Recruitment and Conscientious Objection

Freedom of conscience and obligatory military service in the Political Constitution of Colombia The legal framework over recognition of conscientious objection in Colombia remains the contradiction between Articles 18 and 216 in the 1991 Constitution. In the chapter on fundamental rights, article 18 guarantees freedom of conscience: “nobody will be obliged to act against their conscience”. However, in the chapter on the public forces, article 216 states that “all Colombians are obliged to take up arms when there is a public need for this in order to defend national independence and the public institutions. The law will determine the conditions which at all times qualifies an individual for exemption from military service and the privileges for service.”

When cases about conscientious objection have been brought, the Constitutional Court, instead of searching for a halfway point between the two articles, has opted for putting the constitutional obligation to take up arms above the right to freedom of conscience. Its arguments are that collective interests take priority over individual, that CO to military service is not explicitly recognized in the Constitution, that the right to freedom of conscience does not extend to the concept of Conscientious Objection, and that military service is considered a form of citizen training. Nevertheless, recent legislation has recognised some other forms of conscientious objection – for instance by medical staff or by members of Congress who do not accept the decisions of their parties.

Among CO groups in Colombia there is an agreement not to demand new regulations recognising conscientious objection and implementing article 18. That path would lead to the Colombian state placing restrictions and conditions on objectors. Instead their argument is that international norms, set out in a series of international treaties or Conventions ratified by the Congress [1].

Obligatory military service and refusers

The structure of obligatory military service in Colombia is characterized by the huge number of youths called up, the high proportion exempted, and the relatively few who really do military service.

Since 2003, the tendency has been to increase the number called up, reduce the number exempted and so increase the number obliged to do military service, a worrying situation above all when you take into account that most of them come from low-income families who cannot afford to buy their way out of military service (paying for a military service card) or bribe officials.

As CO to military service is not recognised legally, we have to use the terms used by the military to assess the extent of refusal of conscription and forced recruitment in Colombia. The official data provide evidence of three categories of youths who have said no to cooperation with the system of recruitment and the conditions of conscription. These three categories are: remisos (those who fail to report), deserters and desobedientes (those who disobey). The remisos are categoried as having breaking the law concerning recruitment, in theory being subject to fines but not detention. Desertion and disobedience, however, are considered as breaking the military penal code and are punishable with loss of freedom. In practice, remisos have been tried as soldiers for crimes of desertion [2].

The quantity of remisos has been relatively high against the number of persons obligated to do the military service. The average percentage for the period of 1995 to 2003 has been around 26%. Although the general tendency has been downwards, there was a dramatic increase in 2003 to 48.5% of the total of persons obliged to do the military service.

As we can observe in table 1, the cases of desertion and disobedience in the army enormously outnumber those in the police. The annual average is that there are 230 cases of disobedience within the army, and 1847 deserters. Therefore we can confirm that there exists not only a numerous group of young people who have refused conscription for some reason and end up catalogued as remisos, but also a substantial presence of people who refuse to stay or to be obedient within the within the ranks of the State’s military forces.

Military card and conscientious objection

One alternative for refusers of obligatory military service is trying to fit one of the legal exemptions or postponements, so that they will qualify to pay the military a quota of "compensation" and receive a military card instead of being recruited.

Anybody who refuses to pay this quota of military compensation (because contributing financially to war is against their ethical or political convictions) is in a special situation. Legally they are no longer obliged to do military service. However, without the military card they won’t have the opportunity to graduate from superior studies or to sign work contracts.

Furthermore, the government has been trying to change the law so that the military card is demanded on applying for a passport, registering at university or for a professional qualification, obtaining a driving licence, or taking a public or private post. In the meantime, although in a very incipient manner, some groups of conscientious objectors try to address this situation by creating cases and lawsuits claiming discrimination and violation of fundamental rights.

Recruitment by the Colombian State: irregular and illegal

Although the recruitment law lays down procedures to enlist recruits, in many cases the due process is not fulfilled and its supposed impartiality is riddled with arbitrariness and corruption.

Batidas (raids) are practices of forced recruitment carried out in public places, generally in poor neighbourhoods or rural zones. Those who do not have a military card are immediately seized, put in a truck and incorporated into the army. According to the recruitment law itself, this is illegal: nobody should be forced to join immediately, and the maximum allowed is to force people to register themselves to begin the whole process of recruitment (or otherwise resolving their situation). Even the legal exemptions and postponements are not observed or respected by the army. Indigenous people, fathers, displaced people, people with physical disabilities, and college students, are taken into the ranks despite the existence of rules that exempt them or postpone their military service.

Recruitment of children by illegal groups

The 2004 global report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimates that a quarter of soldiers in illegal armed groups in Colombia are younger than 18 years old. These children participate in combats, transport supplies, act as messengers and guards, and place explosives and mines. Some of them join to escape from poverty, unemployment or domestic abuse, while others search to avenge the death of a family member or friend. Most are denied contact with their family. The girls are coerced into sexual relationships with male commandants.

With the new law of childhood and adolescence, children of 15 years old involved in activities of illegal armed groups, changed from being victims of the conflict to being punishable, which is in contradiction with the recommendations of the International Committee of Children's Rights in its last report.

Table 1: Disobedience and desertion in the military and police

Disobedience and desertion in the military and police, 1995-2003
Disobedience military Disboedience police Desertion military Desertion police
2001-2003 1995-2003 2001-2003 1995-2003
690 persons 118 persons 5541 persons 13 persons

Diagram 1. Percentage of remisos among persons obliged to do military service 1995-2003


[1] The right to conscientious objection is implicitly recognized in the article 18 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, in the article 18 of the International Pact of Civil and Political Rights, approved by Colombia by the Law 74 of 1968, and by the article 12 of the American Convention about Human Rights, approved by Colombia by the Law 16 of 1972, rules that affirm the right to freedom of thought, of conscience and religion (MADRID MALO, 2006,3), and explicitly in the resolution 33/165 of 1978 the General Assembly of the UNO, the resolution of the Human Rights Commission of the 5th of March of 1987, and the resolution 2002/45.

[2] The law 522 from 1999 defines disobedience as: Not carrying out or modifying a legitimate order by the officer in command according to legal formalities, carrying a punishment of between 1 and 3 years' imprisonment (Article 115). A deserter can be held from six months to two years. On completing this sentence, the accused will be required to complete his military service, including all the time he has been absent or in detention (Article 128).

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