International Solidarity

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Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Alexia Tsouni is a Greek human rights activist and a feminist. She is a board member of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO). She is also a member of the group on the right to conscientious objection of Amnesty International's Greek section. She writes about how conscientious objection movements can reach out for international solidarity, and the crucial role this can play.

In the vast majority, if not in all, of the countries which still impose compulsory military service, the right to Conscientious Objection is not popular at all – perhaps even less popular than the right to conscientious objection for serving soldiers in countries with entirely professional armies. Indeed, public opinion is overwhelmingly negative, or even hostile towards conscientious objectors. This makes the role of international solidarity particularly crucial, both for the encouragement of conscientious objectors themselves, and for pressurising national authorities. This has been proven several times in the course of history and there is a lot we have learnt from this.

Some things which movements may want to consider when seeking international solidarity are listed below.

Making your movement's case an international case

Writing your case down, and, if you can, translating it into several languages before publishing is often a good place to begin. The languages into which you translate will depend, of course, on your location and resources, but an international language could be the most useful. Including the languages of the so called enemies can be important too, if the authorities of your country think that there are 'enemies' around. Language is a tool of communication and this is important in all cases and at all levels, from lobbying to campaigning, and from the declaration of conscientious objection to any protests against prosecution or sentencing.

Translation Resources

For help with translating your site, conscientious objection declarations, communications etc into other languages try:

  • Contacting War Resisters' Internatioanl (WRI) (info@wri-irg.org) – we have a team of volunteer translators you could use

You can also register and use websites that connect campaigning and not-for-profit groups with volunteer translators. For example try:

Choosing dates and places of international importance

You could announce the date of your action well in advance, so that you raise public and media interest. Otherwise, announcing nothing and making it a surprise during some other very important event, such as a congress, press conference, or festival, can work too. You could choose a date which is relevant internationally: International Conscientious Objection Day on the 15th of May, for example, or International Peace Day on the 21st September, or International Nonviolence Day on the 2nd October. Otherwise, you could also choose the anniversary of an important event, either positive – marking recognition of conscientious objection, a release from prison, or the end of a war, for example -- or negative: the anniversaries of arrests, imprisonments, or the beginning of a war. If possible, choose an internationally recognisable and relevant or symbolic place, such as a military camp, wall, court, or conscription centre, a 'buffer zone', or a war/anti-war monument.

Contacting international organisations and actors

Getting in touch with human rights organisations, media, and political bodies at international level can be a good way of attracting attention to your case and putting pressure on your state. You could ask human rights organisations to take your movement's case on and advise you accordingly, and approach friendly journalists and ask them to write about your case. Other things you might try could include lobbying friendly members of international institutions – such as the UN, or a regional parliament in which your country is represented – and asking them to support your case and promote legislative reforms which would promote, protect, or at least recognise the right to conscientious objection – chapter 13 in this book may provide useful guidance on whether this is a good tactic for your movement. Other public figures, such as academics and artists, could also be worth approaching for the sake of attracting attention and putting pressure on your state.

Asking and facilitating urgent international support and solidarity in emergencies

In case of prosecution or other emergencies, such as imprisonment, hunger strike, torture, armed conflict / war, you might want to ask for and facilitate international support. In which case, it is important to provide those you approach with all the necessary information in as timely and accurate a way as possible. If you can, publish a press release and a poster, organise a press conference and/or a public debate, launch a petition / prepare a sample letter of protest in as many languages as are available to you, and ask people and organisations to sign it / send it to the relevant authorities in your country and to the embassies of your country abroad. In addition, it may be worth seeking letters of solidarity to encourage the conscientious objectors themselves, in a more direct and human way, especially if they are imprisoned. You could also call for an international day of nonviolent action and encourage protests, e.g. in front of the embassies of your country abroad, as well as other creative actions, e.g. artistic interventions. If you do this, it's great to take pictures, publish them as soon as possible, and use social media to share them widely.

