Current situation and challenges of the CO movement

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Presentation at the International Conference on "Conscientious Objection to Military Service", Seoul, 10-12 March 2003

Andreas Speck (War Resisters' International)

Conscientious objection to military service is an old phenomenon - probably as old as human history, and certainly as old as conscription or any form of forced recruitment. As Rachel Brett will tell us more about this aspect tomorrow, and I'm not a historian, I won't elaborate on this here today.

As I said here in Seoul in December last year, there was hardly any country in the world in 1921 - when War Resisters' International was founded - that recognised the right to conscientious objection. Today, conscientious objection is widely recognised as a human right, although only derived from Art 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deals with freedom of conscience, thought, and religion. I will come back to this later. But this recognition doesn't necessarily mean that conscientious objection is recognised in every country, and we here know that South Korea is among those countries which still send conscientious objectors to prison - some 1,500 conscientious objectors are presently in prison in this country. This shows that we still have a long way to go.

What is conscientious objection?

Before I look at the challenges, I want to look at conscientious objection itself. What do we mean when we talk about conscientious objection to military service? What do we want to achieve?

Let me start from my personal experience. When I decided for conscientious objection about 20 years ago - in 1983 - it was the time of the broad peace movement against the deployment of new US nuclear missiles in Western Europe. For me my conscientious objection then was not just an individual unwillingness to join the German military - it was also an act of protest against militarism in general, and the new round in the East-West arms race in particular. When I objected, I still had to defend my application in front of a committee - which rejected my application for conscientious objection. Only on appeal I was recognised as conscientious objector. This humilating process made me think. I started to read more about militarism, and about alternative civilian service, and in the end I decided to refuse both - military and alternative civilian service. I saw my total objection as an act of civil disobedience against conscription and militarism, and as a contribution to a movement for the abolishment of conscription as a first step to abolish the German military - or any military. For me it was much less an issue of freedom of conscience, and much more an issue of resisting militarism.

In the word of Albert Einstein: "Serious-minded pacifists should try actually to do something instead of contenting themselves with idle dreams or merely talking about their pacifism. Our next step is to act - to do something. We must realise that when war comes, everyone considers it his duty to commit a crime - the crime of killing. People must be made to understand the immorality of war. They must do everything in their power to disentangle themselves from this antiquated, barbarous institution and to free themselves from the shackles of slavery.

"For this I have two suggestions. One of them has already been tried and found practical. It is the refusal to engage in war service of any kind, under any circumstances. Even at the risk of great personal sacrifice and hardship, all who wish to do something concrete toward world pacification, must refuse war service."

In the early 1970s, then WRI Council member Pietro Pinna wrote: "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."

In short: conscientious objection is seen as an antimilitarist action, aimed at social change. Important in conscientious objection - which by its very nature is always an individual act, even when the individual acts as part of a collective - is that an individual takes responsibility for its own actions, or non-actions.

The human rights discussion is much more limited than this. It does not talk about demilitarisation of societies, about social change. It focusses on indivual human rights - on freedom of conscience. Although this is nice and important, we need to go far beyond, making use of the human rights discussion where appropriate, and leaving it behind when necessary. I will come back to the human rights level later.

Partial success - recognition of conscientious objection

Since the foundation of War Resisters' International in 1921, the situation regarding conscientious objection improved a lot. In 1921, only two countries - Denmark and Sweden - recognised conscientious objection, soon to be followed by the Netherlands and Norway. Today, out of 177 countries which were included in WRI 1998 world survey, 96 countries have conscription (see graphic 1). Out of these, 30 recognise the right to conscientious objection - although often in a very unsatisfactory way (see graphic 2). Although this is a huge step forward compared to 1921, it also shows that there is still a lot to do, as 66 countries with conscription still don't recognise the right to conscientious objection.

Chart 1:

Chart 2:

We can see that many European countries with conscription recognise the right to conscientious objection, while outside of Europe the picture looks much worse. The picture is even worse when we include the question of conscientious objection for so-called voluntary, professional soldiers. Only very few countries recognise their right to conscientious objection.

But what about the other aspect of conscientious objection - resistance to militarism, or removing the causes of war? I don't think I need to answer this question. It is obvious, that most countries still rely on military force, and that militarist logic dominates most of the world. The present Gulf War is only one all too obvious example.

