Finland: finally shorter substitute service

Finish Minister of Labour Tarja Cronberg (Greens), who is responsible for the administration of civilian service, is proposing to shorten the length of civilian service from 13 months to 11 months. She also wants to introduce mandatory refresher courses for reservist civilian servicemen. In September 2007 the government is preparing to submit the legislative proposal amending the Non-Military Service Act and Decree, which will then be discussed in the Parliament.

If passed in its suggested form, the amendment will be another addition to the long list of changes in civilian service over the past few decades. Scheduled to enter into force in January 2008, the government bill proposes to shorten the time of service, to extend the option of civilian service to include times of war and military crisis, and also to change the contents and the purpose of the service. The Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors has already expressed its disappointment with what it sees as piecemeal concessions, which do not address the ultimate issue of inequality between the military and non-military service, and the lack of real alternatives.

At the moment civilian service is only an option during peacetime, which will remain unchanged if the new government bill is passed. In peacetime, civilian servicemen spend 395 days doing various jobs that are supposed to benefit the public interest. The definition of public interest covers a great variety of jobs in government, municipalities and other state institutions. Many non-governmental organisations that work to promote general welfare also employ civilian servicemen, and some of them are actually dependent on the regular supply of servicemen as part of their workforce.

The Council of Europe was the first to point out in 2001 that the length of civilian service in Finland is in breach of the European social charter. This statement has been reconfirmed by the Council on numerous occasions. In 2004 the UN human rights committee publicly condemned the length of civilian service in Finland as discriminatory and in breach of the international covenant on economic, social and political rights. The negative limelight was further strengthened by international and domestically active NGOs, such as Amnesty International, that also campaigned against the imprisonment of total objectors.

Source: Reforming civilian service, 29 August 2007