The return of conscription?

People dressed as clowns stand outside a recruitment centre in Helsinki
Photo: AKL. Counter-recruitment in Finland
Hannah Brock

When I started working for War Resisters’ International in 2012, we were beginning to rethink our strategy as a group supporting conscientious objectors: a central concern since our foundation in 1921. According to international standards, the right to conscientious objection should be available not just to conscripts but also to professional soldiers who join up voluntarily. In reality however, most of WRI’s work up to that point had been in supporting conscripted soldiers – those who had to sign up without making an active choice to do so. But in the twenty years leading up to 2012, conscription had been suspended or abolished in at least twenty two states[1]. What did this mean for those supporting draft evaders, if there was not much of the draft left?

While that’s still a question we need to answer, in the last six years, the picture has changed: Norway has extended conscription to women; Sweden has reintroduced conscription for all; Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and Kuwait have reintroduced conscription for men after short hiatuses; Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have introduced conscription for the first time, and there have been rumours of its reintroduction in Croatia, where it was suspended in 2008, and indeed in France, where it was suspended in 1996. Conscription still exists in over 100 states, and there remains a variety of responses to conscientious objectors, many of whom are still imprisoned.

This article looks at what has caused the shift back towards conscription in recent years, and what it means for pacifist movements.

Regional security situations changes

Developments in two regions – east and northern Europe and the Gulf states – have been explicitly and implicitly justified by threats from neighbouring nations, and for other state-specific reasons.

The Gulf States

In the United Arab Emirates, conscription began in 2014. Conscription lasts for nine months for high school graduates and two years for non-graduates. Women are also encouraged to volunteer, although it is not obligatory. The army are selling the opportunity to women as a chance to develop leadership skills, build team spirit and enhance self-confidence[3]. The UAE have also been investing in their army and navy in recent years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UAE was the world's ninth-largest arms importer during the period between 2008 and 2012.

In nearby Kuwait, military service was reintroduced in 2017[4], following the enforcement of the new mandatory military service law approved by the cabinet in May 2015. Compulsory military service was suspended in Kuwait in 2001, and reintroduction was debated periodically over the following years.

Conscription was introduced in Qatar for the first time in 2014. The new national service law requires men aged 18–35 to train in the military for either two or four months. Minister of State for Defense Hamad bin Ali Al-Attiyah said that it would help make Qataris “ideal citizens”.[5] Those who fail to sign up for military service and who do not respond to summons are not eligible for either government or NGO jobs, nor able to obtain a business licence  or to register on the job seekers list. Those who present false documents or have someone else attend a medical check-up in their place face a jail term of between one month and one year and/or a fine of up to QR20,000 ($5,500).[6] One Qatari official said "the aim of the military service is to get young Qataris to rely on themselves". Similar rhetoric has been used the world over to promote compulsory military service.

The introduction of conscription follows an increase in weapons purchases. In 2014 Qatar went on a ‘shopping spree’ at the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition (DIMDEX), purchasing new tanks, helicopters, warships, missiles and artillery worth US$23.89 billion. In fact, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar increased their arms imports between 2007–11 and 2012–16 by 175%, 63% and 245%, respectively[7].

Conscription in countries neighbouring the Gulf region – Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt and Iran – has been in force for many years. Furthermore, there have been accusations of forced recruitment by Syrian government forces[8]: one of the many reasons refugees have been fleeing the country[9]. Conscription also exists in the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava, and conscientious objection as a right has recently been recognised in some cantons.

All of the which have recently adopted conscription have tense relations with close neighbours (Iran, in the case of Kuwait and the UAE) and are located in a region with ongoing military tensions – including the threat posed by ISIS and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Yemen, which have not always respected state boundaries.

Russia’s near-neighbours

Photo: Ukrainian troops Credit: 7th Army Training Command
Russian military aggression, especially following the Ukraine–Russia conflict from 2014, has been cited as a motivation for reintroducing conscription in Lithuania, Sweden and Georgia (where it was reestablished only eight months after it had been abolished). Recently, Estonia increased its conscript numbers soon after a decision was made to make it easier for women to volunteer and to make them eligible for all military units[10].

