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15 May - International Day on Conscientious Objection

Counter-recruitment and conscientious objection for professional soldiers as major themes

Just before 15 May, the International Day on Conscientious Objection, War Resisters' International has published material on the major theme for this year: the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers, and the work done to counter military recruitment.

War Resisters' International is presently working on a survey of European Union countries regarding the question of the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers. The outcome is shocking: the trend towards abolishment of conscription in Europe is accompanied by a trend to in fact undermine the right to conscientious objection. While most member states of the European Union did recognise the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers, very few - only two - do so for professional soldiers.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and Article 10 of the European Charter on Fundamental Rights) logically also includes the right to change one’s beliefs at any time. Consequently the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe demanded from member states on 24 March 2006 in a decision on human rights in the Armed Forces to “introduce into their legislation the right to be registered as a conscientious objector at any time, namely before, during or after implementation of military service, as well as the right of career servicemen to obtain the status of conscientious objector”. Already Council of Europe recommendation 1581 of 2001 suggested to member states to recognise the right to conscientious objection also for professional soldiers. Nevertheless, most countries of the European Union do not provide for this right (see table below).

Table: Conscription and conscientious objection in the European Union

Country Conscription CO for conscripts CO for professional soldiers
Austria Yes Yes No (1) No
Belgium Suspended Yes (2) No No
Bulgaria Suspended Yes (2) No No
Cyprus Yes Yes (3) No No
Czech Republic Suspended Yes (2) No No
Denmark Yes Yes Yes No
Estonia Yes Yes No No
Finland Yes Yes Yes No
France Suspended Yes (2)

Germany Yes Yes Yes Yes
Greece Yes Yes No No
Hungary Suspended Yes (2) No (4) No
Ireland No n.a. n.a. No
Italy Suspended Yes (2)   No
Latvia Suspended Yes (2)   No
Lithuania Yes Yes (5) No No
Luxembourg No n.a. n.a. No
Malta No n.a. n.a. No
Poland Yes (6) Yes No No
Portugal No (7)     No
Romania No n.a. n.a. No
Slovakia Suspended Yes (2) No No
Slovenia No n.a. n.a. No
Spain Suspended Yes (2)   No
Sweden Yes (8) Yes Yes No
The Netherlands Suspended Yes (2) Yes (2) No
United Kingdom No n.a. n.a. Yes
Candidate countries
Croatia Suspended Yes (2) Yes (2) No
Macedonia No n.a. n.a. No
Turkey Yes No No No


(1) Applications of reservists are possible, but only three years after the beginning of their military service
(2) Conscription is only suspended. Conscientious objection will be available should it be reintroduced
(3) Northern Cyprus does not recognise the right to CO
(4) In case conscription will be reintroduced, CO is only possible before a conscript takes the oath
(5) Although conscientious objection is recognised, a genuinely civilian substitute service is not available
(6) Conscription is likely to be phased out in 2010-2012
(7) It is not clear whether conscription is suspended or abolished
(8) Conscription might soon be abolished. Substitute service for conscientious objectors will be abolished by the end of 2008.

The new task to counter military recruitment

Although many EU member states still maintain conscription in some form, even in those countries the 'professional' side of the military becomes increasingly important, with conscription being an "add-on", for ideological reasons or to provide a pool for military recruitment.

Paradoxically, often the end of conscription leads to an invasion of the military into every sphere of life - especially schools, universities, public spaces, and disadvanted areas and neighbourhoods, to boost military recruitment. The experience from the USA and to a lesser degree from Britain shows that in order to recruit, the military is often very "economically" with the truth of military life, as the prospect of killing or getting killed does not sell well. As David Gee pointed out in "Informed Choice", a report on British Army recruitment: "Career information provided to potential recruits and their parents is selective and often misleading. Recruitment literature for the army glamorises warfare, poorly explains the terms of service and largely omits to mention the risks of the career. It is common for recruits to enlist without knowing the risks or their legal rights and obligations."

In addition to research into the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers, there is an urgent need for research into the practice of military recruitment for professional militaries. War Resisters' International is concerned that similar conclusions can be drawn in many other countries.


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