Empowerment for demilitarisation


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Civil disobedience gets rid of conscription (Spain, 1985-2000)

Report by Rafael Ajangiz

February 21st, 1989. Front page in the best selling Spanish newspaper: "Prosecutors and military judges retreat from action against deserters. Yesterday, only three were actually arrested among the 60 objectors and deserters fleeing military service who yesterday presented themselves in different military offices to vindicate the abolition of conscription and the armed forces as well. National Council for Conscientious Objection having dismissed their application, they nevertheless decided not to follow the military call up that was sent to them. Unexpectedly, the military authorities took no action and only in Bilbao were detained three of them. In the following press conference, the Conscientious Objection Movement, who organises this civil disobedience, resumed that military service 'still exists because we consent about it' and publicly invited all recruits to leave the quarters. They argued that 'the military may arrest single deserters but cannot proceed when they come in groups like today's 60, that is, when we are organised and ready to denounce their coercive response'. They concluded stating that 'this insumision mobilisation will end up with military conscription".

April 17th, 1996. With a record of 12,000 insumisos or total objectors and 330,000 conscientious objectors in seven years, and unable to enforce substitutory civilian service, the newly elected conservative government agreed to abolish compulsory military service. Some 120,000 paid soldiers would be recruited in the following six years to assemble a total strength of 170,000.

November 15th, 2000. Today, the Spanish armed forces face serious trouble to approach a total force of 140,000 and meet the international compromises. As a matter of fact, neither the military expense nor the military institution in itself are backed by the society. Younger people, though largely unemployed, are reluctant to join the military profession. As a countermeasure, the Spanish Minister of Defence has openly invited the Magrebian immigrants to fill the gap. Meanwhile, the Conscientious Objection Movement has reframed the insumision to the new situation: its activists join the military to desert shortly afterwards.

Taking the initiative

This story traces back to the early 1970s. Then, Pepe Beunza defied compulsory military service by publicly declaring himself a conscientious objector. Spain was still a military dictatorship and provision for CO did not exist. Very obviously, he was imprisoned. But nevertheless, more followed, organising in small groups and asking for a "self-organised civilian service for peace". They understood this alternative service as a step to accomplish their goal of abolishing conscription and the armed forces themselves.

Then Franco died, and the transition to formal democracy provided a more favourable political opportunity structure for the struggle: (a) they suffered no meaningful or massive repression because the authorities had decided to avoid all conflict with the military until the completion of the political transition; (b) their antimilitarist stand was well reputed because they had been active against the dictatorship and continued active for a participatory democracy; (c) they enjoyed regular access to political networks and had influence about the security and peace issues; (d) they kept growing both in numbers and mobilisation ability. Born in January 1977, it was the Conscientious Objection Movement who melted all the existing groups and became the movement spokesperson.

When some years later, in December 1984, the newly elected socialist government passed the Conscientious Objection Law, the movement, being very authoritative in this issue, managed to convince most political actors that it was not a fair legislation. As a matter of fact, the law did not differed greatly from those that already existed in Western Europe average: it established the typical provision to patronise general compliance with military service, e.g. the substitutory service was to be a 50% longer; the solicitor had to explain his conscientious objection, and in-service conscientious objection was obviously not acceptable. But both public and political opinion framed the new legislation as a device to punish the brave and well-respected conscientious objectors. The background opinion pools confirmed that a majority of the younger people opposed conscription, a fact that has to be read in connection with the movement's previous mobilisation.

The Conscientious Objection Movement felt strong enough for contention and issued a CO application that did not comply with the newly passed legislation. The governmental agency accepted it and, at that very moment, the Constitutional Court made a case about the legislation, so its enforcement was suspended for three years. Finally, in October 1987, the higher tribunal endorsed the legislation and shortly after, in February 1988, the government began to reject the movement's CO application. "Follow the law or else you will have to cope with military service" was the message. Two years before, the government had managed, against all predictions, to win the referendum on NATO-membership and felt fully legitimised to redrive the conscientious objection issue

But also the movement felt stronger than ever before. The time to fight conscription had finally arrived. It was positive that any compliance with substitutory service would never pose a real menace to military conscription nor have any influence in any other military policy. At that time, as it was known in the International Conscientious Objectors' Meetings, the Spanish and South African CO movements were hearty advocates of the abolition of conscription. Today, conscription no longer exists in either of both countries.

