Conscientious Objection: a springboard for radical social change

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Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Javier Gárate was one of the first publicly declared conscientious objectors in Chile and co-founder of the conscientious objection group, Ni Casco Ni Uniforme (Neither Helmet Nor Uniform).  From 2005 to 2015 he worked at War Resisters´ International (WRI) as the Nonviolence Programme worker. He currently lives in Belgium, where he enjoys the local beers, chips and chocolate, while plotting nonviolent training and action.  His discussion here is of conscientious objection as an entry point into other forms of progressive activism, or a 'springboard for radical change'.

When we talk of the peace, anti-war or antimilitarist movements, we are often talking about different movements.  Not all supporters of anti-war and peace movements consider themselves antimilitarists, and the concept of peace also covers a lot more than just being against war.  However, when we look at the struggle for conscientious objection, we see it present in all forms of struggles against war and militarism.  That is one of the biggest strengths of the struggle for conscientious objection – its diversity.

The struggle for conscientious objection often starts as a personal decision, when you find yourself confronted with the fact that you are forced to serve in the military and you almost have no choice but to think ‘where do I stand when it comes to doing or not doing military service?’, or with questions such as: ‘am I OK with being trained to kill?’.  We know that there are many different reasons for becoming a CO: as an assertion of my human right to say I don’t believe in killing others, as an opposition to militarism and patriarchy, as a refusal to support a specific military mission, and many more.  In my case was a rejection of all that militarism stands for and in particular a strong critique of the role the military continued to play in Chile after the end of Pinochet's military dictatorship: even if we no longer lived under a dictatorship, we did live in a military state.

The personal element is important as it means this is an issue that directly affects you and that you can directly take action against war – but a personal stance alone is not enough, since for the struggle to have an impact it needs to become a collective one.  We know that it is important to support individuals affected by conscription and who have declared themselves conscientious objectors and this is something that War Resisters' International does, in the belief that every person who doesn't join the military represents a step towards peace.  However, there is always the danger of focusing too much on individual cases, sometimes even making some kind of ‘heroes’ out of these individuals for beings so brave as to refuse the military.  And as those who are conscripted are mostly men, it is also often men who become conscientious objectors.  But when we challenge militarism, we should also be challenging machismo and the construction of such ‘heroes’, as these go directly against our antimilitarist, anti-patriarchal struggle.

There are other reasons to avoid the individualist approach to conscientious objection, especially where a group centres around certain 'heroes'.  Groups can sometimes spring up in support of one conscientious objector after he declares himself as such, and most of their early work focuses on supporting that one person.  However should that person – the figurehead – be imprisoned, exiled, or become unavailable in another way, what can the group do?  I have seen groups that cease to function when their leader is imprisoned (the same is true for other movements, not only ones focusing on conscientious objection).  This can be one impact of hierarchical leadership based on key people who are seen as indispensable and irreplaceable.  By focusing on an individual, or even a couple of individuals, you can lack a longer-term strategy to build a movement and act collectively.  Movements that are strong collectively are the ones that have more chance of remaining sustainable into the future.

Work on conscientious objection can at times seem a bit narrow: the work of supporting individuals who refuse military service, the impact of which only reaches the individual in question, without wider consequences.  However, the experience of WRI on this could not be more different.  As already noted, there are many motives for becoming a conscientious objector and this book explores the diversity of these motivations and approaches.  Here, however, I will focus mostly on groups who identify themselves as antimilitarists.

As conscientious objection is often an entry point into antimilitarism and nonviolence for people, it is very often the case that once people start organising around conscientious objection, they soon start to realise that military service is just one of the pillars supporting war and militarism, which leads them to becoming interested in learning and getting involved in wider antimilitarist and nonviolent activities.  We often hear from conscientious objection groups that they first got started as a reaction to the conscription that they and friends were facing, without much clarity on where to go from there, apart from demanding the right to conscientious objection.  If this initial commitment to supporting the refusal to kill is channelled through an organisation or group and if this collective can connect with other organisations involved in antimilitarism and nonviolence, it is likely that the group will start to widen and deepen its analysis and actions.  The group will start to explore how it can challenge other aspects of militarism and go beyond the refusal of military service and the demand for the right to conscientious objection.

