Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Why this Book?

Conscientious objection to military service is most often viewed, and written about, as a moral stand that an individual takes against an injustice in a particular conflict, or against the injustice that is war itself. But conscientious objection is also a form of political action, and a focus for campaigning and organising. As such, it has its particular strengths, and faces particular challenges.

This book has been created by and for organisers and campaigners working on conscientious objection all over the world. It contains short articles, brief case studies written by conscientious objectors and experienced activists from five continents, who tell about their actions and campaigns, share tips for successful campaigning, and discuss the difficulties their movements are facing. The chapters of the book cover a broad variety of political and social contexts in which conscientious objection movements operate and address the specific features of conscientious objection on different ideological grounds. They also pose some tough questions conscientious objectors have to face if they want their movements to be sustainable and to avoid reproducing the very same militarised and patriarchal social structures that created the injustice to which they respond.

Conscientious objection movements find themselves in a peculiar position: their curse is their blessing and their blessing is often their curse. The existence of a state conscription system on the one hand, and the presence of active conflict or war on the other, are among the main things conscientious objectors are working to end, but these same things also create the conditions for conscientious objection movements to form and to gain strength. When thousands of young people are faced with the possibility of joining an army, of going to war, it is inevitable that – in one way or another – some of them will choose to resist. For conscientious objection movements this means a steady influx of young activists, some of whom maintain a long term commitment to the movement. It also helps maintain a sense of urgency and a practical motive to continue working in support of the conscientious objectors who face imprisonment and other forms of retribution. An active conflict also helps make resistance movements the focus of international solidarity.

But conscientious objection movements can also easily become the victims of their own (relative) success, in a number of ways. For example, they are even more likely than other social movements to become male dominated (and heterosexual male dominated), reflecting the fact that, throughout the world, military recruitment focuses predominantly on (mostly heterosexual) men. The act of going to prison as a focus of campaigns can easily lead to movements reproducing the same militarised hero worship that the army peddles to recruits. Often the more declared and openly ideological forms of resistance that are the prototypical forms of conscientious objection are more likely to attract young members of privileged classes and ethnic groups, while members of disadvantaged communities are more likely to opt for more 'quiet' forms of avoiding enlistment or discontinuing their military service – sometimes called 'draft evasion' or 'draft dodging'. This can again skew a movement’s commitments, and create ideological rifts and dilemmas. Finally, when a war resistance movement is successful enough to lead to full recognition for conscientious objectors, or even to the end of conscription in a country, it often loses the focus of its work, fails to make a transition or broaden the concept of war resistance enough, and eventually dies out.

This book was designed to address all these issues, the challenges and opportunities of organising around conscientious objection. It is also deliberately international in its scope. The worldwide conscientious objection movement is in a process of rapid change in terms of its geographical spread. Half a century ago, the most active conscientious objection movements in the world were in Europe and North America. Today these old movements have grown much weaker, and the focus has shifted to Latin America, the Middle East, and some active conflict zones in Asia (e.g., South Korea). New conscientious objection movements are forming as we write (e.g., in Egypt and in Thailand), in ever new political and cultural circumstances. This book is meant to be especially geared towards the needs of such emerging movements and tries to be as international as possible in the scope of experiences it reflects.

Chapter Overview

This book comes in four sections. It opens with this introduction of course, as well as an overview of conscientious objection in history. The historical overview explores the question of who have been conscientious objectors, and what this might mean for conscientious objection movements today. The next section, 'Working Together', does what it says on the tin: it aims to help groups work together in the face of power dynamics which privilege some and oppress others. The book as a whole pays particular attention to question of gender. The first question addressed in the section on working together is therefore why such a focus on gender is appropriate for this book. This 'gender preface', written by feminist academic Cynthia Cockburn, is accompanied by a short note on the intersectionality of gender – the way gender intersects with other power dynamics – reproduced from queer activist Cattis Laska's contribution to the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns produced by War Resisters' International (WRI) in 2014. There is then a short account by Ferda Ülker of her 'coming out' as a conscientious objector in Turkey, and the gender dynamics she encountered in doing so. Alongside this account, there are two interviews, one with African American activist Greg Payton on the race dynamics of the US peace and antimilitarist movements, and one with Israeli conscientious objector Noam Gur on the dynamics of class in Israel's conscientious objection movement. Some of the insights from these pieces, and the experience of the editor in social movements more broadly, are drawn together in the following chapter Working with Privilege and Difference.

