Experiences of conscientious objection movements in the world



Experiences of conscientious objection movements in the world


Conscientious objection as it is "generally" understood today was first legally recognised in Europe and Australia in the early 20th century. However, legal and political concepts of conscientious objection are varied, and movements for conscientious objection respond to militarism differently, based on political circumstances and systems of recruitment.

Based on three case studies, the authors explain important issues/challenges for CO movements.


I think that we can get further by saying the truth:

(...) That no-one can be forced to follow a call-up order - that therefore we firstly have to eradicate the psychic obsession which makes one believe that one has to, has to, has to march, when they blow the horn.

You do not have to.

Because this is a simple, a primitive, a simply great truth:

One can also stay at home.

Kurt Tucholsky, 1927[1]

Refusal to take part in war is probably as old as war itself. However, conscientious objection as a political and philosophical concept became more important with the introduction of conscription as a more "effective" means for recruiting (first in France on 5 September 1798), and modern warfare.

As a response, organised conscientious objection developed, especially after the First World War - War Resisters' International as the international organisation for conscientious objectors was founded in 1921. At that time only two countries - Denmark and Sweden - provided any legal recognition of the right to conscientious objection. This number grew significantly, especially after the Second World War, due to emerging movements for the right to conscientious objection, at that time mostly in Western Europe and North America.

What is conscientious objection?

But before we want to go on we want to spent some time on the term "conscientious objection": what does it mean? What is conscientious objection?

There are probably as many definitions of conscientious objection as there are conscientious objectors, and the political perspective is important. In 1983 the first report on conscientious objection to the United Nations offered the following definition: "By conscience is meant genuine ethical convictions, which may be of religious or humanist inspiration (...). Two major categories of convictions stand out, one that it is wrong under all circumstances to kill (the pacifist objection), and the other that the use of force is justified in some circumstances but not in others, and that therefore it is necessary to object in those other cases (partial objection to military service)"[2].

A similar definition is the basis of many CO laws. However, within the international movement of conscientious objectors - partly organised within War Resisters' International - the debate is quite different though. First of all, it mostly does not focus on the question of conscience - the objection or refusal is the focus of the debate, and the German term Kriegsdienstverweigerung (war service refusal), or the term insumisión (disobedience), chosen by the Spanish CO movement, reflect better the approach of conscientious objectors[3].

In 1973, the Italian conscientious objector Pietro Pinna defined conscientious objection in this way: "C.O. is a focal point of antimilitarist action. By its witness of living adherence to the idea, it operates as a major focus of debate and mobilisation. In the wider revolutionary strategy, C.O. offers a fundamental indication, i.e. the assumption of responsibility, of autonomy and personal initiative; it serves as point of reference, as paradigm, for the extension of the concept of 'conscientious objection' in any other sectors of social life"[4].

This definition is important, because it points from individual to collective, antimilitarist action. In a report of a discussion on "conscription and strategies around conscientious objection" at the War Resisters' International Triennial Conference in Brazil in December 1994, the discussion is summarised as follows: "In recent years the debate by the CO movements[5] has led us to believe that what we as objectors are basically striving for is the demilitarisation of society, while the state, on the other hand, wants to maintain or promote militarisation. We have to evolve strategies which prevent the CO movement remaining static on this vertical axis [see illustration 1], planning to approach what would be a diagonal trajectory, which would be the ideal - that is, progress towards a demilitarised society which would be accompanied by an increase in individual liberty"[6].

Illustration 1: Relationship between demilitarisation and freedom of conscience

Demilitarisation as function of freedom of conscience

War Resisters' International, 1995[7]

Challenging hegemonic masculinity

Perceptions of one's own masculinity play an important role in producing "willingness to serve" in the military. The fear to lose one's "masculinity" can produce willingness to serve in the military in spite of opposition to military and military solutions. This is especially true for working class masculinities which emphasize physical strength, and can easily be exploited by the military. As German researcher Hanne-Margret Birckenbach puts it: "Under the disguise of 'no to killing - yes to killing for the purpose of defence' conscientious objectors and those willing to perform military service do not only fight about military violence, but also - without knowing - about ideals of masculinity"[8].

While it might be easy for refusal movements to reject the notion of the "man as warrior", it is much more difficult to embrace the issue of gender (and sexuality, for that matter) fully, but the more important. Cynthia Enloe writes: "As we have accumulated more and more evidence from more and more societies, we have become increasingly confident in this assertion that to omit gender from any explanation how militarization occurs, is not only to risk a flawed political analysis; it is to risk, too, a perpetually unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization"[9].