Conscientious objection and alternative service

Unfortunately, alternative service is often a consequence of conscientious objection. I say unfortunately, because this lead to the mixing of two completely different issues, and to some confusion. Not by coincidence some people talk about a "right to alternative service", when they speak about conscientious objection, and the United Nations too linked the two issues, when it demands that provisions for alternative service should be made for those who have a conscientious objection to military service. To make it simple: conscientious objection is opposed to serving in the military - it's that easy. I refuse to do something which I think is ethically wrong. The state then in most cases imposes an alternative service on those who it recognises as conscientious objectors - for several reasons, which I don't want to discuss here. This doesn't have anything to do with conscientious objecton itself, but can be a consequence of the recognition of the right to conscientious objection.

The discussion how to deal with alternative service is probably as old as organised CO movements. Some groups strictly oppose alternative service, others promote it, and see the CO's willingness to perform an alternative service as an important argument for the right to conscientious objection.

In 1925, WRI passed a resolution at its international conference in Hoddesdon, which points to the two dilemmata of alternative service: "This conference refrains from laying down a general rule regarding alternative service in view of the different opinions and circumstances of the affiliated organisations. It registers the view, however, that in its opinion acceptance of alternative service may be taken to imply the recognition of the right of the State to impose military service on others. The War Resisters' International denies this right, and urges that in time of war alternative service should be strongly opposed, because all such service becomes part of the war organisation."

Very much in the same line the WRI Council Meeting in 1967 stated: "The WRI is opposed to all conscription for military or civilian purposes and advocates its total abolition. … Because the WRI is opposed to conscription on principle, it does not recognise the right of the State to impose an alternative to compulsory military service. Nevertheless it admits that in countries where military conscription exists, the provision of alternative service may be a step forward. In such cases we consider that civilian alternative service should be granted to all who apply for it. Such service should be socially constructive and should include the possibility of international service or participation in a peace programme under the auspices of a voluntary agency."

WRI sees two main problems connected with alternative civilian service:

  1. it recognises the right of the State to conscript its citizens;
  2. it is or can be part of the war organisation, even when organised as an entirely civilian service.

However, WRI does not promote a certain response to this problem. While WRI supports total objection to both, military and alternative civilian service, it does not condemn those who perform alternative civilian service, and it recognises that alternative civilian service might be better for some conscientious objectors than imprisonment.

Situation of the movement for conscientious objection to military service

The CO movement certainly goes beyond what is organised in War Resisters' International. But I think I'm on safe ground to say that traditionally conscientious objectors' groups were based in Europe - the large number of European countries which recognise conscientious objection is one result. In Latin America, an organised movement for conscientious objection evolved in the late 80s/early 90s, with the end of military dictatorships in most of Latin America. Still, only very few groups achieved the recognition of the right to conscientious objection - most groups still have a long way to go.

Organised conscientious objection is a very new concept in the rest of the world - in Africa and most parts of Asia. Although there always are religious conscientious objectors - especially Jehovah's Witnesses, who form the majority of those imprisoned for their conscientious objection to military service; in this country alone some 1,500 Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison - most of them do not get involved in organising a movement for conscientious objection. And without a political movement change can rarely be achieved - thus the right to conscientious objection is not recognised in almost all Asian and African countries with conscription.

In many ways Africa is a special case. Although only half of all African countries have a conscription system, those which don't still might use forced recruitment to fill the ranks of the military. Many African countries were involved in war recently, or are still in a situation of war or armed conflict. In such a situation, those who refused to fight often face torture, long-term imprisonment, or even instant execution. Under these circumstances, an organised movement for conscientious objection can hardly develop - those who don't want to fight go into hiding, leave the country, or try in others ways to escape the military recruiters.

It seems one precondition for an organised movement for conscientious objection is at least some amount of stability, and the existence of some civil society. Often, conscientious objection is also a concept of the more educated middle classes, while draft evasion and desertion can be seen as the "conscientious objection" of the poor and less educated. This too explains why organised conscientious objection is strong in Europe, but much weaker in Africa. I will come back to this later.