The Spanish newer COs refused to send a new application or any application at all. They became insumisos. And the older ones, who were to be released from all duty because they had been waiting for years to a never coming substitutory service, asked to be reclassified for military service; they also wanted to be insumisos. Then, beginning in February 1989, they began to present themselves before the military judicial authorities, one group every two months in fixed days all over Spain, showing their seek-and-capture indictments, and as many times as needed in order to get arrested. Political and social representatives accompanied them to show public support. That was the image in the mass media, who developed sympathetic with the struggle. The armed forces were the bad guys in this story: many military authorities felt disempowered to do anything, and only a few of them, committed to enforce the law, arrested the insumisos, which immediately was reported as a shameful action. As a matter of fact, it was the government who finally ordered its attorneys to present case against every detention.

Then, the government reached the conclusion that the implementation of the substitutory service would make a change, it would convince the public opinion that the civilian servants were the good conscientious objectors while the insumisos were lazy and lacked solidarity with their fellow citizens. However, many did not follow the bait. At first, a vast majority of the ought-to-collaborate NGOs renounced to do it; hence, the governmental agency run short of posts to meet the increased numbers of conscripts applying for conscientious objection. This shortage became structural and the COs, convinced that it was their chance to get away from service and that punishment was dubious -the government could not cope with the insumisos already-, came in larger and larger numbers and cared very little about providing a regular and fair service. Were they "real" conscientious objectors? Who cared, conscription was the issue, and along with it military expense, armament trade, intervention in the Gulf war, etc.

Two years later, in 1991, the government agreed a new military service law with the major opposition party: a shorter military service, a better plan to promote voluntary and paid enrolment, and the assignment of all causes against insumisos to ordinary courts. The military were kept away from the repression, which could now be normalised and better controlled as well -the Spanish judicial system is permeable to governmental action. However, this resulted in (a) diverse patterns in the sentences agreed by the judges -some opted for a low punishment that avoided imprisonment and occasionally absolution, and some others for jail sentences; (b) in the areas where judges decided jail sentences the penitentiaries had to deal with a plentiful and organised constituency of insumisos who began to demand better conditions for all; (c) public opinion understood that punishing the insumisos was unfair and drove to nowhere; conscription was the real problem.

Then, the government granted open prison to all the insumisos, they slept four days a week in jail and public opinion began to feel released and comfortable with this low-profile repression. So the movement retook disobedience: they did not turn up to sleep and were reclassified into closed prison. One scandal followed another, the conflict kept growing, the numbers of insumisos and conscientious objectors broke records year after year… It was in January 1994 when the government publicly declared that the conscription system faced a clear-cut crisis: the armed forces were running short of conscripts and their future was unclear. A special crisis plan was approved: higher numbers of voluntary and paid recruitment, the creation of many more places for substitutory service -public money for NGOs programs was conditioned to having substitutory places agreed-, and the replacement of all prison sentences in the cases of insumision by a prolonged -12 to 14 years- denial of citizen rights: no public jobs or subsidies or the like. The measures, who were protested by many, did not really work, and two years later the new elected government, coming into terms with reality -in two or three years the armed forces would effectively run out of conscripts-, ended up with conscription.

Since then, we have assisted to its countdown: still growing figures of conscientious objection, a permanent struggle to enrol enough contract soldiers, no matter who or how they are, etc. The results of the ongoing "professionalisation" of the Spanish armed forces confirms the estimation that, contrary to what the government affirms, the end of conscription is a direct impact of the nonviolent peace resistance described in this report. France and Spain, who engaged in the process at the same time, have evolved very differently: the French are the largest and most powerful non-conscript armed forces in Europe while the Spanish are the smallest -when compared to its population- and least powerful of all; this very conclusion applies to their military expenditure rate.

A ten-variable study of the conscription reality in ten Western European countries has recently confirmed that, to a larger extent, the end of conscription in Spain is explained by the mobilisation variable. It was the movement who introduced the issue in the political agenda, who managed to provide the master frame in its whole process, who mobilised significant political actors after the goal of ending conscription, and who kept the conflict at its peak for years by providing large numbers of resisters; contentious politics has proved successful in this case.