Often, when conscientious objection groups state what they stand for and what they refuse, they say they refuse militarism because of all the negative values ingrained in military institutions, such as hierarchy, patriarchy, obedience, and nationalism etc.  This refusal will and should include a strong gender analysis:  conscripts are being trained in what it means to be a soldier and a man in military terms – the construction of a militarised masculinity.  Many conscientious objection groups – such as those discussed in the chapters on the Turkish conscientious objection movement in this book (chapters 23 and 24) – incorporate a radical analysis of gender and sexuality, and there are several statements by women conscientious objectors on why they declare themselves as such, for example Ferda Ulker's: 'the conscientious objection movement is not only a struggle against “compulsory conscription”.  It has a wider dimension.  And we, women, have a bigger voice and status, than being mere “supporters” of the movement.  Conscientious objection is direct opposition to militarism and every aspect of it.  Militarist thought does not remain within the borders of the military, but entails a military world that affects daily life.  And in this world, women are degraded and disregarded.  Our status is always behind, even though occasionally circumstances require us to further our position.  The terms of this world are: authority, hierarchy, and obedience'.  More such declarations are included in WRI's Women Conscientious Objectors – An Anthology.  Many of these women are not directly conscripted but are opposed to a system that conscripts minds and bodies far beyond the young men doing military service.  This understanding of militarism and patriarchy as interconnected is often present in conscientious objection groups’ analysis and it is an important contribution to the wider peace movement.

In their exploration of how to deepen their work against military service, groups also look at different and non-hierarchical forms of organising that can lead to an interest in consensus decision making and how to organise in a nonviolent manner, making both antimilitarism and nonviolence core aspects of their identity; nonviolence training and resources such as the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns can provide key guidance during this development phase.  This widening and deepening of analysis and forms of action was very much evident, for example, in what we have seen happening in South Korea.    WRI was first contacted many years ago, and asked to support the work on conscientious objection there.  At the beginning, the people interested in conscientious objection came to it from a purely human rights perspective of defending young men who were being conscripted, with the main aim of ‘getting them out’ and campaigning for the right to conscientious objection: they lacked a wider critique of militarism.  Thanks to their eagerness to explore other conscientious objection struggles in the world however, and also a strong link with WRI, the South Koreans campaigning around conscientious objection started to engage in other issues and to build a strong antimilitarist and nonviolent identity.  Now, many years later, they have a strong group – World Without War — which continues to campaign and support conscientious objectors, but which also campaigns against war profiteering and other forms of militarism by, for example, carrying out nonviolent direct actions against the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island.  This goes to show how they  have developed their analysis and areas of action against militarism, while embracing nonviolence as its method for bringing about change.  This has also meant that they have built stronger alliances with other movements as they are seen as a group engaging in many issues and not just as a conscientious objection group.

As much as wider peace and antimilitarist groups impact the work of conscientious objection groups, the same can be said for how conscientious objection can and has played an important role in the wider movement.  The fact that conscientious objectors are prepared to take a personal stand against war can inspire others to look at questions such as ‘what role do I play in the war machine?’ and ‘is there anything I can do to withdraw support from it?’.  Conscientious objection should be seen as a form of nonviolent direct action and it is arguable that conscientious objection struggles have inspired many others to ask what forms of nonviolent action they can take against war, and to see that it is not enough to organise marches from point A to point B demanding the end of war: a spanner needs to be thrown right into the war machine.

The strategies of conscientious objection campaigns tend to combine the nonviolent action of refusing war with legal and solidarity work.  As covered elsewhere in this book, there are several international mechanisms that support the right to conscientious objection, and many conscientious objection struggles have focused on getting their states to uphold this right.  An example would be the case of Finland – one of the few European countries still with conscription – and their campaign demanding the end of conscription, with one of their actions being an online petition asking for conscription to be abolished.  As discussed in the chapter on International Solidarity, such solidarity has in many cases been key to the success of campaigns for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection, or individual cases claiming this right, as power-holders often want to pretend that there is no problem whatsoever with conscientious objection in their country.  If international organisations can amplify the voices of local groups and show that people in other parts of the world care about what happens to conscientious objectors, the power-holders will have a tougher time pretending that nothing is happening.  International solidarity has been pivotal to the development of conscientious objection groups and supporting individual cases, who often suffer imprisonment for their stand against militarism – WRI's CO-alert system is one of the best examples of how to apply international pressure in support of conscientious objection.