Challenge I: conscientious objection and human rights

As War Resisters' International, we claim that we have the human right to conscientious objection, and we don't recognise the right of the State to force us to do military service. At the same time we work on the international level to achieve the universal recognition of this human right. That we are not there yet was again pointed out to me at a meeting with a representative of the British Forein Office at the end of January this year. Although Britain recognises conscientious objection, the representative of the Foreign Office repeatedly pointed out that conscientious objection is not generally recognised as a human right. Unfortunately, the statistics which I presented earlier prove her right.

In 1953, Harold Bing, then WRI General Secretary, looked at the situation at the human rights level. He summarised the situation: "None of the international agreements so far in existence gives any satisfactory basis for a recognition of the right of conscientious objection to military service, and at present there is no provision by which individuals or private associations can make effective complaints of the infringement of the rights which have been officially recognised". War Resisters' International then demanded that the right to conscientious objection should be included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was being discussed at that time. In 1968 WRI launched a "World Appeal for a Recognition of Conscientious Objection as a Human Right", and collected more than 40,000 signatures. These were handed over to the UN on 30 January 1970, and then stored in "a sort of UN graveyard" - probably that's where they still are.

However, although the right to conscientious objection is still not part of the International Covenant or any additional protocol, some progress has been made. The Commission on Human Rights repeatedly passed resolutions recognising the right to conscientious objection as a human right, derived from Art 18 of the International Covenant, freedom of conscience and religion. The latest resolution was passed in 2002. Important standards set out in these resolutions are:

The recognition that a conscientious objection to military service can develop at any time in a person's life. This means that conscientious objection needs to be available to soldiers serving in the army, and that an application for CO needs to be possible at any time, and not just during a certain period of the drafting process;

Information on the right to conscientious objection needs to be available to all persons affected by military service - this means it needs to be provided by state institutions freely, and not only on request;

Non-discrimination against conscientious objectors in relation to their terms and conditions of service, or any economic, social, cultural, and political rights.

There are also some "standards" we do not really agree with, or which are - to say the least - very problematic. I want to point to some principal problems:

War Resisters' International has big problems with the process of "determining whether a conscientious objection is genuinely held in a specific case". We don't think that any institution - however impartial - can determine one's conscience. This is always a very personal decision, and the attempt to judge this decision is a form of inquisition. It can only be up to the person to determine whether he or she is a conscientious objector - and the state just has to accept this!

As mentioned earlier, we don't agree that an alternative service is a real solution to the issue of conscientious objection, as it is just another form of fufilling the duties derived from conscription - which basically means military duties.

Of course, resolutions at the level of the UN are fine - and to some extent important - but they don't help us in specific cases of imprisonment of conscientious objectors. The whole system of international human rights law is a tiger without teeth - there are no enforcement procedures, and if a state decides to ignore international human rights law, then some more resolutions might be passed, but that's about it. Our friend from Israel can tell a hell load of stories about this.

Still, UN resolutions can help us in our political struggle. They can be used as arguments, and we can wave them at government representatives who accuse us of just being a crazy bunch of either religious sects or radicals. Not that I mind being called a radical - I certainly am a radical pacifist, a nonviolent anarchist and antimilitarists - but having UN backing for our demands can have an impact. It is also important to point to the standards set out by UN resolutions, as these standards are rarely met even in countries which recognise the right to conscientious objection. I would like to see the military sending out a leaflet explaining the right to conscientious objection with their first draft notice, but this rarely happens. With UN resolution 1998/77, we can argue that this should be the case.

While we should work with the UN system - and WRI does this, often in close cooperation with the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva - we should not get stuck in the human rights discourse. We should merely see it as a sometimes useful tool in our struggle, and sometimes as a protection, but we never should accept its logic.

Challenge II: Conscientious objection and war resistance

To me, the grassroots level is much more important, and the link between conscientious objection and war resistance. In 1967, Tony Smythe, then WRI Council and Executive member and co-editor of WRI's 1968 Conscription. A world survey, wrote in a provocatice article that "although a central aim of WRI has been the recognition of the right of conscientious objection by governments, this issue is in the last analysis largely irrelevant to the anti-war struggle to-day." After describing the achievements that had then been made in the struggle for the recognition of conscientious objection, he then went on to say that "even if this list of achievements were extended, it is all too obvious that the objectives which more politically minded COs could endorse, such as the end of conscription, mass resistance to war and social change to remove the causes of war, are as far away as ever. The difficulty has been that COs have never constituted a movement with precise political aims."

