CO as a human right vs CO as antimilitarist action

The debate about conscientious objection - is it basically a human right, or is it an antimilitarist action? - is an old debate within War Resisters' International, but still relevant. Here, Andreas Speck, WRI staff, and Bart Horeman, WRI Treasurer, discuss this question.

Bart Horeman & Andreas Speck

Andreas: When I became a total objector in Germany in the mid-80s, I saw my total objection as an act of civil disobedience against militarism, or more specific against the system of military slavery called conscription. My refusal to serve was aimed at abolishing conscription, I saw it as a small but important contribution to demilitarise the minds of people. And although I certainly acted out of my conscience, I never understood my conscientious objection as a human rights issue. For me, the very existence of the military is the central problem, and (total) objection is one way to address this social problem. The human rights approach doesn't address this - it basically demands that those who have problems with military service need to have the option to do something else. This doesn't challenge the right of the military to exist, it doesn't even challenge conscription (in most countries with conscription, alternative service is one way to fulfil conscription), it just provides an exceptional right for those who have individual problems with military service - in the end it depoliticises the whole issue of conscientious objection, it turns it into an individual problem.

Bart: I knew when I was 15 that I could not go to the military, but I didn't know why I felt that way. I was glad to know that there was a possibility to be recognised as CO - Netherlands had an already 60- year-old CO law. I cannot say I objected for any other reason than a personal one: I felt threatened as a human being. My norms and values were at stake: they needed to be protected. That made me very angry and very stubborn. The state forced me to learn to be a violent person, but I denied the state the right to do so.

It was not until I had been able to set myself free from military conscription I had room to think about the political side of conscription. Of course I wanted to see the end of conscription. It came more unexpected than I thought. In NL conscription was terminated mainly because the broad public thought it was an archaic and stupid system. COs have definitely played a role to achieve this public awareness. I believe that this is the political element of the individual act of conscientious objection: to challenge the morality of compulsory military service. The act of CO is a public statement to start a debate on military conscription or to keep the debate going.

In my view my conscientious objection can never be challenging the right of the military to exist. A decision to buy only organically grown food, can neither challenge the existence of bio-industry. It can start a debate, it can be followed by others, it can spread like a disease, but in itself it remains an individual act. For me CO is an individual act and not because the "human right approach" does so, but because of the nature of conscription.

Andreas: I agree partly - by its very nature CO is an individual act, because each and everyone has to make his or her decision to refuse to join the military - and to be prepared to deal with the consequences. But when we start to organise ourselves - and War Resisters' International started as an international network focussing on conscientious objection more than 80 years ago - than it becomes politically relevant, and than it is important how we frame our conscientious objection. Do we see it as an individual issue? Do we promote CO as a political tool to demilitarise societies, or even to stop wars? Or do we frame it as a problem of individual human rights, without even mentioning militarism? Do we pretend that the "problem" of conscientious objection can be solved without abolishing the military? I think individual acts can be highly important politically, but it not only depends on the act itself, but also on how we present and explain what we are doing. The same act can have a completely different relevance depending what we say about it. Osman Murat Ulke's CO was highly relevant, not only because Ossi got imprisoned, but also because he took a very principled position, and didn't link it to the Kurdistan issue.

When I look at the situation in Israel/Palestine now, it is quite different. The increasing number of refuseniks - most of whom just refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories or while Israel is occupying Palestinian Territories - is important, not because they are principled pacifists - most are not, but because they challenge the Israeli policy of military might, and not because it is a human rights problem. The framework of human rights is much too narrow for our approach - it is build on liberal ideas, and focuses on the individual, but it doesn't take into account any social issue.

Bart: "The personal issue is political", was a slogan in the Dutch feminist movement. I think the CO movement has some interesting similarities with the feminist movement. Although I believe that to be a CO is an individual act, I very much value its political impact. In certain circumstances, the impact may be huge. But I feel very uncomfortable when "we" (I guess Andreas refers to WRI) tend to focus too much on the political impact of individual COs. It is very easy to exploit an individual CO for the sake of our political goals, if - like Andreas says - "we present and explain what we are doing". The strength of an individual act of CO lies in the individual's explanation of what he or she is doing, not in the way others interpret it. Many Kurdish people valued Osman's struggle against the Turkish state, because it fitted into their own political goals. But the huge impact was that Osman also addressed the Turkish population and showed them his nonviolence. Of course it is clear that a large number of so-called refuseniks in Israel are no pacifists. But they are conscientious objectors and their human right to conscientious objection should not be ignored.

On the contrary: we should go for them, ask them about their motives, challenge them if they would be willing to fight in other circumstances. It is only through respecting their human right that we might be able to spread our values of non-violence and to show them the political value of their individual act.

On the other hand, when in South Korea some lawyers have taken up the issue of CO as a human right, I tell them that their human right focus will not render political success, as it addresses the CO issue only partially. It is the hard to start a public debate about the COs´ motives, about nonviolence, about the wrongs of the military when the only argument is that CO should be a human right. And it is this public debate that they need to create political support in favour of recognition of CO.

In my view it is the exactly the framework of human rights that gives WRI room to be able to spread ideas on motives for conscientious objection and start public debate on conscription. There is no point in rejecting the idea of CO as a human right, neither in arguing that it is too narrow for our approach. Indeed it is narrow, built on liberalism and individualism, but that would only give us more reason to work on it and make sure that WRI's concepts of nonviolence social empowerment and antimilitarism are also included in the CO issue.

Andreas: I don't say the human rights approach is useless - it has its advantages when it comes to the legal struggle. But I don't agree that we can use the framework of human rights to spread ideas and motives. I think the human rights approach limits us, and there is a tension between the human rights approach - which doesn't address social issues and militarism - , and a principled antimilitarist position, which aims to abolish militarism - a broad project of liberation. If we are aware of this tension, than we can use it creatively in our struggle, using the human rights approach when appropriate, but leaving it behind when it is in our way - when we need to confront militarism in principle, and not just CO as a human right. In this sense I agree that there isn't necessarily a contradiction between these two approaches - but a tension.

Bart: I have experienced this tension for more than 15 years now. The problem of the tension is that it can easily be used to create a schism between COs who are willing to compromise and those who are not. Even the title of this dialogue suggests such false antithesis. I believe that the history of CO movements has always showed this tension. The good side of it is that it keeps a debate going about the reasons for CO. In a country where COs have achieved broad support to create a CO law, it is good to have some COs who are challenging their fellow COs for their willingness to perform a substitute service. But in the international field I have seen COs judging and denouncing COs from other countries because of their struggle to get CO recognised by law. If - like in such situations - the tension leads to a distinction in the "good CO" and the "bad CO", then it really becomes counterproductive.