Supporting Conscientious Objectors and Deserters in Times of War: a supporter’s perspective
Rudi Friedrich, General Secretary of Connection e.V. in Germany, is engaged in achieving recognition of the human rights of conscientious objectors, and acknowledgement of the persecution which conscientious objectors and deserters face as a reason for asylum. The organisation collaborates with groups opposing war, conscription and the military. Beyond Europe, the network extends to Turkey, the U.S., Israel, South Korea, Latin America and Africa. It offers counselling and information to refugees and support for their self organisation.He takes on the topic of supporting conscientious objectors and deserters abroad.
Some thousand men, liable for military service, are leaving the Ukraine as I write, at the beginning of 2015. Obviously, they don't want to fight in a war against their neighbours. One of them, who fled to Germany, told us: 'I was born in Donetsk and grew up there. We were living in the war zone close to Donetsk. I didn't want to fight either for the Republican Army of Donetsk nor for the Ukrainian army. War is wrong. I don't want to fight against my neighbours and my own family'. For more than 20 years the German based association Connection e.V. has supported conscientious objectors and deserters, of all genders.
A Personal Decision with Political Consequences
In countries which enjoy legal recognition for conscientious objection, very often the implicit understanding is that a conscientious objector has decided not to go to war under any circumstances. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is often understood to assume this position as the default, in its statement that 'conscientious objection to military service derives from principles and reasons of conscience, including profound convictions, arising from religious, ethical, humanitarian or similar motives'.1 A selective conscientious objection usually won't be accepted, although there are some counterexamples to this: during the Yugoslav wars, for example, men who had completed military service but did not want to fight fellow Yugoslavs were recognised as conscientious objectors with a right to asylum by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.2
This question is fundamental to working with objectors, resisters, draft evaders and deserters in times of war. In fact most of them wouldn't define themselves as conscientious objectors. They decided to leave because of a concrete situation: being involved in war. They don't care about international conventions, they follow their own convictions. Their motives may be not to fight against their neighbours, not to fight for the aims of the government, not to fight an imperialistic war, or not to take part in an illegal war or in illegal actions. Leaving their home countries for most of them is the only chance of avoiding recruitment and deployment to the war zone, although it is important to note that the option to leave their homes and flee the country is not equally open to everyone who faces recruitment: much is dependent on personal and social factors like money, status, family background, luck, and so on.
These are personal decisions, but ones that have a very important impact on the wider societies of those making them. Conscientious objectors and deserters are giving a real life example that there are different possibilities for action when confronted with a logic of war set down by ruling parties and the military, who only know allies or enemies, the battle, the fight. Though there may be an obligation to go into the military, conscientious objectors are living proof that everybody has a choice. They challenge the principle of order and obedience that defines militarism. It is a step towards emancipation.
How can we support conscientious objectors?
There are many questions to be answered before we can decide how to support conscientious objectors and deserters in times of war. Is there a right to conscientious objection to which they could refer? Are there other ways to avoid being recruited? What kind of prosecution may they have to face? How might they leave the country? How might they enter other countries? Is there a possibility of staying or of getting refugee status? Do they see themselves as 'traitors'? Are they happy to speak out in public? Do they want to be active against war and militarism?
In this article I will give some ideas for practical work focusing on the questions of how to support conscientious objectors as refugees abroad.
Background Information on Countries of Origin
One of the basic steps of our work is to collect information on the laws, the court rulings and the practice of conscientious objection and desertion in different countries. Fortunately, there are some compilations provided by organisations such as the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, the Quaker UN Office, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and War Resisters' International (WRI). After a request from a Georgian draftee coming from Abkhazia our intern researched the question of what laws are in effect in Abkhazia and in Georgia. It took him three days. The biggest surprise was finding out that wikipedia was totally wrong – a warning to us all! But in the end he got a clear picture of it.
Another really important source for our work is information provided by groups and organisations working in the country of origin. If they exist, they might be in contact with conscientious objectors and deserters on a local level. They might be able to provide contact with local lawyers. They might understand the laws and rules in the given language. And they might be able get information on how these laws are actually applied. In some cases, like Eritrea, such groups were not able to exist under a dictatorship. Here we were successful in getting into contact with groups in exile.
Another very important source are the refugees themselves. Very often the authorities responsible for an asylum request question their testimonies and maintain that refugees are giving false statements. But in some cases we have been able to restore their credibility. One way, which we used in the case of Eritrea, was to interview about ten deserters and draft evaders. We gave them time and space to tell their whole stories – a totally new experience for them. We translated the statements and published them together with the statements of other organisations. In that way we got a reliable documentation of the situation of conscientious objectors in Eritrea, which we published in a booklet and sent to different lawyers and courts. In this way we had a significant increase in positive decisions on asylum requests.
Background Information on Conscientious Objection and Asylum
The principle continues to exist at the level of national asylum practices that the persecution of conscientious objectors is not a reason to grant them refugee status even if there is no right to conscientious objection in their country of origin, and even in times of war. In the past, positive decisions were only granted in cases where a conscientious objector expected severe prosecution or was seen as an opponent to the government. Furthermore, a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations said that 'persons compelled to leave their country of nationality solely because of a conscientious objection to assisting in the enforcement of apartheid through service in military or police forces' should be granted asylum.3 Following this idea in a broader sense a directive of the European Union concedes since 2004 that the prosecution of objectors who refuse to be part of illegal action or an illegal war could be seen as a reason to grant them refugee status. And, and, with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia in 2011, conscientious objection was seen for the first time as a human right under freedom of thought, conscience and religion referring to article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.4 Both changed the legal context for the European Union and the Council of Europe where all EU member states and other European countries are included.
