The right to conscientious objection in Latin America ­ a brief overview



Conscription exists for men aged 18-40, recruitment is via ballot, as only 60000 recruits are needed from a pool of 975,000 men reaching conscription age annually. Conscientious objection is not recognised.

El Salvador

Conscription has not been enforced since the peace treaty of 1992. The right to conscientious objection is not recognised.


A new law on a general "citizen service" was passed in May 2003, which allows for a voluntary service in the Armed Forces or social institutions for men and women aged 18-24. However, if the ranks cannot be filled by volunteers, then additional youth will be chosen by lot. These too can choose where to serve.

A right to conscientious objection doesn't exist, which is only a problem for those who voluntary join the military, and develop a conscientious objection later.


Conscription exists in theory for all citizens aged 18-50, but in practice only for men. Military service is performed in the Cuban armed forces or the National Revolutionary Police Force, which are run by the Ministry of the Interior. It lasts for 3 years, and is followed by reserve service, which involves 45 days of military training annually.

The right to conscientious objection is not recognised. There is little information on practice. According to Jehovah's Witnesses, only few Jehovah's Witness COs are actually detained.


Conscription was abolished in 1990, following the peace accords and the election of a new government. However, there is no right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers.

The Armed Forces are approximately 17,000 strong.


Conscription exists for men from the age of 19, but in practice only 10% are recruited.

According to the constitution the Armed Forces are to provide a substitute service for conscientious objectors. However, such a service is neither genuine civilian, not acceptable to conscientious objectors, as it is managed by the Armed Forces.

Costa Rica

The country does not have military forces, though there is a paramilitary police. The Guardia Civil (civil guards), have been desribed by a military expert as armed forces restructured to the lowest level and as one of the best trained forces in Latin America. Furthermore it has both a system of military ranks and highly technical weaponry. In 1997 there was wide public debate when a secret arms purchase by the Guardia Civil leaked out.


Conscription is enshrined in the constitution, but is not enforced. Following the US invasion of 1989, the Panamian Armed Forces have been dissolved. Recruitment into paramilitary forces and the national police is voluntary.

There is no right to conscientious objection.


Conscription exists. All men aged 18-50 years are liable for conscription, and military service lasts for 1 year (2 years in the navy). In wartime, women must assist the armed forces.

Articles 37 and 129 of the 1992 constitution recognize the right of conscientious objection. All conscript may announce they are COs, but as the constitutional right is not backed by any law, there is no procedure for achieving CO status.


There is no conscription in Uruguay. Although the minimum recruitment age is 18, there are three military schools which accept 15-year-old boys and girls and train them for a military career. They provide courses for air force pilots and mates in the navy. There are no other schools in Uruguay offering courses for (non-military) pilots or ship mates.

The right to conscientious objection is not recognised.


Although conscription is enshrined in the constitution, it is not enforced since 1994. Military service is performed by volunteers. But, if insufficient volunteers present themselves for enlistment, the law allows the government to introduce compulsory military service.

In case the government decides to introduce conscription, all conscripts have a right to conscientious objection and will be required to perform a substitute social service. At present this is only theory.


Conscription is presently not enforced. Article 276 of the 1982 Constitution was amended by Decree No.24-94, ratified by Congress in 1995, establishing voluntary military service from the age of 18 during peacetime and calling for the 1985 Military Service Act to be redrafted. The Government asserted that "military service is now voluntary and educational" and that "there is no compulsory conscription." However, the 1985 Military Service Act has not yet been redrafted, nor has new legislation been passed since 1994. The right to conscientious objection is not recognised.


Conscription exists. All 17-year-olds, male and female, must register in order to obtain a military service card (libreta de servicio militar). After registration conscripts undergo a thorough medical examination. Then a lottery is held to decide which conscripts have and have not been 'selected'. Military service lasts for two years.

The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognised.


There has never been conscription since the country gained independence in 1981. The right to conscientious objection is not recognised.


Conscription exists. All men of over 18 are liable for military service. Women may be liable for compulsory military service too, if the national defence so requires. Because of Peruvian-Ecuadorian border tensions, the conscription of women was considered in 1997. Military service lasts for a year. All males aged between 26 and 55, even if they have not performed military service, are regarded as members of the military reserve forces. All military duties end at the age of 55.

Both boys and girls in their 5th year of secondary school have to take a pre-military course (programa premilitar) if they want to graduate. It lasts for an academic year and consists of assisting in barracks and receiving military instruction on Saturdays.

According to Art 108 of the Military Service Law, conscientious objectors can get exempted. However, so far no COs have used art. 108. The Ecuadorian CO group does not advocate using it, arguing that it does not really recognise conscientious objection and that no genuine substitute service outside the armed forces is available.


Conscription exists. All men between 16 and 28 are liable for military service. Military service for those who have completed secondary education (Bachilleres) lasts for a year, for others it is two years. Those who do not go to secondary schools may be victims of forced recruitment. At bus stops, in market places, on the street the military pick up youths. Those who cannot prove that they have a military service record or have a valid reason to be exempted, are taken to recruitment centres.

Conscientious objection is not recognised, although the constitution grants freedom of conscience. Those who announce they are COs have no clear guarantee that they may leave the armed forces. They either have to perform their military service in the police force as prison guards or they have to desert and remain in hiding. If they refuse to perform military service, they may face the charge of desertion and be imprisoned.


Conscription exists. All men aged 18 to 50 are liable for military service, which lasts for two years. All men are legally obliged to register for military service when they turn 18. In practice many do not register. Of those who register only 20 percent are actually recruited. Recruitment takes place in public at places were many people gather, such as cinema entrances, schools and market places. Recruitment officers, sometimes dressed as civilians and assisted by the military and police, 'verify the documents' and then arbitrarily force recruits into buses bound for to the barracks.

Conscientious objection is not recognised.


Conscription exists. All men aged 18 to 45 are liable for military service, which lasts for 8 to 12 months in the army and air force, and 8 to 18 months in the navy.

There is no legal provision for conscientious objection. On 28 August 1997 fourteen COs signed a declaration of conscientious objection to military service at a notaries' office, appealing officially to the Director General of Mobilisation to grant them the right to conscientious objection. Although the Chilean government is supposed to answer any citizen's enquiry within 15 days, they received no reply. When they complained at the Ministry of Defence and demanded an answer, the latter responded that granting such a right was not within their remit. At present there is also a petition of 3 COs pending at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Petition 12.219)


Conscription exists. All men over 19 are liable for military service, which lasts for one year. Male students who live in cities and are in the fourth form are liable for pre-military service, involving military and civilian training at weekends. In 1998 premilitary service was introduced for young women in border regions. Conscientious objection is not recognised.

French Guiana

French overseas department. No indigenous Armed Forces.


Since gaining independence in 1972, there never has been conscription. Enlistment is volutary, but practice is not known.


Conscription does not exist. It is believed that the right to conscientious objection is included in the 1980 constitution, but it is not known if it is implemented by law.


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