapore, Eritrea (one of the causes of the outflow of so many young men and women), Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. In Israel young men and women continue to be repeatedly imprisoned for their conscientious objection as well as suffering legal and societal discrimination.
Finland, whose provision is not yet fully compatible with the international human rights standards, has a good provision in that even those conscientious objectors who go to prison do not get a criminal record. It is important to be aware that acquiring a criminal record may be one of the consequences of being an unrecognised conscientious objector which may have serious and continuing effects in relation to employment and in other areas.
Long term implications
Too often, even when people understand that being a conscientious objector may have immediate consequences they tend to be unaware of the longer term implications – what the European Court of Human Rights has described in the Turkish cases as a situation tantamount to 'civil death' (lack of a valid identity document means inability to legally marry, register birth of child, gain employment, travel inside or outside the country, etc). In Colombia, only recently (thanks to the Constitutional Court applying international standards) have young men become able to graduate from university without producing a military identity document.
Lack of information
Finally, a different problem relates to the lack of provision of information about the right to conscientious objection and how to claim it even in countries where it is recognised. This includes the paucity of information in the UK about provision for professional service people: information about this possibility and the procedure for it should be readily available to all serving and reserve military personnel.
More information on conscientious objection can be found at:
Rachel Brett International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service (QUNO, January 2015)
Emily Graham: Conscientious Objectors to Military Service – Punishment and Discriminatory Treatment (QUNO, May 2014)
War Resisters' International www.wri-irg.org
More information about the work of War Resisters' International will be available next week.
John was ordered to join the Non-Combatant Corps in 1916. Upon refusal he was imprisoned in Pentonville to await a court martial. John wrote in his diary about his first few days in prison.
While a few COs found chaplains who were sympathetic or at least respectful, others found them positively insulting. Will Chamberlain, a journalist and conscientious objector imprisoned in Winchester gaol, described his first experience of a service in the prison chapel.