For other regions it would also be possible to refer to different recommendations given by the UN Human Rights Council or the UNHCR in its Guidelines on International Protection no. 10: 'In countries where neither exemption nor alternative service is possible, a careful examination of the consequences for the applicant will be needed. For example, where the individual would be forced to undertake military service or participate in hostilities against their conscience, or risk being subjected to prosecution and disproportionate or arbitrary punishment for refusing to do so, persecution would arise. Moreover, the threat of such prosecution and punishment, which puts pressure on conscientious objectors to change their conviction, in violation of their right to freedom of thought, conscience or belief, would also meet the threshold of persecution'.5 All these could be used to give arguments for asylum seekers in cases where this human right is not guaranteed in their country of origin.
These developments are positive. On the other hand, such possibilities are still seen as an exception to the main principle, or as recommendations which are not necessarily followed. Furthermore, authorities will check during the asylum proceedings if a conscientious objection is credible or not, referring to the need to have a profound conviction. In practice this is a clear restriction which excludes a large proportion of the people concerned from getting refugee status.
The basic information described could be very effective as a support of conscientious objectors and deserters in times of war. In the past, with the help of Connection e.V., hundreds of them were able to achieve refugee status. Here are some practical steps for such work:
- Listen and take notes. The first step is to get in contact with the refugee and to listen to his or her story , to their experiences and facts about recruitment, the draft, desertion, and personal motivations. Obviously, this means providing a means of interpreting/translating.
- Research, as described above. Of course this could and should be done in collaboration with the refugees.
- Publish basic information in different languages: counsellors in different countries as well as the refugees themselves need reliable information. They also need a basic understanding of possible ways to be accepted as a conscientious objector in an asylum seeking process in different countries and how the proceedings are carried out
- Find lawyers: because the legal situation is confusing and international and European law are involved there is a need to find lawyers who are experienced or able to familiarise themselves with these questions and who are willing to collaborate.
- Find supporters: furthermore, when direct contact is not possible because of great distances, there is a need to find local supporters and groups which could be in direct contact with the refugee.
As already mentioned, the main step in supporting conscientious objectors and deserters in a refugee application is to listen to their stories. One of them described this as follows: 'At home we can't even speak about it. There is no possibility to offer resistance. You just can leave. Now I experienced that resistance is possible. There are people who work against the government in an organized manner. It's good to see it.'
When listening to their stories and giving the feedback that we would like to support them they could see maybe for the first time that their decision to refuse war and military could be seen as a positive step. In their domestic society (and in the diaspora) this step is very often seen as a betrayal. Frequently, they are desperate to get in conflict with their convictions and with the response of their societies. It is also a first step for them to have the chance to realize: I stick to my decision.
But they are not alone. As there are thousands of objectors and deserters just from one country like the Ukraine there must be some more asking for asylum. Is it possible to bring some of them together? Is it possible to organize an interchange between them? In a group, they can realize that they are not alone. In a group, they can realize that they have common goals or a common understanding of the situation in their country of origin. In the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Greece, USA, Angola, Eritrea or Turkey such groups have existed in the past.
Such self organised groups could be a major resource for counselling. The activists know about the situation in their country of origin, they speak the same language, they have met with the same dismissive responses during their asylum proceedings. They can exchange experiences and get informal contacts and support which may help in precarious situations.
In Germany, such groups came together as the activists wished to go public with their own demands about the asylum seeking process and the situation in their country of origin. They demanded an end to the war, support for conscientious objectors and deserters and that they be granted asylum. In this they are becoming the mouthpiece of many others who do not have the courage to speak out and could have a very important political impact.
All this means working in exile, with the difficulties typical of that experience: asylum seekers don't necessarily know the political background of their new country and they are faced with a different language in their asylum proceedings. The war in the country of origin creates mistrust and polarisation in the diaspora. In some cases the secret service of the country of origin is active abroad. And a lot of the activists do not have experience of political work, nor of ways of discussing and preparing political activities and how to collaborate in a group and so on. It is therefore very important to offer help and support to them on these issues. It could be helpful to offer input on questions about the political situation in their country of exile, decision making processes in groups, gender – but always on the basis of not predetermining their decisions.
The aim of Connection e.V. is to work against war and to enable or strengthen persons and groups to work against it. We decided to focus on the question of conscientious objection and on questions raised about asylum because we saw that every person deciding neither to go to the army nor to war is throwing a spanner in the works of the military machinery. With our work we realised that we could not only help some hundreds of them, but that we could also strengthen antimilitarist work in other countries in an important way.
1 UN Human Rights Council. A/HRC/RES/24/17, Twenty-fourth session, September 27, 2013. Adopted without a vote.
2 Takemura Hitomi 2009, International Human Right to Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Individual Duties to Disobey Manifestly Illegal Orders, (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag), pp91-92.
3 UN General Assembly, Resolution 33/165, December 20, 1978.
4 European Court of Human Rights, Grand Chamber, Case of Bayatyan v. Armenia, Application no. 23459/03. Judgment, July 7, 2011.
5 UNHCR: Guidelines on International Protection no. 10 (HCR/GIP/13/10), December 3, 2013.