If we look at Tony Smythe's words 35 years later, can we then say that he was wrong? Even more was achieved regarding the recognition of conscientious objection, but where does that leave us in terms of war resistance? What exactly are the aims of the so-called CO movement?

To be clear: the recognition of the right to conscientious objection can be something, but to me it is not in itself the aim of conscientious objection. To come back to Pietro Pinna, whom I quoted earlier, conscientious objection is a focal point of antimilitarist action, and acts as a focus of debate and mobilisation. Seen this way, we need to go far beyond the recognition of the right to conscientious objection, and when we fight for recognition, we need to be aware that we want to go far beyond.

One obvious aim is the end of conscription - of any kind of forced recruitment. This was the approach the Spanish CO movement opted for, and to some extend very successfully. However, the result is inevitably a professional army, although in the Spanish case the antimilitarist mobilisation made it much more difficult for the Spanish military to recruit a sufficient number of volunteers. Still, the demand for abolishing conscription is nowadays often made by military modernisers, and if we demand the same we might just suit them well - nothing we really want to do. And - of course - we still wouldn't be satisfied with the end of conscription - we only see it as yet another step towards abolishing the military.

The challenge is how we on the one hand make conscientious objection part of a broader resistance to war, and build coalitions with other anti-war groups - because that's what conscientious objection is about - and on the other hand work with human rights organisations on the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. As conscientious objectors, as War Resisters' International, we have to find the right balance between two approaches - the approach of human rights, and the antimilitarist approach, the resistance to war. We need to be aware that at the very heart the issue of conscientious objection is NOT about human rights, but about social change, a very radical change of our societies towards cooperation and nonviolence, and against military might. This becomes even more important in times when the whole world goes to war, lead by the remaining hegemonial power, the United States of America.

Ever since conscription was first introduced in France in 1793, there was resistance, although not necessarily open conscientious objection. If we look at the situation during the wars on the Balkans in the past decade, there were a lot of draft evaders and deserters - at some times estimates went as high as 50% - but very few open conscientious objectors. During NATO's bombing campaign in 1999 War Resisters' International and Amnesty International estimated that some 15,000 young men evaded being drafted or deserted in Yugoslavia, but it was quite hard to find only a handful of people who openly declared themselves conscientious objectors.

In Turkey, there are now some 50 declared conscientious objectors, but estimates of draft evasion go as high as 400,000. And in Israel, the Israeli military is complaing about a low turnout to reserve duty. But while a huge amount of young men and women in Israel avoid military service for various reasons - almost 30,000 every year - and according to newspaper reports, there were about 2,600 deserters in 2002, and 1,500 deserters in 2001 - a total of 4,180 in two years, the number of imprisoned conscientious objectors listed in WRI's report on conscientious objection in Israel is with some 180 COs for an even longer period (September 2000-January 2003) comparatively low.

Russia is another example. The Russian media reported that in the city of Nizhnii Novgorod, the number of people considered draft evaders outnumbers the number of those drafted. In all Russia, every year more than 30,000 young men ignore draft notices and fail to appear for conscription proceedings. Again, at the same time the number of open conscientious objectors is comparatively low - WRI and Amnesty International probably dealt with less than a handful of CO cases in the past years.

What role then has conscientious objection to play? Is it true - as Tony Smythe wrote 35 years ago - that "conscientious objection in the accepted sense has little relevance for resistance to war in the future"?

I don't think it is true. Conscientious objectors - whether there is a right to CO or not - have an important role to play. As Sergeiy Sandler, an Israeli CO activist, wrote: "As for the declared conscientious objectors - in terms of numbers they may be a marginal group in Israeli society, but they lead the way for many others. Every act of conscientious objection is a living and publicly visible antithesis to that would-be consensus surrounding the army as an institution and to the criminal policies implemented by the Israeli army in Palestine."

"Every person who refuses to serve in the army, by his or her very refusal to automatically back the decisions of the generals in the army and in government, joins the political struggle against militarism in Israeli society."