Very obviously, the insumisos have been the heart of the mobilisation, what means a bias to 18-35 year-old-male. But we must wipe away the image of individuals refusing to bear arms on grounds of conscience. Though building upon the former, it has been a distinct political movement. First, at the core of the movement older activists and plenty of women have worked hand to hand with the insumisos, on equal terms. To the inside, everyone was insumiso, independently of one's personal situation about the conscription duty. Second, it was not the individual but the group who did the decision-making, always on consensus. So if a particular insumiso had to drop the resistance, he did it on other reasons than disagreement with the action undertaken, and continued in the movement. Third, collective identity and a sense of movement glued the groups.

The movement also provided schemes so other people would support the struggle: (a) self-accusations of having helped the insumiso to break the law; (b) manifestos to be signed; (c) insumisos' parents groups; (d) arrested insumisos' support groups; (e) varied workshops and workgroups. These procured the involvement of older people, professionals and non-activists in general, thus widening the movement.

Two were the grassroot organisations that undertook most of this work: the Conscientious Objection Movement and MiliKK. Among them, it was the Conscientious Objection Movement, older, more experienced and much better organised on a state level, who, besides providing more insumisos, designed the mobilisation in detail, provided its tempo and coordinated the leading actions. New left, autonomous and Basque and Galician radical nationalist groups also promoted their own insumiso organisations. Poorly coordinated with the Conscientious Objection Movement or MiliKK, their action and discourse sometimes differed from those of the leading organisations, but overall remained inside the general action frame provided by them because becoming an alternative required much more effort that they were ready to pay. There were also groups who stayed outside the insumision action frame: the Association of Conscientious Objectors, based almost exclusively in Catalonia, though supporting total resistance, promoted substitutory service and liaisoned with the Catalonian Autonomous government to do so.


Nonviolent direct action has been the mark of this mobilisation. It belonged to the movement's tradition, was part of its collective identity. Some of its activists, usually the oldest, embraced it as a philosophy, and some others, commonly the newcomers, just as the most effective mean, but this difference was never an issue. Outsiders and some other groups who joined the insumision did pose some objections to nonviolence in general terms, but agreed that insumision was nonviolent and that such was a key reason for its wide public support. Lots of creative nonviolent direct actions were performed and broadcasted right away. When outbursts of violence occurred, the movement had no problem in communicating that it had been the police. Nonviolence and civil disobedience as well achieved a better credit after the insumision mobilisation.

In the Basque Country, the movement tried to present both nonviolence and civil disobedience as a feasible alternative to the armed struggle. As a matter of fact, during the 15 months of ETA's cease-fire in 1998-99, several initiatives followed the proposal for extensive civil disobedience that the Conscientious Objection Movement first presented in 1991: (a) Lizarra's pact, which ended with previous political polarisation on the issue; (b) Udalbiltza, which congregated local institutions around disobedient action; (c) nonviolent action was rehearsed by the political environment of ETA; and (d) permanent workshops on civil disobedience became common. ETA's new offensive, harsh as it is, has eclipsed the prospects for change.


Civil disobedience has been the mean. It was most appropriate to defy an institution which, like conscription, relied on compliance. Lobbying was not feasible in a high-domain policy like conscription, dictated by reason of the state; it could have obtained some improvement in substitutory service at the most, never its abolition. Litigation drove nowhere in a political system where the judicial system could be intervened by the executive power. The sentence by the Constitutional Court marked the end of that path.

Lobbying was exercised on symbolical grounds. The movement approached the ombudsman to release the insumisos in military prisons from wearing military uniform. MPs were asked to visit the insumisos in jail. The movement also agreed with some sympathetic judges that some insumisos would be given full pardon. The aim of it all was to challenge the authorities and present them as totalitarian, unfair and illegitimate, while the insumisos were common people who represented the will of society. The movement also agreed terms with some peripheral parties so they would lead the demand for abolition of conscription in the regional and state parliaments -the Basque and Catalonian parliaments did approved several motions in that direction-, become uncooperative with the implementation of substitutory service, and ignore the administrative sanctions against the insumisos. But the mobilisation was never under negotiation. For the movement, abolition of conscription was nothing but a step forward in the run for the abolition of the armed forces.

The media played an important role in the sympathetic diffusion of the struggle. Civil disobedience, nonviolence and the assets of the very goal of ending conscription did a great deal in obtaining media's involvement. Of course, contacts were nurtured -some journalists were activists themselves- and appropriate news formats provided. The movement was a source of spectacular news and its voice was given space in return. Hence, the Conscientious Objection Movement became the authoritative speaker of the mobilisation; its stories usually received better credit than those of the government did. Of course, the movement also had its publications, but they were addressed more to the activists and closer people than the public in general.