As long as we as antimilitarists continue to reproduce the gender stereotype of the "strong and powerful man" in our nonviolent actions and in the image of total resisters, who are "strong enough" to face prison, our efforts will be doomed. It will be crucial for the refusal movement (and the nonviolent movement in general) to develop forms of nonviolent action that address all forms of violence - direct physical violence, structural violence and cultural violence. If we fail to do so, then we are doomed to engage in a "perpetually unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization" (Enloe).

Case studies

With three different case studies, we want to raise some important issues/challenges for CO movements.

South Africa

In South Africa existed the system of Apartheid. White people held the power and separated all coloured people from participating in the society. Organisations with a majority of black people like ANC struggled against this system. In order to maintain the power of white people the military and government created an obligatory military service for white men. Such was the situation in 1983, when a campaign was started by white and as well as coloured people who wanted to work against the Apartheid system. The campaign was called End Conscription Campaign, ECC, a name speaking for itself

Conscription was the main basis to maintain the system of Apartheid. Only white men were obliged to fulfill the military service, but also coloured people went to the army on voluntary basis. In the middle of the 80s, the South African Defence Force had about 900.000 soldiers. With the system of conscription the regime also tried to commit white people to the system.

Therefore the founding of a group of white people to fight against this main basis of the Apartheid system was a very important step. It ( challenged) the mainstream. It showed solidarity with the struggle of coloured people. And it gave the idea that every man could struggle against the system.

The governments reacted by introducing a law on conscientious objection. This law had a very repressive character. Military service was one and a half time longer than military service, six years altogether. Mostly Jehovas witnesses made applications. This law, however, wasn't seen as an alternative. In the following years some of the conscientious objectors who refused it, like Charles Bester and David Bruce were sentenced to the maximum penalty of six years. A lot of conscripts left South Africa.

Some years after the foundation of ECC, in 1987, the first 23 conscientious objectors went public. They declared their conscientious objection as a part of a struggle against the militarized system, against the system of Apartheid. And they didn't make an official application to get the status of conscientious objection. Furthermore soldiers who had to fight in Angola and the townships reported about the cruelty there and the crimes of the South African army.

The year after, 1988, 143 went on public, and the following year about 1.000. ECC started to open a register to give this struggle more publicity.

At that time ECC demanded a better law. The organisation asked for a civil service with the same duration as the military service which would provide opportunities to work in alternative projects. But in the organisation itself this position was discussed and it stayed in contradiction to the name of ECC. Until this time ECC also started to inform conscripts about their possibilities how to evade military service. You could see a leaflet with information about exemptions, struggle against the call-up, leaving the country, not informing the authorities about one's new address and so on. At least the facts decided the main thrust of the struggle. In the beginning of the 90s more and more evaded the military service. And the government didn't see the chance to prosecute them. This was a decision: Evading the draft was much better than leaving conscientious objection result in a long civil service period. And most men did just that, finally, about 70%. The arrested objectors were released.

In August 1993 the defence ministry stopped the call-ups. This was the end of the conscription system in South Africa.

ECC stopped its work after reaching this one point goal. It was a success in one point of the militarisation, but it didn't stop the militarisation of the country in itself. Today South Africa has the biggest army in Africa, there is no right of conscientious objection, South Africa exports weapons and is sending troops in different parts of Africa. Though, the achievements of the ECC are impressive. Some important things added to each other:

  • although the activists had different opinions about the way and the struggle it was possible to work for one goal: to fight against conscription as one part of the apartheid system;
  • ECC considered exil organisations from conscripts in Great Britain, Germany and The Netherland as well as conscripts and reservists who just evaded the military service as playing an important role in the struggle, though they didn't take a stand in public. ECC said this is a vote with their feet;

  • ECC went out to tell the situation in South Africa and their struggle in the whole world. We organized tours in Germany, but they went to other countries as well.

  • The struggle for conscientious objectors was seen as an important part of the ruling minority in South Africa;

  • ECC got a lot of international support from South African refugees in Great Britain, from WRI, from our organisation and some others. David Bruce who stayed about four years in prison got 24,000 postcards.


The first publicly known case in Greece was the conscientious objector Michalis Marangakis in December 1986. He was arrested some months later and sentenced to four years imprisonment. After calling against the decision the penalty was reduced to 26 months. Shortly thereafter Thanassis Makris went the same way. At last he was sentenced to 18 months of prison.