International solidarity

Are you an individual looking for a conscientious objection or peace group in your country? Try:

Are you part of a conscientious objection group looking for international links? Try peace and antimilitarist networks like:

Human rights groups such as:

For religious groups:

For help on using international human rights systems:

  • Check a Conscientious Objector's Guide to the International Human Rights System. This guide provides help in navigating the different international and regional human rights systems: http://co-guide.org/

  • Contact the Quaker United Nations Office http://www.quno.org/

Working on under-18 recruitment:

In cases of LGBT1 conscientious objectors, especially when their sexuality is an issue, LGBT movements might also be helpful. Try the International lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex association http://ilga.org/

Fundraising at the international level 

While many of us might wish that conscience was the most important thing in a conscientious objection movement, unfortunately, money is important too. Money is necessary, e.g. for actions, campaigns, meetings, trainings and networking. Money may be even more necessary in emergencies, for example to go to court or pay a fine. You can organise fundraising actions in your country, but if this is not enough, you may need to fundraise from abroad. Launching an international petition or crowdfunding appeal can help with this, or you could request funding from relevant organisations and friendly institutions.

Case studies

Here, we have two cases – that of Michalis Maragkakis in Greece, and Murat Kanatlı in northern Cyprus – in which international solidarity has been important. They are both from the Eastern Mediterranean region, and regional solidarity was also important in them.

Northern Cyprus and conscription

Since the Turkish army invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974, the northern part of Cyprus is ruled by a Turkish Cypriot administration. In 1983, it was proclaimed 'The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' (TRNC). The entity has not been recognised by any country except Turkey. TRNC has its own armed forces and conscription system. Conscription is included in Article 74 of the Constitution, which states: 'National service in the armed forces shall be the right and sacred duty of every citizen'. It is further regulated by the 2000 Military Service Law (59/2000). All men between the ages of 19 and 30 are liable for military service. The length of military service is 15 months followed by reserve service.

In both Cyprus and Turkey, though only men are conscripted, women not only participate actively in the conscientious objection movement, but also declare themselves conscientious objectors, in order to express their support for the right to conscientious objection, their solidarity with the conscientious objectors who face prosecution and imprisonment, and their own objections to the culture of militarism.

International solidarity with Greek conscientious objector Michalis Maragkakis

In December 1986 Michalis Maragkakis declared his conscientious objection in the Five Continent Conference on Peace and Disarmament, which was organised in Athens' Peace and Friendship Stadium on the 13-17th December 1986 by KEADEA, the Movement for National Independence & International Peace and Disarmament. Maragkakis was the first Greek conscientious objector on ideological grounds to make his refusal to enlist public. The right to conscientious objection was not recognised in Greece at the time and conscientious objectors were imprisoned.

During the speech of Andreas Papandreou, who was then the Prime Minister of Greece, Maragkakis walked around in the conference area wearing a placard bearing the words '300 conscientious objectors in prison. Why?' and another declaring his own conscientious objection to military service. He distributed a brochure to the participants, explaining the situation in Greece, while others opened big banners in solidarity with him. There were more than 250 representatives from more than 40 countries in the stadium. The atmosphere was friendly and participants applauded the action.

 

This action was prepared by just a few people (5-10), but several months in advance. The organisers were also in contact with conscientious objectors from other countries, Members of the European Parliament, and international NGOs including Amnesty International (AI), War Resisters’ International (WRI), and the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO). The action was very successful, gained media coverage, and gave the issue international prominence. The role of the international solidarity was very important in preparing the action, promoting the campaign and increasing the pressure on the Greek authorities.

An impressive international solidarity movement was subsequently developed, which became particularly important when Maragkakis was arrested in March 1987 and sentenced to four years' imprisonment in June that year. AI, WRI and EBCO issued press releases and launched international campaigns in his support, calling for his immediate and unconditional release, and the full recognition of the right to conscientious objection to military service by the Greek government.