No staff, no elected leaders, no voting, just many people gathering almost every single day in their home groups to decide and do. Of course there existed informal leaderships but procedures were provided to let all voices be listened. Weekend or longer meetings were organised periodically to have deeper discussions and introduce newer members into the group. The assignment of tasks was always ad hoc and sometime commissions or small groups for specific tasks were created. All the groups that compounded the Conscientious Objection Movement gathered regularly on a state level -every weekend in the peak moments- to decide and structure single campaigns. Money was raised through alternative activities -fiestas, concerts, selling t-shirts and other materials- to pay for general expenses. Grass-roots in its plenitude, perfectly horizontal, which produced an astonishingly coordinated action.

Results and empowerment

Empowerment is at sight. Conscripts have learned that conscription existed upon their consent; at first they looked for the movement's umbrella but soon after they began to take decisions and act on their own, figures of resisters are always approximate because they have become fully autonomous in their insumision. Movement activists know they have done something important with their lives, they have attained abilities they did not have before and know how to work in association with others. The movement organisational network has improved its influence: its discourse and views are widely known, civil disobedience is legitimate, networking with other political actors is easier. Plain people have witnessed a successful nonviolent mobilisation.

Results, however, should be assessed against both objective and subjective parameters. The end of conscription has followed the insumision mobilisation. That's a fact. But the movement feels uncertain about it, like a parent who does not fully recognise his/her child. The abolition of conscription was its goal when the insumision was launched; there were many other goals, just like today, but it was the end of conscription what produced the critical mass. Now, it looks a minor goal, partly because it has been attained, partly because the movement is now much more ambitious, and partly because the government is recycling it into a pretended professionalisation of the armed forces. Success is a social construction. Facts need interpretation and the movement is doing very little to forward its own, partly because it lacks conviction about the end of conscription being a clear-cut result of the mobilisation. Facts tell us it actually is, but that is not enough to tag it as a success, impact or even consequence of the movement action.

Besides, the new horizon impacts as somewhat disempowering. The movement's goal today, abolition of the armed forces, appears a more complicated struggle. Civil disobedience is no longer that straightforward, people do not longer feel such a direct burden on their shoulders like it was conscription. Mobilising depends much more on framing the issue than implementing an action about it, and framing requires direct experiences or grievances; it could be the economy of the military -military expense and military production- but this is obviously more abstract and distant than conscription. If the movement continues on doing insumision -now into the barracks-, in spite of its poorer turnover, it is possibly because it is more secure grounds that the more ambitious but entangled wider horizon of antimilitarism.


El 8 de noviembre de 2000 tendrá lugar lo que el Gobierno ha anunciado como el último sorteo del Servicio Militar Obligatorio. Las personas que integramos el Movimiento de Objeción de Conciencia (MOC) creemos que es una fecha indicada para comunicar una serie de consideraciones sobre lo que ha venido siendo y será la lucha antimilitarista.

En primer lugar, sentimos una gran alegría al contemplar la debacle definitiva de la mili y de su prestación sustitutoria. En el plazo de algo más de un año, ninguna persona tendrá que sufrir esa forma de servidumbre, esa escuela de antivalores que niegan la convivencia humana y fabrica ciudadanos obedientes y acríticos. El ejército dejará por fin de disponer de esa institución dañina, que hasta hace bien poco era tenida como parte del orden natural de las cosas, para socializar el machismo, la homofobia, el autoritarismo, la obediencia acrítica y el culto a la violencia; señas de identidad de su propia estructura y funcionamiento.

Nuestra alegría es mayor, si cabe, por ser esta abolición-suspensión del servicio militar principalmente una de las consecuencia de la movilización social de base y participativa que ha envuelto la acción del movimiento antimilitarista desde hace ya casi 30 años. La abolición de la mili es una verdadera conquista social, y la decisión del gobierno y sus socios, tomada a finales de 1996 y actualizada hace pocos meses, solamente constata lo inevitable y ha sido forzada por el cambio en la mentalidad colectiva, a pesar de declaraciones políticas oportunistas.