In both cases a big international campaign was started, demanding to recognize conscientious objection and to release the objectors. Hundreds of protest letters were sent to the Greek president. At the same time the Greek Solidarity Committee organized events and demonstrations and supported about 20 addional conscientious objectors.

Because of the international support conscientious objectors didn't have to face harsh prosecution after the cases of Michalis Marangakis and Thanassis Makris. But arrest warrants forced them to live in the underground - as it is currently the case in Turkey. From 1990 to 1997 only three were arrested. Most of them got a suspended sentence of one year prison.

Also during that same time a lot of conscripts went abroad, for example to Germany. Since they had a right to stay in Germany as citizens of the European Union they were able to evade military service. About 3.000 to 4.000 a year used another way: They declared themselves as mentally deranged and were exempted from military service.

During the whole time the Greek group demanded to introduce a law recognizing conscientious objection including the proposal for a civil service. A group of total resisters worked separately, but couldn't get much attention. The Greek government had promised the introduction of a law since 1988. A law came in 1997, which was very restrictive. The duration of civil service was 18 months longer than military service. Soldiers and reservists don't have the right to declare their conscientious objection.

Since then some conscientious objectors were sentenced to six to 24 months of prison. Lazaros Petromelidis has been prosecuted since 1992 and is refusing to serve 30 months of civil service instead of 4 months of military service. Once more they were called-up only to be prosecuted again. EBCO, amnesty international and War Resisters' International declared in May 2005 that Greece is breaking the European consensus. But nothing changed.

The question is, why it wasn't possible to gain better results in Greece. We had to see

  • the fact that the group of conscientious objectors didn't succeed in questioning the very important role of military in Greek society;

  • that it wasn't possible to include the whole resistance in one common strategy: draft evaders, total resisters and conscientious objectors;

  • it was overlooked that a law should include solutions for conscripts as well as for soldiers and reservists - and for conscientious objectors of the past (no amnesties).


Paraguay got the right to conscientious objection with the new constitution of 1992, after the end of the Stroessner dictatorship in 1989. According to art. 37: "The right to conscientious objection for ethical or religious reasons is hereby recognized for those cases in which this Constitution and the law permit it." Para. 5 of art. 129 states: "Those who declare conscientious objection will provide services to benefit the civilian population, in aid centers designated by law and operated under civilian jurisdiction. The law implementing the right to conscientious objection will be neither punitive nor impose burdens heavier than those imposed by military service."[10]

It is important to note that the constitution does not refer to any procedure for the recognition of conscientious objectors, and this is generally interpreted in a way that there is no basis for any examination of a claim of conscientious objection. However, a law on conscientious objection has never been implemented. In practice this means that in Paraguay the right to CO is recognised, without any investigation of a CO claim, and without any substitute service.

The Paraguayan conscientious objection movement started in 1993, with a first public declaration of five conscientious objectors. In August 1994, the third public declaration of conscientious objectors took place in the offices of the human rights commission of the parliament, and lead to the establishment of a simple procedure for the recognition of conscientious objectors: a conscientious objector declares his/her objection in front of the commission, and will then be provided with a CO ID card by this commission. This ID card has the same status as a military ID, this means it protects from recruitment and ensures the CO can present an ID whenever the law requires a military ID.

Since the beginning of the CO movement, the numbers rose dramatically: from 5 in 1993 to 12,000 in 1999 and 2000, and 41,000 in 2001, when there were attempts to restrict the right to conscientious objection. Today, there are roughly 8,000 COs annually, 5,500 serving in the military, and 45,000 evading military service[11].

In 2003, attempts to pass a law on conscientious objection were finally shelved.

MOC-Py (Movimiento de Objeción de Conciencia Paraguay) understands itself as a "political, antimilitarist, and alternative movement"[12]:

  • political, because it is aimed at the transformation of society, resisting any form of domination and discrimination;

  • antimilitarist, because the movement radically rejects any form of militarism and all military institutions, and works to abolish war;

  • alternative, because the movement proposes alternatives values[13].

The movement in Paraguay used certain tactics and strategies, which will be briefly listed here.

  • A cornerstone were massive public and collective declarations of conscientious objectors. Public and collective are important, as these two aspects work against the individualisation of conscientious objectors, which is so often inherent in a focus on individual conscience. This included on 9 April 1999 the first public declaration of women objectors, although women are not conscripted according to Paraguayan law.

  • This was accompanied by information and campaigning on related issues such as military expenditure.

  • Nonviolent direct action also played a vital role in highlighting the issues in relation to conscientious objection and antimilitarism.

