Insumision: a question of state


Insumision: a question of state

In 1971, Pepe Beunza made history as the first modern Spanish conscientious objector; today he visits prisons to support young objectors who refuse the alternative service which Pepe demanded. With more objectors than conscripts in parts of the state, and with alternative service in administrative chaos, is the Spanish model of massive disobedience to conscription now on the verge of success? TOMAS SANCHO of the Movimiento de Objecion de Conciencia (MOC) Zaragoza explains how the strategy of total resistance has continued to adapt.

The term "insumision"-"non-submission"; rebelliousness; refusal to do military service-is the negation "sumision" or submission. The prefix in in front of sumision (from the Latin: submissus) in the Spanish language has come to mean disobedience, refusal to submit, an act of freedom.

Nowadays the Spanish people associate the word insumision with anti-militarism; to be insumiso is to be anti-militarist. This restricted meaning of the term did not exist six years ago, when the Movimiento de Objecion de Conciencia (MOC) set in motion the campaign of civil disobedience which, under the name of insumision, is currently a nightmare for the Spanish government.

The anti-militarist movement began in 1971 when Pepe Beunza, an anti-militarist objector and Christian, was imprisoned for his refusal to perform military service. War Resisters' International and other international groups had prepared for his detention and a solidarity campaign developed rapidly. This supported the objectors' demands for a civilian service alternative to the military service.

Devising a new strategy

In 1977, with the advent of the current formal democracy, an amnesty was decreed for all political prisoners, including objectors.

A debate began within MOC, based on observing other Western European objectors' movements-especially those in Germany, where alternative service had been in place since the end of the Second World War. Despite there being a significant percentage of objectors in relation to military conscripts, the German army (and, by extension, militarism) suffered very little in terms of social legitimacy.

The main conclusion reached was that civilian service legitimised military service. MOC therefore advocated disobeying the legal framework created by the Spanish state to try to incorporate the objectors' dissent..

The civil disobedience promoted by MOC took different forms during the '80s-producing a confrontation with the military institutions in more and more direct ways. On 20 February 1989 after a long period of preparation, a small group of objectors refused both military service and the civilian alternative service, arguing that it indirectly propped up the military. Insumision was born. From that time to the present (late 1994) more than 10,000 young men have declared themselves insumiso.

Selective repression

The state, unable to apply its own laws-which envisage penalties of two to six years in prison-has put its faith in selective repression (fewer than 400 insumisos have been imprisoned up to now).

There have also been changes in the legal mechanisms against insumision. In 1991 the government stopped trying insumisos in military tribunals, since the army suffered a clear loss of prestige because of that. The civilian judges had little enthusiasm for the role of being the insumisos' tormentors, prompting the more progressive magistrates to abandon sentencing guidelines (some have acquitted the insumisos, while others have imposed symbolic punishments).

However, even the selective approach to enforcing military service law has been damaging to the government and the ruling Socialist Worker's Party (PSOE). For this reason, it decided in 1993 to "soften" the conditions of imprisonment for objectors.

There are three classes of prisoners in the Spanish penal system:

those in Category 1 spend 23 hours a day locked up in isolation cells; those in Category 2 live communally with other inmates; while those in Category 3 go out during the day to work or study, returning to prison on weekday nights. Initially the objectors were in Category 2, but in 1993 it was decided that they would go automatically into Category 3.

This "gift" from the government is perceived by the MOC as a poisoned apple which was attempting to neutralise its anti-militarist criticism, since civil society was less likely to see that Category 3 imprisonment still constituted repression; despite being gentler in character, it was still designed to intimidate.

Hiding in public

MOC's response has been to sharpen civil disobedience, extending it to Category 3 prisoners. On 12-13 December 1993 a group of insumisos imprisoned under Category 3 did not return to sleep in the prisons where they were supposed to go. The objectors went instead to public places (universities, parish churches, labour unions, neighbourhood groups ...) for their nightly imprisonment. Their challenge to the state was basically that there could either be repression (Category 2 imprisonment, assuming the political cost) or a political solution (an end to conscription, reduction of the military budget).

The police detained the insumisos for two weeks, but in the meantime the press contacted us, wrote editorials on insumision, and interviewed us on radio and television. This was itself a breakthrough, given state control over what the broadcast media say and don't say.

Parallel to that, the number of young men seeking the legal status of objector spiralled upward. A direct relationship exists between the start of the insumision campaign in 1989 and the growth in the number of objectors. In 1993 it involved 30 per cent of the call-up. In 1994 it will certainly surpass the number of soldiers. The insumision campaign has made it possible to publicise the possibility of objecting.

The end of mass conscription?

The days of the current Spanish military system, based on massive conscription, are numbered-the government is aware of that. The more we set the pace for structural change in the military, through insumision, the more difficulties the state will face in constructing a new military model.

The anti-militarist movement will be able to take advantage of these difficulties in order to continue advancing. After more than 20 years of hard work, anti-militarism in Spain has succeeded in placing itself on the first level of the social debate. In 1994 more insumisos have disobeyed Category 3; almost 200 are in the prisons of a state which-in theory-treats ideological freedom as sacrosanct. A large section of Spanish society is scandalised that insumisos are imprisoned for reasons of conscience.

Civil disobedience to Category 3 imprisonment is the latest chapter of a history which began in a very distinctive way when Pepe Beunza demanded a civilian service in 1971.

In 1971, the call for alternative service was useful-it permitted people to make an anti-militarist criticism. Today, however, it has been necessary to reinvent conscientious objection, through insumision and more recently by refusing the prison regime prescribed for objection. In the future we will have to continue renovating civil disobedience-we are already debating this aspect-on the basis of direct democracy.

In a world dominated by economic injustice, environmental degradation and structural violence, we are compelled to swim against the current.

MOC-Zaragoza, apartado de correos 1286, E-50080 Zaragoza, state of Spain (tel +34 76 435443; email


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