Conscientious objectors are important because they take a public stand, because - again in the words of Sergeiy Sandler, the are "delivering the message, loud and clear". In doing so, they give a voice to all those who evade the draft, find ways of avoiding the draft, or desert. We again can see that the Israeli military - and most militaries - are aware of this. They can live with a certain amount of avoidance; in fact they even benefit from it, as it keeps the worst troublemakers out of the military. But open refusal, open resistance to militarism, is something they are very worried about, which is the reason why the Israeli military presently increases repression against young conscientious objectors heavily.

We need to build on this. We not only need to fight for the right to conscientious objection - this might even be secondary - but we need to organise conscientious objection, on as broad a scale as possible. And this leads me to the next challenge.

Challenge III: building a political conscientious objectors' movement

Building a movement is always a difficult task. Bill Moyer, an US American movement organiser, described as the main task of any social movement "the fight between the movement and the powerholders for the hearts (sympathy) and minds (public opinion) and active support of the majority of the people". To be able to do so, we need to build our own strength as a movement; we need to empower ourselves, and those who get involved in the movement of conscientious objectors.

This task is especially difficult in the early stages, when the movement is not yet a movement, but merely consists of small groups and individuals, and when it still faces severe repression - when those who publicly declare their conscientious objection are faced with the option of imprisonment.

Again - empowerment is key. Support groups, counselling, and democratic or even better consensus decision making are important elements to empower ourselves. Nonviolence training - even training to prepare conscientious objectors for their time in prison - can also be important elements. And although we want to promote conscientious objection, and we want to fight for every soul that we can get out of the hands of the military, we need to be aware of the needs and capacities of each individual concerned. If we call for conscientious objection, that also gives us some responsibility. We don't want people to go to prison at all on the one hand, but we might not be able to avoid this. We then don't want people to go to prison who are not prepared for it, and who don't have the strength to go through this.

Tony Smythe wrote about British COs during the first World War: "Of the 6,264 who were refused recognition, 4,500 worked outside prison under penal regulations and 1,500 went to prison for non-cooperation. Of these 900 served sentences of 2 years or more, 10 died in prison, 31 went insane, 34 were sentenced to death (but later reprieved through the direct intervention of the Prime Minister) and many suffered permanent disability because of appaling prison conditions." Of course, prison is never easy, but we don't want to be responsible for conscientious objectors who can't stand it anymore and go insane, or who have to suffer disability for the rest of their life, because they chose conscientious objection, and we promoted it.

I know from my own experience as a total objector in Germany, that it can be important to advise someone against becoming a conscientious objector. We don't need and don't want heroes or martyrs, we want to build a movement of empowered people who take responsibility. And although support groups and international solidarity can play an important role in making life in prison easier or safer, prison will always be hard. It should be part of our struggle to give advice on legal or semi-legal ways to avoide military service for whoever doesn't want to face prison, or whoever we - or the person or group who counsels a certain CO - feel doesn't have the strength to go through prison.

This can somehow also apply when conscientious objection is recognised. The procedure can be very humiliating and disempowering. And while support and counselling can help someone through this process, there will be some people for whom other ways of avoidance are more suitable. Although confrontation with the military system is important, it is not for everyone to take up the challenge.

The conscientious objectors and their support groups have to be at the heart of the movement, if the movement wants to achieve more than the recognition of a human right. Here again I want to point to an important difference: from a human rights perspective, the right to CO needs to be provided for those who seek it, even if it is just one person. From a human rights perspective we might argue that information on the right to CO needs to be freely available, but here it ends. It remains a matter of individual choice. From a perspective of war resistance, we need to promote conscientious objection, and we need to "fight with the military for the hearts (sympathy) and minds (public opinion) and active support" of each and every person, and especially those being drafted. This is a big task, and this afternoon we will have a session dedicated to building a movement.

Closing remarks

I want to come to the end. I know, here in South Korea we see the beginning of a new CO movement. It is important that this new movement now decides what it wants to achieve, that it becomes clear of its goals. I hope this conference here will contribute to this. It is you who need to decide about the right balance between a human rights approach and a perspective of war resistance. I think, as an organised movement we can achieve quite a lot. But what we end up with depends to a large degree on what we struggle for, on the goals we set. The movement in South Korea is now at a crucial point. I hope you will make the decisions that suit you.

Thank you for your patience, and I hope that what I had to say is useful for your/our discussion.

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