Conscientious Objection as a Strategy

Conscientious objection is perhaps more often seen as a moral imperative than as a strategy. However, in countries with active conscription, there can be different ways of avoiding or delaying military service. Some people gain a medical discharge. Others flee, emigrate, choose professions that are exempt from call up, or bribe officials.

The choice to publicly declare oneself a conscientious objector, and, in some cases, face the persecution that follows, can be a consciously embraced political strategy, often based on antimilitarist principles. This choice is sometimes taken by individuals; often, it is taken by a collective of like-minded people who campaign together. We asked Boro Kitanoski and Igor Seke, conscientious objectors from Macedonia and Serbia respectively, what steps their movements took when they had made that choice.

From the margins to the mainstream by Igor Seke

The campaign for conscientious objection in Serbia was always a matter of a small group of people. The movement developed on the political and cultural margins of Serbian society during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Feminist groups were the first to openly support not only to those who refused to perform military service, but also to deserters from the Yugoslav wars. In the beginning, men only got involved in a campaign that should have primarily concerned them (as the objects of conscription) through participation in the activities of the feminist groups, initially through Women in Black. That was a great help, as the feminists already had a clear idea of what kind of change they wanted to see in the society: antimilitarism was part of this.

The social-political context we faced during the campaign made things harder: nationalism, militarism, homophobia, intolerance of smaller religious groups, etc. were pushing all of us to the margins. We felt we had a very limited space for action. Conscientious objection was seen as a stance of "drug addicts, gays and sect members", and parents literally warned their children against it. When asked about drug addicts, gays and members of small religious groups we always said that yes, we have all of them among the campaign members, just as the army and police does. We highlighted that we were an inclusive not exclusive movement.

The campaign had a very limited objective: ending conscription in Serbia. Although there wasn't a substitute civilian service, our plan was to get a law that would free imprisoned objectors (10 Jehovah’s Witnesses were still in prison in 2002), and that would allow young people to refuse military service. Knowing how little the state would care about the alternative service, we saw, as the government did, that every objector is one soldier less for the Army. We hoped to create a critical mass of objectors that would make conscription too hard to maintain.

Actions at the local level attempted to “demystify” conscientious objection. In a society that feared the unknown, the only way to accept something is to get to know it. We needed allies, and were lucky to get a journalist from an independent newspaper interested in the issue. As it was a provocative subject, other journalists followed, and we had all the media coverage we needed. During a debate on national Radio Belgrade with a Chief of the PR Service of the Serbian Army, I was asked "How did the campaign for conscientious objection manage to win the media war against the Army?" We weren't at war with anyone; it was just the power of well-presented arguments against military propaganda based on fear that got CO more popular than military service.

To mount political pressure, we had two lines of action: national and international. On the national level, we collected 30,000 signatures for the Law on Conscientious Objection. The signatures were mainly collected in the streets and in universities. This made the Student Union one of our main partners in the campaign. At the international level, with support of WRI, the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection and Amnesty International, we managed to put the issue of CO high on the agenda of the Serbian government. For this, we used two concrete cases: two declared objectors were offered an unarmed military service and one of them accepted it. The other (myself) refused, and that's when the international support network did the best it can do: there were over 500 protest letters from all over the world sent to the Serbian government in a matter of days. They had to release me. One year later, the government approved a law on conscientious objection.

Out of about c.10,000 people called up, 220 declared their objection and started their alternative service on 22nd December 2003. In 2006, the number of objectors was higher than the number of those who didn't object. 1st January 2011 Serbia ended conscription, officially calling it a "suspension".

In 2002, when we had a meeting with a representative of the Council of Europe in Belgrade, asking for their support in political pressure on the Serbian government we were literally told: "CO in Serbia? Maybe in 2010". The last day of 2010 was the last day of conscription.

With the end of the conscription, the campaign died. Antimilitarism is again at the margins of the society. Maybe we could have done more to bring about a profound change in the society, maybe we missed that chance. Whilst there are armies in the Balkans, and in the rest of the world, we should not sit and relax. The war is still going on in the heads of many in the region, and a strong anti-militarist campaign is a political necessity for the sake of the Balkans.

Conscientious objection as a tool, not a goal by Boro Kitanoski

The first group of ideological conscientious objectors (COs) in Macedonia was formed in the mid ‘90s and came from an alternative subculture. Until then, a silent martyr of the military conscript system was the small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their members were regularly tried and sent to jail, repeatedly (one individual was tried 7 times). But in public, there was complete silence on the issue. Sometimes, it was considered part of the discrimination against a small religious minority, and that as not surprising. Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia in early ‘90s (and was the only state that gained independence without war) and had an internationally accepted aura of small peace-loving country in a very troubled Balkan of the ‘90s. In reality, it was highly troubled society that had just come out of a big federation, had a small army, but kept the old Yugoslav military mindset. This, unfortunately, had its tragic climax in the war conflict of 2001.

We were a very, very young group of friends, who just didn’t want to go to the army. That was the basic common ground, but we also, from the very beginning, had an antimilitarist approach. CO for us was a tool, not a goal. We refused to see the issue from a human rights perspective only, or to put the issue into a ‘European integration’ framework and wait for reforms to come: we always defined it as part of the global antimilitarist struggle.

Now as I look back, I realise that the biggest advances were made on a human rights levels, but at the same time, we would have never got there if we didn’t had the far goal and identity of our struggle. The public was ignoring the issue until people showed up on streets. Draft evasion was always at 20-30%. Now, regional wars, system failure and robbery during privatization were all contributing to a general rejection of the military, and we were aware of it. The problem was to empower and bring people into the public sphere.

It is strange, but the first mention of the CO in the Defence Law was in 2001, although the first ideas about abolishing conscription were set for 2010 or 2012. Civilian service was initiated in 2003 with a couple of COs undertaking it. The government were putting all kinds of pressure on COs: refusing to accept declarations, very changeable approaches to the law, prosecutions, different treatments for ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians - everything you can think of. We responded by being active in most big towns and offering support to COs bringing their refusal to the Ministry of Defence.

A government study claimed that there would be no more than 15 COs. In fact, in 2004 there were 1,000 and that number was growing. We were confident in the unpopularity of the service, and used this. We were counting on two things: the stubbornness of a military that did not want to stop using oppressive measures, and that a growing number of COs (whether they performed the alternative service or not) would in the end cause the military/alternative service system to break itself apart. It happened. In the following 2 years, the number of CO declarations grew and in 2006 there were more COs than conscripts who accepted military service. In March 2006, the Government finally declared end of conscription, way before planned, mentioning the number of COs (wasting our money and not contributing to our defence) as a small part of the decision.