In Ukraine, conscription ended in 2013, but was reimposed in 2014. As part of the war of words between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, draft desertion figures have been contested. Soon after it was imposed unofficial sources reported that Ukrainian/Romanian border area hotels and motels have at some points been “completely filled with Ukrainian men evading conscription”, which was widely quoted in Russian state media, with Vladimir Putin voicing his support for Ukrainian draft evasion. The Ukrainian government has denied that there is a major problem with mobilisation, and accused the Russian government of inflating desertion figures and inciting people to resist the draft in a concerted propaganda campaign.[11] Furthermore, conscripts can only be legally mobilised if they sign conscription papers; thus, many are evading the draft by living at an address other than the one they are registered at to prevent the papers reaching them. On 6 November 2017, the Ukrainian daily newspaper Segodnya reported two police raids on nightclubs in Kiev and Lviv in which recruitment office personnel checked the papers of young men and handed out a number of conscription notices. The police reported that in Kiev, 32 young men were sent straight to the recruitment office.[12]

In Sweden, conscription was abolished in 2010, ending a 109-year practice. However, it was quickly reestablished in 2017 'in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea[13]’. This follows a general shift in Swedish foreign policy. Though not a NATO member, in 2017 it hosted the Aurora military exercises[14] – Sweden’s biggest war game in 23 years – which involved troops from many NATO countries. In 2018 there will also be a hike in military spending by the centre-left government, to the tune of 8.1 billion crowns ($1 billion) over the following three years. Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist said “[t]his [extra money] … sends an important signal to the world around us and is good for Sweden.”[15] We do not agree. In the years between abolition and reinstatement, the army had failed to meet its recruitment targets. With the reintroduction of conscription came the inclusion of women.

Who can be soldiers?

For many years, women were only compelled to join the armed forces in Israel, Eritrea and Mozambique. However, the draft was extended to women in Sweden in 2017 and in Norway in 2013. This change was championed by women politicians and others calling for 'gender-neutral conscription', and arguing that they needed “a modern and diverse organisation with different people, skills and perspectives.” In Norway, only a small number of men are called up for military service, given the size of the military and the number of volunteers. The inclusion of women was opposed by some feminists[16] who declared that suggestions that the nature of the military might be changed by the involvement of women was false, as the army would serve only to militarise women having integrating them into the prevailing male-dominated culture.

The position of women in the military has been expanded in many militaries in recent decades; both the proportion of women in the military and the roles they can undertake have increased[17].

Similar disputes concerning the roles of women in the military have occurred in other countries who have been grappling with questions surrounding parity of opportunity in the armed forces for marginalised groups. Recently in the USA, the role of trans* people in the military has been the subject of fierce debate. While some see the proposed expulsion of trans* folk merely as another form of discrimination and othering, some have argued that while Trump’s position represents an attack, the trans community should not be allowed to become ‘leveraged to support U.S. militarism and imperialism’ and that it is necessary to ‘criticise policies that single out and attack trans individuals while refusing to endorse, support, or celebrate the U.S. military’.[18]

This controversy comes only a few years after the abolition of the infamous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy which silenced LGBTQ* people in the US armed forces. Its abolition was trumpeted as a watershed moment in the history of gay rights. Others had questioned this campaign aim, saying that queers should instead be demanding the abolition of an institution that is ‘militarist, masculinist, and homophobic’, rather than calling for the inclusion of new groups into its fold.

Religion has also been a grounds for exemption. Currently the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel are struggling to maintain their rights as a group exempt from conscription. While their opposition to military service is not based on an anti-war stance, at WRI we see it as ‘another example of the Israeli military trying to militarise yet another group in society, and make participation in the military a marker of equality and citizenship’[19], and therefore support, in principle, their struggle to avoid the draft. Meanwhile in Russia, a ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses (on grounds that they are ‘extremist’) has meant that young Jehovah’s Witness men are at risk. Previously, their membership of the group meant that they were readily granted permission to do alternative service. Now, military call-up offices have denied several army conscripts the option of alternative civilian service[20].