Desde de los primeros setenta hasta ahora, la acción política del movimiento antimilitarista, a través de la objeción de conciencia (antes de su intento de domesticación mediante la Ley de Objeción de Conciencia), los servicios civiles autogestionados, la objeción colectiva, la insumisión a la mili y a su prestación sustitutoria, la objeción fiscal al gasto militar, las acciones directas noviolentas, etc., ha conseguido abrir el debate social sobre el reclutamiento forzoso y la función del ejército, y colocarlo en los medios de comunicación, bloquear la puesta en marcha real de la prestación sustitutoria, quebrar la función disuasoria de la LOC haciendo de la objeción de conciencia legalizada un fenómeno de masas, y producir la participación en campañas antimilitaristas de miles de personas que le han perdido el miedo a desobedecer y cuestionar públicamente al ejército.

En concreto, la insumisión ha demostrado la posibilidad y la efectividad «aquí y ahora» de la desobediencia civil como forma de acción política legítima. Los sucesivos gobiernos durante todo ese tiempo han respondido a esta actividad noviolenta con represión; cárcel (que miles de objetores e insumisos han conocido en estos treinta años y conocen actualmente) y «muerte civil» para los desobedientes. Todo ello acompañado de campañas de criminalización, que no han conseguido hacer menguar la solidaridad activa que la insumisión ha generado en amplios y variados sectores sociales. En estos momentos, diez insumisos-desertores, con condenas de 2 años y 4 meses, permanecen encarcelados en la prisión militar de Alcalá de Henares, y otros tantos, serán encarcelados en breve.

El llamado proceso de "profesionalización y modernización" de las Fuerzas Armadas es la pantalla con la que el gobierno y el ejército quieren ocultar el derrumbe de la mili y vaciarlo de contenido antimilitarista. Lo forzado de este proceso se revela en su improvisada y desastrosa planificación (con continuos cambios de calendario y objetivos de contingente) que, combinada con la conciencia generada por estos años de trabajo antimilitarista, lo conducen a lo que hoy es ya un evidente fracaso por falta aspirantes a soldado. A pesar de 4000 millones de pesetas de propaganda engañosa en dos años, de rebajar al mínimo los requisitos, y de la utilización de la mujer para cubrir el cupo, captar personal y "embellecer" la imagen del ejército, en ninguna de las convocatorias de este año se ha superado la cifra de un aspirante por plaza, y dos de cada tres plazas quedarán vacantes. Esto revela tanto el desprestigio como la deslegitimación social del Ejército a pesar de las campañas de adoctrinamiento

El MOC nunca ha considerado la desaparición del servicio militar como un fin en si mismo, sino como una etapa en la lucha por la abolición del ejército y el militarismo social. El retroceso del militarismo que supone la abolición de la mili viene, sin embargo, acompañado de un intento de remilitarizar otros sectores como la economía (aumento y camuflaje de los presupuestos militares, financiación a través de impuestos indirectos, potenciación de la industria y el comercio armamentístico) y la política exterior (ingreso definitivo en la OTAN, participación en misiones "humanitarias" y de agresión). Por eso, lejos de desmovilizarse, el MOC se reafirma en su trabajo antimilitarista, del que forman parte la objeción fiscal a los gastos militares, la denuncia del tráfico y producción de armas, de la injerencia del Ejército en el sistema educativo, la educación para la paz, las campañas por el desmantelamiento de campos de tiro e instalaciones militares, la investigación de alternativas noviolentas de defensa, la acción directa noviolenta, la insumisión y la insumisión en los cuarteles.

Ante la descomposición del servicio militar y su prestación sustitutoria, y el fracaso de la "profesionalización" por evidente ausencia de respaldo social, los y las antimilitaristas del MOC proponen la apertura inmediata de un debate social, amplio, serio, participativo, riguroso y en profundidad sobre la "defensa", que hasta el momento ha sido hurtado sistemáticamente a la sociedad civil. Un debate que gira alrededor de cuestiones como qué es lo que debe defenderse (la paz, el bienestar social...), de qué hay que defenderse (del ejército y del militarismo como proyecto social, de la resolución violenta de los conflictos, de la situaciones de desigualdad y explotación), y cómo debe ejercerse esa defensa (devolviendo poder a la sociedad civil, ampliando radicalmente las formas de participación democrática). Sin embargo, el gobierno prefiere intentar superar este "divorcio" entre FAS y sociedad (reconocido también por analistas militares) mediante el adoctrinamiento y la imposición de un modelo de ejército profesional. El MOC propone resolverlo democráticamente en su sentido profundo; ponerse del lado de la sociedad, y deshacerse de la antidemocrática, peligrosa, garante de la desigualdad, represiva y obsoleta estructura militar: abolir el ejército.

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