Greece: Progress and retrogression for conscientious objectors

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A protest in support of conscientious objectors in Athens

This year has been perhaps the most crucial year for conscientious objectors in Greece since the establishment of alternative civilian service in 1997-1998. After years of efforts, there was an opportunity for significant changes.

Certain improvements in the legislative framework were achieved but the most important one, the reduction of the length of alternative civilian service was quickly annulled after the summer general elections by the new right-wing Greek government.

An insufficient bill

In spring the leadership of the Ministry of National Defence of the then centre-leftist Greek government submitted to the Parliament a draft bill which, among other issues, addressed certain problems concerning conscientious objectors.

The bill did not guarantee but paved the way for a reduction of the punitive length of alternative civilian service, leaving it to the discretion of the Minister. As for the procedure of examination for conscientious objector (CO) status, there were no major changes to a system which has been criticized by all international, regional and national human rights bodies as lacking independence and impartiality. Despite recommendations, the procedure continues to be under the Ministry of National Defence, with the Minister taking the decision after a recommendation of a 5-membered committee with the participation of military officers. The only change brought by the bill was that the number of military officers in the “conscience examination committee”, as it is called by the conscientious objectors, was reduced from 2 to 1.

The bill brought no significant changes for those conscientious objectors who, for one reason or another, do not serve the punitive alternative service and are declared insubordinate, including total objectors who continue to be persecuted, arrested, sentenced, and heavily fined; not even as for the repeated punishment in violation of the ne bis in idem principle. The only minor change is that the repeated €6,000 fines have become personal and therefore perhaps the consequent debts will no longer burden the heirs of the COs.

There have been some imperative amendments as of the conscientious objectors of greater age, equalising the age (33) and the minimum time of service (20 days) before someone becomes eligible to buy out the rest of the service, with the equivalent requirements for those who serve military service. However, the most important problem in this case, the significantly greater amount of money required for conscientious objectors, due to the greater length of the alternative service, was not solved.

Among the other amendments perhaps the most significant was the abolishment of the capability of the Minister of National Defence to suspend the provisions about conscientious objectors during wartime.

Also, according to the bill, in case an applicant appeals to the Ministry about the rejection of his application for CO status, he will be automatically granted with suspension of the call to serve in the armed forces, until his appeal is examined.

Furthermore, the bill extended some of the provisions already valid for conscripts serving in the armed forces to conscientious objectors: covering certain travel expenses, guaranteeing the return to the previous working position after their service is completed, and permitting some types of postponement, although in those cases the COs will have to go again through the examination for CO status.

The bill left many issues unresolved, including the lack of recognition of the right to conscientious objection after enlistment and for volunteers/professional soldiers; the violations of the right to fair trial (trials of COs by military courts, trials in absentia without having been informed); the revocation of CO status in case of a disciplinary offence during alternative civilian service; the pending prosecutions and all penal and administrative sanctions already imposed in violation of international human rights law and standards; the conditions of automatic disqualification from CO status etc. Some of these issues were also cited in the recent report of the OHCHR.

Despite the efforts of conscientious objectors and human rights organizations for improvements, the bill was voted by the governmental majority in the Parliament without amendments about the COs.

In any case, the limited improvements were result of longstanding efforts of conscientious objectors in Greece and abroad, independent human rights organizations and national human rights bodies which, in turn, had achieved a wave of significant recommendations and decisions by international and regional human rights bodies during the term of office of the then government.

The ministerial decision for the reduction of the length of alternative service

After the new law (4609/2019) was published in May, the crucial question was whether the outgoing government would keep its promise to reduce the punitive length of the alternative civilian service.

Indeed, on the 24th of June, less than two weeks before the general elections of the 7th of July, a relevant decision of the then Alternate Minister of National Defence was published in the Official Journal.

The length of the full alternative service was reduced from 15 to 12 months, but still was 3 months longer than the military service for the vast majority of conscripts serving 9 months in the army.

The decision included an equivalent reduction for the categories of reduced service because of family status, which made the first category only 1 month longer than in the Army (9 compared to 8 months), and the other two categories equal to those in the armed forces (6 months, 3 months).

After the elections: increase of the length of alternative service for the first time

After the elections, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief sent a communication to the (new) Greek authorities. He praised the reduction of the length of the alternative service but found insufficient the recent legislative amendments, recalling the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee.

However, the new right-wing Greek government not only ignored the recommendations for further improvements, but on the contrary, on the 4th of October, the new Deputy Minister of National Defence, an ex-Chief of the Army, issued a ministerial decision which for the first in the history of Greece, and perhaps globally, increased the length of alternative service.

The new length is currently:

  • 15 months for full alternative civilian service – compared to 9 months (67% longer) of military service for the vast majority of conscripts in the Army and 12 months in the Navy and Air Force.

  • 12 months of alternative civilian service for the 1st category of reduced service – compared to 8 months of military service for the vast majority of conscripts in the Army (50% longer), and 9 months in the Navy and Air Force.

  • 9 months of alternative civilian service for the 2nd category of reduced service – compared to 6 months in the armed forces (50% longer).

  • 5 moths of alternative civilian service for the 3rd category of reduced service – compared to 3 months in the armed forces (67% longer).

The decision to increase the length of the alternative service was denounced by human right organizations, such as the Hellenic League for Human Rights (a FIDH member) and Amnesty International, which pointed out that it is against all human right standards, and risks to result in new judgements against Greece in international and regional courts and committees.

However, conscientious objectors and their supporters need to increase their efforts in order to avoid further retrogression under the current government.

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