After his appeal hearing in February 1988, Maragkakis' sentence was reduced to 26 months' imprisonment. On the 22nd of the same month Maragkakis began a hunger strike which came to an end on the 1st May 1988 when the government, alarmed by the level of international support, stated that they would examine the issue of conscientious objection in a positive light. Meanwhile, on April 12th, Thanasis Makris, the second Greek conscientious objector on ideological grounds, was arrested and went on hunger strike in solidarity with Maragkakis. On May 26th, Makris was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, reduced later to 18 months, and began another hunger strike in which Maragkakis joined him. This strike came to an end in July 1988 when the government announced a new draft law. While these hunger strikes may be viewed as successful however, movements should take extreme care, particularly in developing an exit strategy, before emulating the tactic, given the seriousness of the possible consequences.

During the imprisonment of Maragkakis and Makris, the prominent international campaign that was developed brought the Greek government under enormous pressure, putting them on the defensive. Thousands of protest letters to the Greek authorities arrived from all over the world, as well as solidarity letters to the imprisoned conscientious objectors, and dozens of concerts and other events were organised in their support. Media coverage was extensive, while more than 20 more people declared themselves conscientious objectors on ideological grounds.

As an evolution from the groups supporting Maragkakis and Makris, the Association of Greek Conscientious Objectors was founded by 12 people who declared themselves conscientious objectors on ideological grounds during a press conference in Athens on November 18th 1987.

Before the case of Maragkakis, there were many Greek conscientious objectors on religious grounds, the vast majority of them being Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were serving long sentences in prison but without being interested in creating a social or political movement. In the past, for example during the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22, the second world war, and the Greek Civil war of 1946-49, there were some Greek conscientious objectors on ideological grounds also, but they were isolated cases and never reached out to make a public issue of their case. In contrast, the movement in support of Maragkakis and Makris opened up a broad public discussion in Greek society, with the support of an international solidarity movement.

In March 2007, 20 years after the arrest of Maragkakis and 19 years after the arrest of Makris, Amnesty International Greece honoured the two conscientious objectors in a special ceremony during its General Assembly and thanked them for their struggle to have the right to conscientious objection recognised in Greece. Maragkakis and Makris donated the 5388 solidarity letters and cards they had received from 24 countries around the world during their imprisonment to Amnesty International Greece and thanked Amnesty International for its support.

In April 2008, on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary of the recognition of the right to conscientious objection in Greece, EBCO held its General Assembly in Athens in order to raise awareness and participate in public actions. Amnesty International Greece organised a series of public events, including an open discussion with panel speakers from EBCO, WRI, the Greek Ombudsperson and the National Commission for Human Rights, as well as Maragkakis and Makris, and, for the first time, publicly displayed all the solidarity letters and cards mentioned above. All these actions raised public awareness and gained a large amount of media coverage.

Women were key players in the movement, both in traditionally feminine 'supportive' roles, which are not to be denigrated, even if they should be divorced from expectations rooted in gender, but also as movement leaders and inspirers: Maragkakis, for example, has declared that the defining moment for his final decision was a speech during an event on conscientious objection at the Technical University of Thessaloniki, Greece, where he was greatly influenced by a woman speaker – a member of the War Resisters’ International. When he left the event, he told himself that he would not enlist into the army. He would declare himself a conscientious objector. Maragkakis has also said that though his parents hardly welcomed his decision, from the beginning to the end they stood by him, and his mother, in particular, went to the military courts, gave interviews, and supported his struggle by all the means available to her and with patience, despite the negative comments of society.

Today, although the right to conscientious objection to military service is recognised in Greek law, there are still many problems in practice. The alternative civilian service is still punitive in duration and not under an independent civilian authority. Several conscientious objectors have their applications for alternative service rejected by the Minister of Defence following negative opinions by the relevant Special Committee of the Ministry of Defence. This unacceptable practice continues and it is a vicious circle. These young persons are then called up for military service, and if they do not enlist, they are repeatedly persecuted, since insubordination is scandalously considered a permanent offence in Greek law. So an endless circle of arrests and penal convictions begins, with suspended imprisonment sentences accompanied with huge administrative penalties (6000 Euros each time).