The work of MOC-Py often focused on coalitions, on building what in Spanish is called a "colchón social?h, which can best be translated as ?gsocial mattress?h. This means creating a broad network of support from all spectres of societies and walks of life: journalists, churches, artists, parliamentarians, judges, members of political parties, NGOs, etc... Important partners for MOC-Py were the Families of Victims of Military Service, as well as youth and human rights organisations.

In its struggle MOC-Py always used a variety of strategies, often simultaneously. These included legal/juridical, social and political strategies. One important feature often was the use of divisions within the ruling political party, and between the ruling and the opposition party. The constitutional recognition of the right to conscientious objection, for example, has been achieved in this way.

In spite of the successes of the Paraguayan CO movement, problems remain. Especially in rural areas, there are problems such as forced recruitment and psychological pressure, with the military going from house to house in order to recruit. And in spite of the number of COs, Paraguay has in recent years experienced an increased militarisation, especially in the triple-border area and with US troops in the country.

However, in terms of the right to conscientious objection, the achievements are impressive, and largely due to the CO movement. It has to be highlighted that Paraguay is and remains so far the only country in the world where the right to CO is recognised and is NOT linked to a substitute service. This is largely due to the clear antimilitarist perspective of the Paraguayan CO movement, which never promoted substitute service as an alternative to military service.


Although the three situations differ greatly, some important aspects can be summarised:

  • The need to put the struggle for CO into a broader context: the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, or against militarism and for demilitarisation in the context of Paraguay.

  • The need for a broader strategy, which is inclusive, and does not only focus on legal aspect (a law on conscientious objection).

Obviously, each country has its own political context. Strategies that worked in one context cannot just be copied in another context. However, lessons can be learned, which can be used for the development of appropriate strategies in Turkey, or elsewhere. The case studies presented here can be used for exactly this purpose - to learn from other successful or less successful CO movements, and adapt the strategies for use in Turkey.


[1] Kurt Tucholsky (as Ignaz Wrobel): Über wirkungsvollen Pazifismus, in Weltbühne, 11 October 1927

Quoted from: Kurt Tucholsky: Unser Militär! Schriften gegen Krieg und Militarismus. Büchergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt/Olten/Wien 1982, p396-401 (translation into English by the author)

[2] Question of conscientious objection to military service. Report by Mr. Eide and Mr. Mubanga-Chipoya, 27 June 1983, E/CN.4Sub.2/1983/30, paragraph 21

[3] Bart Horeman looks at the different translations of the term in the draft European constitution: Bart Horeman: Conscientious objection in the EU constitution, 26 April 2006 (unpublished). However, these are only the "legal", or "official" terms. Conscientious objection movements might adopt other terms, as the Spanish MOC did with the term "insumisión".

[4] Pietro Pinna:Functions and policy of WRI, War Resistance, Vol 3, 1st & 2nd quarters 1973

[5] at ICOMs [International Conscientious Objectors' Meetings - the last one took place in 1996 in Chad, AS]

[6] Rafa Sainz de Rozas, Hugo Valiente: Conscription and strategies around conscientious objection, The Broken Rifle No 32, June 1995, Report on the XXI Triennial Conference of War Resisters' International, http://wri-irg.org/pubs/br32-en.htm#Heading6

[7] Rafa Sainz de Rozas, Hugo Valiente: Conscription and strategies around conscientious objection, The Broken Rifle No 32, June 1995, Report on the XXI Triennial Conference of War Resisters' International, http://wri-irg.org/pubs/br32-en.htm#Heading6

[8] Hanne-Margret Birckenbach: Das ambivalente Verhältnis zur Gewalt. Psychosoziale Grundlagen militärischer Kampfausbildung. In: antimilitarismus information, no 7/1986

[9] Cynthia Enloe: Beyond 'Rambo': Women and the Varieties of Militarized Masculinity. In: Eva Isaksson (ed.): Women and the Military System. Proceedings of a symposium arranged by the International Peace Bureau and Peace Union of Finland. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo 1988

[10] English version: http://www.oefre.unibe.ch/law/icl/pa00000_.html, accessed 17 February 2007, spanish version at http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Paraguay/para1992.html, accessed 17 February 2007

[11] MOC-Py: Presentation at the "International Meeting of Solidarity for Conscientious Objection in Colombia", Bogota, 18-20 July 2006 (unpublished)

[12] MOC-Py: Declaracion ideologica, http://moc-py.cabichui.org/index.php?catid=2&blogid=1, accessed 17 February 2007

[13] MOC-Py: Declaracion ideologica

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