Watershed Moment for Finnish Conscription


In Finland, conscription is among the most glorified institutions of the state among the people. For most of last decade polls have shown about 70 % support for keeping conscription, and none of the major political parties want to abolish it. In the beginning of 2015 the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces made a decision to cut the reserve by about a third, to 230,000 people, opening for the first time the chance to look for alternatives to mandatory conscription. The state faces broad international criticism for not respecting the rights of conscientious objectors. As there have been no concrete openings on the subject due to the lack of support and political will, The Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors (AKL) has started an Avaaz petition to raise the issue before the Finnish elections in April and as a potential issue for next cabinet negotiations.

History of Finnish Conscription

Conscription in Finland began when Finland was a Royal Principality, under the Tsar of Russia in 1878. At first the army of Finland was separated from the Russian General Command, but it was subjected to it in 1901. This also marked the beginning of organised objection in Finland, based on, at that time, Finnish nationalism. Thus it was not a real objectors movement, but more of an independence movement, but it was successful in abolishing the Russian conscription in Finland. During the first World War, Finland fought a civil war and both sides started conscripting during the war, based on the 1878 law. When Finland gained independence in 1918, a new conscription law was enacted a year later, forcing all men into the army, with no chance of objection.

In 1922, an addition was made to the law allowing for unarmed service in the armed forces. Peace organisations at the time pushed for a civilian service that was completely separate from the armed forces. The first famous objector was Arndt Pekurinen, who objected in 1926 and was jailed two years later. As he was put in the jail, Pekurinen started a hunger strike and despite heavy information suppression by the state, news of it spread internationally. A petition in support of his objection was collected internationally and the signers included Albert Einstein and 60 members of the British parliament, among others. A law allowing for civilian service was enacted in 1931, but such service was only granted for religious reasons, mostly to Jehova's Witnesses. Pekurinen was released in 1932.

The 1931 law did not recognise objection during times of war, and in 1939 everyone who had chosen civilian service was called to the army at the beginning of the second World War. During the two wars that Finland fought with the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1944, over 15,000 people deserted. Over 3500 people were jailed, at least 600 without any kind of trial. After the wars the general atmosphere in Finland was very militaristic due to recent wars and the perceived threat of the Soviet Union. The right to objection for other than religious reasons was only added to the law in 1959.

The next decades saw a steady rise in objection, culminating in large protests at the end of sixties. Based on a law from the time of war, people who publicly encouraged objection were brought to trial. In the end, almost 2000 people were charged in the largest court case in Finnish history. The defendants made fun of the justice system by competing for the largest sentence, which ended up being one year and four months. In the end, the president Urho Kekkonen pardoned all involved and the justice system was made to look laughable. New law on civilian service was enacted in 1969, shortening the sentence to 12 months and number of servicemen rose from 300 to over a thousand by 1980.

The defence ministry drafted a new law in 1987, lengthening the service back to 16 months. This lead to a wide array of resistance to the new law, which culminated in servicemen strikes and a mass hunger strike. Finally in 1992 the civilian service affairs were relocated from the defence ministry to the labour ministry with a new law that also broadened the choice for service placement to NGO's. Since the 90's, the rights of objectors have improved little by little, but no improvement has been gained for free. Every small increase in rights comes after international pressure, political work, protests, strikes and even hunger strikes.The

Contemporary Situation

The current Finnish law on conscription applies to all men between ages 18 and 60 years old. After their eighteenth birthday, all men are called up for a mandatory medical test and draft day, to test the fitness and abilities of the conscripts. Women are not called up automatically, but since 1995 have been able to volunteer by informing the local army office. Draft days are held in all Finnish municipalities in autumn. Draft day dodgers get a fine and a new order to attend a draft day, recurring dodgers may be arrested and drafted forcibly. Jehova's Witnesses have been exempted by a special law since 1985.

Draft day is supposed to be a formal introduction to military service and it's alternatives, with a basic psychological and cognitive test for ability. Civilian service should be represented as an equal alternative. According to my experience and most people I've talked to, draft day is actually a militaristic nationalist glorification. Army orchestras play the national anthem and a couple of famous military marches, and high ranking officers talk about the winter war. Military service is represented almost as a validation of citizenship and civilian service is downplayed, often with chauvinistic and homophobic language. Objectors are intimidated with talk of potential loss of employment and by stories of prison conditions. AKL has a yearly campaign to distribute flyers on draft day mornings, telling the draftees of their rights and factual information on different forms of objection.

Military service lasts for between 165 to 347 days, while civilian service is always 347 days. Objector sentences are based on the length of civilian service and their sentences are based on the law on civilian service. Total objectors get sentenced to 173 days in jail, half of the full civilian service. Partial objectors are sentenced based on the time served before objecting, every day in military service and every two days in civilian service lessens the length of the prison sentence by one day. United Nations Human Rights Commission has declared the length of civilian service to be akin to a punishment, and Amnesty International gives jailed objectors prisoner of conscience status. Different offices of the European Union have also voiced their concerns on the length of civilian service, imprisonment of objectors, and for not exempting other conscientious objectors in the manner of Jehova's Witnesses.

After military service, all who complete their service are placed in the reserve army. While in the reserve, they are mandated to take part in reserve exercises, if they are called upon. The size of the reserve has historically been large, based on the principle of Total Defence, including all land and sea area. Due to restructuring of the reserves, the size of the primary reserve was decreased from 350 000 to 230 000 in January 2015. Total Defence, as a principle also includes such things as communication infrastructure, economic defence, healthcare, internal security and public order. This gives the army a large authority in all parts of society in a crisis situation.

This militaristic influence is furthered also by special national defence classes, where the army invites top administrative, economic and political leaders for a seminar four times per year. Officially these seminars are marketed as essential for national defence coordination, but some have voiced their concerns on how the classes are an army lobbying initiative. 75 % of Finnish MP's have taken the classes. Co-incidentally there was no debate in Finland about a €150 million increase in the defence budget this year, and no plans to abolish conscription.

For this reason, AKL has started an Avaaz petition to garner international support to free conscientious objectors and abolish conscription. A Link for the petition can be found here: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Alexander_Stubb_Prime_Minister_of_Finland_End_Finnish_Conscription_and_Imprisonment_of_Conscientious_Objectors/

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