Israel to recognise conscientious objection?

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations announces that Israel "would grant the right to those who object on conscientious grounds to serving in the military, alternative civilian service".

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, announced on 19 March during a session on Israel's response to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that the country "would grant the right to those who object on conscientious grounds to serving in the military, alternative civilian service". This announcement came as a response to recommendations made by Slovenia. Israel's ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar responded to the recommendation: "We were asked by the distinguished representative of Slovenia about the treatment of conscientious objectors. Israel’s Supreme Court has addressed the issue in a number of cases, and in particular the difficulty of balancing conflicting considerations, in particular the need to respect the conscience of the individual objector and the nature of army service in Israel as a general duty imposed on all members of society. The Court has affirmed that where conscientious objection can be proved and is distinguished from political motivations or civil disobedience, exemption from army service must be granted to men and women alike."

In the review process, Slovenia noted with concern the information in the OHCHR compilation and stakeholders’ reports on the refusal to the right to conscientious objection, part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and on imprisonment in this regard. It asked if Israel intended to review this, and recommended ceasing imprisoning conscientious objectors and considering granting the right to conscientious objection to serve instead with a civilian body independent of the military.

However, a lot of skepticism remains. Already in the Working Group Israel's delegation replied to Slovenia's recommendation saying that "the Supreme Court has affirmed that, where conscientious objection can be proved and is distinguished from political motivation or civil disobedience, exemption from army service must be granted". Even if Israel would pass a law leading to the recognition of conscientious objection, it can be doubted that this would change the situation. Already now, some pacifists get exempted from military service. However, any conscientious objector who links his or her conscientious objection to the situation in the Occupied Territories is unlikely to achieve recognition as conscientious objector, and is more likely to be seen as being politically motivated.

In addition, Aharon Leshno-Yaar represented the outgoing Israeli government at the session of the Human Rights Council. With the new Israeli government, it is even more doubtful that any substantial improvement of the situation of conscientious objectors would be passed in the Israeli parliament. In the past, there have only been vague announcements by Israeli politicians not about a recognition of the right to conscientious objection, but about forcing a mandatory civilian service (probably militarised to some degree or other) on anybody who's not serving in the Israeli army today. Everybody involved has made it specifically clear that the military, not the individual, decides whether military or civilian service would be performed.

Sources: Haaretz: Israel to UN: We'll improve treatment of minorities, 19 March 2009; Human Rights Council: Draft report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Israel, A/HRC/WG.6/3/L.8, 9 December 2008; Email Sergeiy Sandler (New Profile), 20 March 2009