As conscription is introduced for the first time in some states, the inclusion or exclusion of marginalised groups will become a contested issue in new places and military service may gradually be seen as a prerequisite for respect, or even citizenship. This is a hurdle that has to be jumped, and a way for unequal societies to claim they are treating all groups the same – a faux ‘equality in the military’, which has been called ‘pinkwashing’ when referring to the recruitment of queer people – a process especially developed in Israel.

Right-wing spin

Threats of obligatory military service are still used by the right to further political agendas. In many contexts conscription is seen as a by-word for discipline; young people moulded to be ‘good citizens’, used to following orders and working hard. It is often mooted as a solution following moral panics over unemployment, hedonism and apathy in younger generations. As an activist in Thailand I met last year said: “[c]onscription is the way to produce obedience”.

Recently the rumours most likely to result in a policy change have been circulated Croatia, where a coalition government was put off by the financial cost. As well as boosting military numbers, conscription was heralded as a method of bringing the country together: “I will advocate for the military conscription so that there is no more divisions between the north and the south of Croatia”[21], said a member of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union. As yet, movements towards the draft are stalled (follow our affiliate the Centre for Peace Studies for new developments).

What this means for us

As Hans Lammerant argued in his excellent article from 2013 ‘The end of conscription and the transformation in war’, remote control warfare and the end of the Cold War reduced the need for large, boots-on-the-ground style armies in Europe. These militaries were now more likely to be engaged in proxy wars and ‘humanitarian interventions’, run by ‘lean and mobile armies with well-trained soldiers’. Some European nations – especially those, such have Sweden, that have been unable to staff their new, professional armies with volunteers – are bucking this trend. Elsewhere in Europe, Finland is clinging on to conscription and continues to imprison total objectors, and an Austrian referendum in 2013 resulted in the continuation of conscription by a small margin[22].

In other regions, where states have historically relied upon small, professional armies, the ambitions of some states dictate the kind of conscription (as in the Gulf) we thought was on the way out.

While different motivations are supplied by governments for using conscript labour to fill their armies, it’s clear that – worldwide – the picture is more mixed than the one we were seeing in the first decade of this century: that of conscription being abolished gradually. It is important that as governments bring back conscription, they also introduce provisions for conscientious objectors. These provisions should be at least as robust as they were before conscription was initially abolished, but preferably more wide-reaching. Any substitute service offered by governments in lieu of military service should be in line with the reasons for the objection, of an entirely civilian nature and in the public interest, and not punitive – both in terms of the duration of the service and its nature. Moreover, because an alternative civilian service is not required by international law[23]. Hence,  governments with conscript armies can simply choose to let conscientious objectors go, as has been the case in Norway since 2011[24].

Those of us who oppose the existence of all armed forces – not just militaries that forcibly conscript people to join – will not be content with the rights of conscientious objectors being respected through the provision of a substitute to military service. It’s not just that we don’t want to be in the military ourselves – we don’t want anyone else to be, either. We need to remember the lessons learnt by those who have taken back power from governments and armies in the past, such as los insumisos, a movement in the 1980s and ‘90s that empowered thousands of young people in Spain to reclaim their bodies, and helped to bring conscription to an end after 230 years. Their goal was to make conscription unworkable and bring about its abolition, but also to shape post-conscription ‘defence’ policy, and to eventually abolish Spain’s military[25]. The present is not a time for depression at this apparent regression, but a time to work together more closely and to learn from the experiences of others.

