Conscription: coming slowly to and end in Finland?


Kaj Raninen

Conscription have had a very special role in Finnish society. For decades, conscription for males was seen as an integral part of Finnish society, and for the vast majority of young Finnish men it was self evident that they would do military service. In fact, until the early 1990's, almost 90% of them did it. If someone dared to question conscription system, they were usually ridiculed.

Conscientious objectors were quite a small minority (2-3% of all conscripts), in whom the state was never really interested. In this situation the strategy of Finnish CO-movement was - quite naturally - to struggle for improvements to legislation which governed the substitute service and later also to support total objectors. Of course we wanted also to abolish conscription, but it was not a realistic aim.

The rise of COs and substitute service

However, during the last 20 years, the situation has been slowly changing. During the first half of 1990's the number of substitute servers rose from 2-3% of all conscripts to 7-8% (it's still about the same now). It was also noticed in Finland that during the 90's many Western European countries abolished conscription or reformed it radically, which created for the first time some serious discussion about its future in Finland.

The slow decline of conscription has continued also in this millennium. 25 years ago, almost 90% of Finnish men did military service. Around 2000, the percentage was still over 80 - nowadays it's around 65. So, there is a slow transition to "selective conscription" going on also in Finland. However, this transition has been also "silent". No major changes had been made to conscription laws and even now there hasn't been any widespread discussion about the future of the system. So the transition has been made by practical means: military and substitute service authorities are giving exemptions to conscripts much more easily than they did in the past, although the regulations about it are officially still the same. At the same time a change is also going on people's minds: the social norm that every young male must go to army is much weaker than it was, and the social pressure from peers and elders for those who don't go to the military is much lighter nowadays.

Conscription is still deeply rooted in Finnish society and some political forces, especially those from the older generation, who still want to close their eyes from the change which is going on. Because of that, there is no widespread political discussion about the topic, and in government papers on defence policy and military doctrine, conscription is still taken for granted. In fact, the governmental institution most eager to start the discussion has been army itself. They cannot, however, openly lobby for the abolition of conscription because it was created for army's needs. It is still seen as a cornerstone of the Finnish military system by many, and until recently they themselves were proudly proclaiming it as a necessity. In the end, they do not necessarily want to abolish it because it does still have some positive value for them. However, they do want to ensure that training conscripts does not disturb their more important tasks (i.e. preparing for modern warfare and taking part in NATO's wars). Such a disturbance cannot be avoided if they have to train as many conscripts as they are at the moment - let alone as many as they were a few years ago.

Conscription no longer required

In the end, conscription will be abolished in Finland and basically for the same reasons as it has been in other countries: in the post cold war world, and with the current military technology, it is simply no longer needed, and finally the state and politicians will have to accept that. It's impossible to say how long it will take, surely at least five years from now, maybe even ten or more - but the final outcome is clear.

Antimilitaristic movements must of course be aware of what is happening and react accordingly. At the moment 'traditional CO work' constitutes to be a big part of our work - although not as big as in days gone by. We are still working for better CO-laws and practices, against the unofficial discrimination against COs in working life and elsewhere in society (which is still a problem in Finland, although not as big as it once was) and supporting total objectors (most of whom are now sentenced to home detention instead of prison).

As I mentioned, the Finnish government has traditionally seen substitute service as a 'necessary evil' and hasn't been very interested in it. However, a few years ago the Ministry of Employment (who governs the substitute service) published a document called 'Civilian Service in 2020', in which they expressed an aspiration to make substitute service much bigger, 'more acceptable' and 'more useful to the society'- similarly to how it was in Germany, and is still in Austria. To say the least, the report was not greeted with great enthusiasm by political parties or the general public, and it seems that government's and military's decades-long efforts to marginalise and neglect conscientious objection are now working against their new aim to save the conscription through substitute service. Personally, I think that in the Finnish context this effort is flogging a dead horse, but we must still be ready to have the discussion.

New antimilitarist challenges in Finland

Questions like CO as a right for professional or voluntary soldiers, the militarisation of youth and militarisation of women, are growing increasingly important from the Finnish antimilitaristic perspective, when the military is preparing for 'post-conscription' situation and seeking new ways to be present in society and uphold militarism inside it. Voluntary conscription for women has been possible in Finland for almost two decades, but it hasn't been very popular: only 1-2% of young women apply for it. After the cold war, Finnish foreign policy and the military has been slowly integrated into NATO, and because of that we see cooperation and taking part in common campaigns with other European groups as very important.

Probably the transition away from conscription will be quite similar in Finland as to other countries. In Finland, it will just happen much later and take much longer than elsewhere. During this process we have also a chance to learn from the experiences of other antimilitarists, who have seen this process happening in their countries recently.


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