International solidarity with Turkish-Cypriot conscientious objector Murat Kanatlı (open contemporary case)

A Note from Murat
It is very important to bring forward to the public, locally and internationally, the ongoing court cases of conscientious objectors.  In this way the issue can be widely discussed in the media.  Moreover, the behaviour of the police, the army and prison personnel is influenced and occasionally changes to be milder with regards to the issue of conscientious objection.  Therefore, even in places where the conscientious objection movement is not very strong, the court cases of conscientious objectors may produce positive results.  We have realised this in the court cases in the northern part of Cyprus.  The issue can be brought to the media, with a wide outreach and the convicted conscientious objectors' time in prison passes more easily.  Regional solidarity was very important in the two recent cases that were tried at the Military Court in the northern part of Cyprus, my own that of and Haluk Selam Tufanli. The solidarity which was shown and experienced was invaluable both for the widening and deepening of the conscientious objection movement but also for us ourselves.

On 14th June 2011 Kanatlı was summoned to appear in the Military Court on charges relating to his refusal in 2009. After numerous postponements, on 8 December 2011 the Military Court accepted Kanatlı 's demand to refer his case to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court, in its judgement on the 10th October 2013, said that there is a duty upon the legislature to provide in laws and regulations for civilian alternatives to military service. Then, there should be a review of that article of the Constitution which relates the 'right and duty towards the homeland' to military service only. After the decision of the Constitutional Court, Kanatlı 's trial proceeded to the Military Court, which delivered its judgement on 25 February 2014, stating that the right to conscientious objection is not regulated by domestic civilian law. The Military Court handed down a penalty of 500 Turkish liras or 10 days' imprisonment if Kanatlı failed to pay the penalty. Upon his refusal to pay the penalty, Kanatlı was sent to serve 10 days in prison.

The Initiative for Conscientious Objection in Cyprus called for the immediate release of Kanatlı and called upon the international community to express its solidarity with him. WRI and EBCO immediately published press releases and supported the call, Amnesty International issued an urgent action and WRI a conscientious objection alert, and an international mobilisation was rapidly developed during these 10 days, which saw press releases published, protests organised, and letters sent to the Turkish Cypriot authorities as well as Turkish embassies abroad. Among others, actions were organised in both sides of Nicosia by the Initiative for Conscientious Objection in Cyprus, in Istanbul by the Conscientious Objection Association of Turkey, in Athens by EBCO and Amnesty International Greece, and in Israel/ Palestine by a Palestinian conscientious objectors' group. Media coverage, and thereby political pressure, was greatly increased with these actions.

In the case of the action in Athens, six members of EBCO and Amnesty International organised a symbolic, peaceful protest in front of the Turkish embassy on 1st March 2014. After the protesters opened two banners in front of the Turkish embassy and took some photos, they were stopped and surrounded by policemen. The activists informed the policemen of the reason for their protest and explained that it was merely a matter of taking some photographs showing themselves with the banners in front of the embassy. Not only were they not allowed to leave, but subsequently they were transferred by police cars to the General Police Directorate of Attica, where they were detained for more than two hours, without being given access to their lawyers when they arrived. The only person who was allowed to see them during their detention was Green MEP Nikos Chrysogelos, but even he was not admitted immediately. This police intervention caused new protests and increased media coverage. EBCO published a press release entitled 'EBCO offended at unprecedented harassment and detention of its activists in Athens and demands explanations and apology from the Greek authorities' and took this opportunity to again raise awareness on the case of Kanatl.

1 WRI have decided to use the acronym LGBT for this handbook, as this is the most widely recognised shorthand for gender and sexual minorities. However, we also acknowledge that there are other gender and sexual minorities, who face similar struggles but are not covered by this acronym. These include intersex, genderqueer, and asexual people, among others.

Go to next chapter: Conscientious Objection in International Law: an overview

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