Moreover, more conscription means more conscientious objectors. The War Resisters’ International network exist to support pacifism around the world, including conscientious objectors. Groups have been joining our network and finding international solidarity for almost 100 years, and we hope to support more CO groups that emerge from these newly-conscripted nations. We are keen to make links with dissenters in those nations that are beginning to conscript people for the first time. Militarism is perhaps most tangible in states where young people are automatically expected to join the army – preparation for war becomes a process conspicuous in every home and school – and it is these environments that often produce opposition movements.

[1] Including Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden, Morocco, Peru and Argentina. See ‘Conscientious Objection in History’, in Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for  Movements.

[3] See War Resisters’ International, 28 August 2014, Conscription begins in UAE

[4] See War Resisters’ International, 7 October 2017, Kuwait: Compulsory military service reintroduced

[5] See Doha News, 2 August 2015, Qatar’s national service program puts new emphasis on military training

[6] See Gulf State News, 25 March 2014, Qatar: Stiff penalties for dodging conscription.

[7] From the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 22 February 2017, The state of major arms transfers in 8 graphics

[8] War Resisters’ International, 22 February 2016, Syria: citizens conscripted after arrest, children recruited

[9] Deutsche Welle, 8 June 2017, Syrian refugees escaping military conscription face uncertain fate upon return

[10] Estonian World, 3 October 2017, More women to be allowed to serve in the Estonian military

[11] The Guardian, 1 May 2014, Ukraine reintroduces conscription to counter threat of pro-Russia separatists.

[12] Connection e.V., Criminal proceedings against Ukrainian conscientious objector and journalist may be resumed

[13] The Independent, 2 March 2017, Sweden brings back military conscription in face of growing Russia threat

[14] Opposition campaigns were mounted, including Stop Aurora

[15] Reuters, 16 August 2017, Sweden to raise military budget by SEK 8 billion through 2020

[16] Including Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights (Norsk Kvinnesaksforening, NKF, the Norwegian Section of the International Alliance of Women, IAW) and the Norwegian Section of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF. See their statement here.

[17] Recently in South Korea, for example: South Korea Herald, Korea to expand women's role in military

[18] See No Justice, No Pride, 26 July 2017, Trans Liberation, Not US Militarism: Selective Outrage Over Trans Military Ban Obscures Larger Failures to Support Trans Communities

[19] A quote from Sergeiy Sandler, WRI Executive member and activist with New Profile in Israel. See War Resisters’ International, 29 August 2014, Palestinian Druze, reservists, conscripts and ultra-Orthodox refuse; Israel attempts to draw in more groups to the military

[20] War Resisters’ International, 20 December 2017, Problems with alternative service for Jehovah's Witnesses after ban

[21] See Total Croatia News, 24 February 2016, Croatian Ruling Coalition Wants to Reintroduce Military Conscription

[22] It was claimed that many voted to keep conscription because they feared that organisations – such as the Red Cross – that benefit from the labour of those undertaking substitute service would suffer if conscription was abolished. See War Resisters’ International, 20 February 2013, Austria votes to keep conscription

[23] Quaker United Nations Office, January 2015, International Standards on Conscientious Objection to

Military Service

[24] War Resisters’ International, 10 August 2011, Norway: end of substitute service for conscientious objectors

[25] See Rafael Ajangiz, 1 January 2001, Empowerment for demilitarisation


Author information

Hannah Brock is Right to Refuse to Kill Programme Worker at War Resisters' International, working with movements against conscription and for the rights of conscientious objectors worldwide.

With thanks to Lyn Setchell for proofreading.

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About the authors

Hannah Brock is Right to Refuse to Kill Programme Worker at War Resisters' International, working with movements against conscription and for the rights of conscientious objectors worldwide.

With thanks to Lyn Setchell for proofreading.

Hannah Brock is Right to Refuse to Kill Programme Worker at War Resisters' International, working with movements against conscription and for the rights of conscientious objectors worldwide.

With thanks to Lyn Setchell for proofreading.

Hannah Brock is Right to Refuse to Kill Programme Worker at War Resisters' International, working with movements against conscription and for the rights of conscientious objectors worldwide.

With thanks to Lyn Setchell for proofreading.