The section moves on to discuss working together with different motivations. Some of the different motivations for coming to a conscientious objection movement are outlined here in a series of personal accounts or 'stories'. Rafael Uzcategui gives us an overview of the political tendencies in the Latin American movement, from his own anarchist perspective. Richard Steele, who conscientiously objected to fighting in the South African Defence Force during apartheid, gives us his account of that experience. Julián Fierro writes from Colombia on the pacifist motivation for his conscientious objection. Oscar Quinto, in turn, explains how his pacifism is animated by his religious beliefs as a Mennonite, and how this also animates broader social justice work on his part. Jungsik Lee writes about belonging to a gender and sexual minority in South Korea, and of being lead by this experience to refuse military conscription. Finally, an extract is reproduced from Idan Halili's contribution to the 2010 anthology of women conscientious objectors produced by (WRI), in which she writes about refusing to serve in the Israeli Defence Force on the grounds of her feminism. These case studies of the different motivations which might lead one to conscientious objection are followed by material on how to arrive at group decisions by consensus, as one way of working creatively with such difference.

The third section of the book deals with movement strategy. It opens with a chapter by Sergeiy Sandler, who belongs to the Israeli feminist organisation New Profile. He gives some useful direction on organising support for those who refuse to join the armed forces. Alexia Tsouni, an active member of Amnesty International Greece, then suggests a few ways to go about seeking international solidarity, and presents the cases of two conscientious objectors in whose cases international solidarity played a vital role. Rachel Brett, from the Quaker United Nations Office, gives us an overview of conscientious objection in international law, which is followed by a chapter on how international mechanisms might be put to use in local cases, based on the example of the Colombian conscientious objection movement. This chapter is co-written by Andreas Speck, a German conscientious objector and nonviolent activist, and Milena Romero, who is currently active in the Colombian movement. Next to this are two chapters on supporting conscientious objectors and deserters in times of war, one written by Bojan Aleksov from his perspective as an objector during the Balkan wars, and one by Rudi Friedrich from the German organisation Connection e.V., which supports the asylum claims of conscientious objectors and deserters. There is then a discussion by Wendy Barranco, of Iraq Veterans against the War, on the role of, and difficulties faced by, veterans in peace and antimilitarist movements.

The third section also includes an exploration of the arguments for and against accepting, and campaigning around, alternative civilian service in situations of conscription; two Finnish antimilitarists, Kai Raninen and Ruka Toivonen, give a general overview of these arguments from the perspective of their experience in the Finnish conscientious objection movement. Russian lawyer Alena Karoliova then gives a synopsis of why her organisation, Citizen.Army.Law., chooses to campaign exclusively around alternative civilian service, and Andreas Speck explores how alternative civilian service 'depoliticised' the German conscientious objection movement, possibly delaying the end of conscription. The section closes with a chapter co-written by members of Spanish antimilitarist group AA.MOC, which discusses what happens to conscientious objection movements after conscription.

The final section is about extending conscientious objection. Javier Garate, a Chilean conscientious objector and nonviolent activist, opens the section with a chapter on conscientious objection as a springboard for radical social change, and Yong-suk Lee writes about how conscientious objection is making fissures in the deep militarism of South Korea. Ferda Ülker writes about the intersection of gender and militarism in Turkey, which is followed by a chapter on the role of women's and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) conscientious objection,1 written by Turkish PhD student Dogu Durgun. Bülent Küçükaslan, a disability activist, writes about disability, conscription and masculinity in Turkey. Sahar Vardi, an Israeli conscientious objector, questions whether conscientious objection in Israel may not be dismantling the 'master's house' of militarism with the master's tools. This is followed by a chapter on what other forms of resistance to militarism – beyond refusing to join the armed forces – might be considered forms of conscientious objection, and the pros and cons of considering them as such. Hannah Brock, a member of staff at WRI, discusses possibilities for objecting to war profiteering, AA.MOC write about their campaign of war tax resistance (the refusal to pay that portion of tax which would go to the military), Christine Schwetizer – the WRI chair – gives examples of whole communities which have resisted war, and Igor Seke, from Mexico, makes the case for seeing resistance to gang recruitment as a form of conscientious objection, and for the worldwide peace movement to lend its weight to such efforts. Hannah Brock then writes again about possible ways of building alternatives to militarism, especially where military recruitment capitalises on poor economic conditions.

The book closes with a chapter co-written by Hannah and Laura Pollecutt, from South Africa, on conscientious objection in wider nonviolent struggles, such as against apartheid in South Africa. This will hopefully give readers food for thought about how conscientious objection can be used in struggles for peace and justice happening around them, and how to take conscientious objection forward, using it in new and innovative ways.

1 WRI have decided to use the acronym LGBT in this book, as we believe it 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. We also fully recognise that 'women' and 'LGBT people' are not mutually exclusive categories!

Go to next chapter: Conscientious Objection in History

Other publications

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.