When we talk about solidarity and conscientious objection we are not just talking of support by people in the Global North to young men conscripted in the South.  The conscientious objection movement has a long and rich history of mutual support.  The fact that conscientious objection struggles most of the time involve the support of people who are members of a group or network means you form strong personal links.  International meetings such as the International Conscientious Objectors' Meetings (ICOM), which unfortunately no longer takes place, and the events around International Conscientious Objection Day on the 15th May, as well as networks such as the now defunct Latin American Conscientious Objection Network or the current Middle East Conscientious Objection Network, have been places for meeting people in similar situations from other parts of the world.  I remember my first International Conscientious Objection Day meeting in Israel in 2003, and the impact it had on me to see that people as far apart as South Korea, Turkey, Israel, Spain and Chile had so much in common when it came to refusing militarism.

As mentioned earlier, conscientious objection is often the first experience people have with political activism and a lot of people come and go from conscientious objection groups.  Over the years, many people have attended conscientious objection meetings and events and it is hard to quantify the impact this has on activists.  Surely, however, the importance of striving for a world without war and where we support the people who refuse to kill is something that people take from being connected to other refusers.  As already mentioned, conscientious objection groups tend to have a radical gender analysis.  You can often see that people and groups connected to conscientious objection from an antimilitarist perspective lead the way in making the connection between militarism and patriarchy and questioning dominant gender and sexual relations, as well as in highlighting the need to look at gender relations within our own groups.  As conscientious objection is not just about refusing to kill in such groups, but also how we build alternatives to militarism, the way conscientious objection groups organise – when they have managed to develop as a collective and not just as a support group for individuals – tends to be non-hierarchical, so the influence and impact in activism can be seen not just in the analysis of what we are against but also in how we organise to build the alternative.  For example, if you look at the work against conscription in Colombia, which in the mid nineties started in support of individual cases, the most well known being that of Luis Gabriel Caldas,  it is now a movement formed by a network of several collectives, campaigning for the right to conscientious objection and against conscription, but also looking at nonviolent alternatives to the military conflict in Colombia, including developing an economic project to support young people so they don't take the military route because of economic needs.

Often, conscientious objection groups or organisations working on conscientious objection will have people who have served and in some cases deserted from the military among their members.  These people come with first hand experience of how military institutions function, and because of how this experience has impacted them, they can became extremely committed to the cause against militarism.  Veterans have historically played key roles within the anti-war movement, such as in the movements against the Vietnam war and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Veterans such as Wendy Barranco of Iraq Veterans Against the War – who also writes in this book – have been outspoken in denouncing sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of Human Rights violations in the military.  This experience helps inform the movement of how the military functions from the inside, but also has the potential of reaching out to a much wider audience, including the so called ‘military family’.

Groups campaigning for the right to conscientious objection from a legal framework have obtained landmark victories arguing that refusing to kill is a right recognised not only in the Human Rights Declaration but in various national and international legislation, such as in the case of the Colombian Constitutional Court recognising the right to conscientious objection.  The work done by organisations such as WRI and the Quaker United Nations Office, arguing the legal case for conscientious objection and supporting individual cases, has been instrumental in making sure activists understand the opportunities but also the limitations of having a legal approach to their campaign.  Documentations such co-guide.info are resources not just for conscientious objection campaigners, but for any activists who want to have an understanding of how legal mechanisms work.  The strategy of supporting a campaign with strong legal work is, in general, increasingly seen as crucial for its success.  We cannot claim that conscientious objection led the way on this understanding, but the sustained and extremely professional work of institutions supporting this right is likely to have influenced other campaigns and organisations.

When you look at the impact that conscientious objection has in the wider anti-war, peace and antimilitarist movement, it is good to remember the phrase: ‘suppose they held a war and no one came’, as there is no war without somebody to fight it.  If you don't have soldiers you are tumbling down one of the main pillars that upholds war and militarism.  In addition, some of the biggest successes of the anti-war and peace movement have come about as a result of actions led by veterans and people who don't want to serve in the military.  When you look at conscientious objection work, its impact might be hard to quantify, however this doesn't mean it is not there.  There are a few exceptions, whereby people make conscientious objection their main campaigning issue throughout their life but for the majority it is something in which you get involved either when you are directly confronted with military service or you know people who are subject to recruitment in your community.  This means it is often the case that conscientious objection is a phase, but also a springboard in the life of activists: that passing phase tends to be at a young age, an age where a lot of people's political ideas are formed, meaning that they can have a big impact on people, an impact that goes beyond what you find on the surface: it is an impact of long lasting change.

Go to next chapter: Conscientious Objection: making fissures in the deep militarism of South Korea

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