#whitefeather diaries

Resisting conscription today

10 March 2016

Despite international legal recognition of the right to conscientiously object to military service, it is still an issue today. Hannah Brock of War Resisters’ International shares her thoughts on international networks of people challenging war today.

Conscientious objection today: Still resisting conscription

COs public declaring their conscientious objection in Turkey

Conscientious objectors publicly declare their refusal to serve. Istanbul, September 2015. Photo used courtesy of War Resisters' International

Recently I gave a talk in Somerset. Some really interesting questions came up. The last was from a former member of the Navy who said he has always respected conscientious objectors (COs) for their principled stance, but didn't know they were part of political movements. “That's just it” I said, “it's not that COs don't want to go to the military – it's that they don't want anyone else to join either”.

War Resisters' International (WRI) is an international network of grassroots pacifist groups. In the UK, you may know our affiliate the Peace Pledge Union, who make the white peace poppies. WRI was founded in 1921 to enable mutual solidarity, provide a space to share learning, and to be a voice for those resisting war all around the world. That's still what we do today.

What happens to conscientious objectors?

Talking about conscription in the UK generally evokes questions about World War I, or reminiscences about 'National Service' in the '50s. In fact, obligatory military service still exists in over 60 countries worldwide. Within these states, there is a diversity of how those who refuse the draft are treated, and whether conscientious objection is a recognised right.

In Eritrea, tens of COs have been in prison since 1994. In Turkey, refusers face 'civil death' where the ability to perform simple administrative tasks like hold a passport, register a child or get a job is restricted. By contrast in Norway, since 2011 COs have been 'let off', since the numbers are (sadly) so small, and the administrative burden of requiring substitute service so great.

The country that imprisons more COs than the rest of the world put together is the Republic of Korea (that's South Korea). The punishment for refusing the draft is 18 months imprisonment. Today around 700 men are in gaol for this offence, primarily (though by no means exclusively), Jehovah's Witnesses. And it doesn't stop when the sentence ends: there are ongoing repercussions for professional opportunities, and social and personal relations may be affected by taking a path that is both illegal and often deeply unpopular, even taboo.

Support networks for COs are crucial. Within organised groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, where the religious community expects individuals to refuse conscription, this stigma may be less of an issue. However for people whose political or humanitarian views lead them to become conscientious objectors, such support is not guaranteed. In these instances, being part of an international solidarity network, such as War Resisters' International, can be crucial.

Who are conscientious objectors?

Today there are different reasons for becoming a CO, just as there were in WWI. COs may refuse conscription on religious, political or humanitarian grounds. In addition, militarism's inherent sexist, racist, homophobic, patriarchal and hierarchical nature is recognised by many to be unfair and unequal, leading to discrimination for particular individuals.

Conscription pulls people towards peace movements like almost nothing else. Ironically, once the 'success' of ending conscription occurs, it often leads to the decimation of those peace movements.

Movement tactics

People looking at public information stall outside an arms fair in Seoul

World Without War, a CO support and antimilitarist campaigning group in South Korea, hold a public information stall outside an arms fair in Seoul, on the 'family day', when the public can enter the fair. Photo used courtesy of World Without War

There are many ways CO movements attempt to disrupt the military, from civil disobedience to international human rights mechanisms, and everything in between.

The insumision (literally insubmission – pointing to disobedience and rebellion) movement across Spain of total objectors (also known as absolutists, those who refuse the substitute to military service) in the '90s and early '00s filled the barracks and prisons with objectors.

In some parts of the country, there were more objectors than conscripts, and alternative service was left in administrative chaos. Conscription became unworkable. They contributed to the ending of compulsory military service in Spain, after 230 years.

Amongst the insumisos, the aim of the campaign was not just to end conscription: they knew its days were numbered. But they knew that “the more we set the pace for structural change in the military, through insumision, the more difficulties the state will face in constructing a new military model” (Tomas Sancho of MOC-Zaragoza writing in Insumision: a question of state in December 1994).

Pushing back against the power of militarism

This experience is a great example of the power of conscientious objection. It's not just in securing the rights of individuals, it's in giving all those whose lives are affected by militarism the power to take back their own bodies and minds, and through that, push back against the power of militarism for all its victims (both those who are faced with weapons, and those who wield them).

Seen in this light, it is also a useful concept for people who are not drafted into military service personally, including women and those of us living in countries without active conscription. In most countries where conscription exists women are not conscripted, Eritrea, Israel, Mozambique and Norway are notable exceptions.

Find out more about active CO movements today.

The Quaker peaceworker scheme supports organisations like WRI by funding one-year placements in organisations working for peace and social justice. Find out more about the peaceworker scheme

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Jeremy Routledge on
We were proud to host the first WRI international conference in Cape Town in 2014where South African conscientious objectors were honored for their courage in resisting apartheid conscription. We honor all those conscientious objectors in Eritrea, Korea, Israel and other parts of the world and all those resisting militarization everywhere

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